What is Pulling Your Strings?

How often have you asked yourself, “Why am I acting this way?”  It is not uncommon to notice that, as we look around at others in the same circumstance that we respond differently; whether it is our response to our child’s backtalk, meltdown or lying.  We can understand and accept that we may not have the same values or priorities as others.  However, there are those times when we might feel like we are acting in an uncharacteristic manner, more harsh or lenient than we would like.  As we reflect on these moments we question ourselves, wondering where that came from.

What accounts for these times when we act in ways that seem odd or out of character for you?  Setting rigid rules, yelling, or giving in are all examples of actions we may later question.  More often than not, this occurs when we are in a heightened emotional state.  So, where does this comes from?

In parenting, how we parent is influenced by our history of being parented. Some of the things our parents did we honor and want to repeat.  There are other aspects of how our parents responded that we might not wish to repeat. Furthermore, there are dimensions of our experience of being parented that are operating behind the scenes.  This is akin to a puppet master that is pulling strings, influencing you, your thoughts, and actions.  These strings are tethers to your past.

There are those events that stir emotion, because they are tied to something in the past that we can recall. While clearly the current event is not identical to a past event, it may be similar enough that the parallel is evident.  This is an identifiable string. Consider how your parents responded when you brought home a bad grade, stayed out too late or had a fender bender. In my home, if I didn’t have a temperature, I went to school.

When the linkage between the past and the present is clear, we can reflect and make sense of our behavior in the moment. This makes the string evident, so we can consider if we, in the present, see the merit of responding as our parents did. Are the circumstances the same?  What are the results I am seeking? Is my response as a parent going to get the result I am seeking in helping my child grow and learn? Examining and evaluating the link between the past and the present allows the past to inform the present, shifting from a historical “string” to a conscious deliberate and intentional action. I continued with the rule about school attendance.

However, there are times when the linkage is not evident.  One powerful tether is what we learned about our emotions. If emotions were avoided, never talked about, or shamed by our parents, our ability to manage them was hampered. The mere looks on their faces in response to our emotions left a legacy. The message may have been that it was our job as a child to please our parents; our feelings made them uncomfortable and consequently, they didn’t matter. Did I feel safe to express my emotions, or did I feel judged? Did I feel understood, or was I told I am too sensitive?  Did my parents help me figure out what was going on for me, or was I just told what to do? If our emotions were not met with openness, it is likely the puppet master will be pulling our strings when our child shows emotions.  Our drive will be to get compliance or stop the fussing, both short-term goals, leaving us to struggle with how to move toward the longer-term goals we wish to foster.

Another hidden string is one that may come from trauma.  When faced with overwhelming threat to our physical or psychological safety, PTSD can develop.  Here, aspects of the threatening situation may leave us avoiding or overreacting to things, including smells, sounds, or places without explicitly knowing why. Evidence of this process may be revealed when we have a reaction that is out of proportion to your daughter’s bleeding after falling off her bicycle or your son’s failing grade. It may also show up when we find ourselves getting disorganized in the presence of someone expressing anger, making a certain gesture or facial expression. This can prompt reactions on our part that can interfere with how we manage, negatively impacting our relationships and catching us by surprise.

Finally, another element that may be a string pulling at us can be how we experience different streams of information that come at us from the world around us. This can be very difficult to sort out. Some of us may attend better to sights than sounds, while the reverse may be true for others. This reality recently came home personally in the following example:

I am crossing the street and have visually accounted for traffic while my husband calls, “Watch out!”  At that moment I find myself getting both distracted and irritated.  After reflecting back, I realize that the auditory input coming from husband challenged my visual channel. This applies to all dimensions of sensory input, whether it comes from our distance senses (sight/sound) or from things we are in more direct contact with such as touch, taste, smell, pain or other internal sensations. We have to consider that this may be what is going on behind the scenes in many of our dynamics.  This aspect, if not highlighted or understood in our growing up, can play a powerful unseen role across our interactions throughout the day.

We all have moments when we act in a manner we later regret. Using the metaphor of a puppet master pulling our strings helps us consider that there are things in and out of awareness that influence how we are acting in the moment. This idea can help us understand and consider factors that are behind the scenes impacting our behavior in the moment. By looking for these tethers, we can move them from behind the screen and into the light of day. When brought to awareness, we cut the strings, so we may operate more freely from a place of choice rather than being caught by surprise.

About the Author

Debra Kessler, Psy.D. Debra Kessler, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the care of children and their families. Dr. Kessler was awarded her Bachelor of Science in Nursing, graduating Magna Cum Laude from Vanderbilt University. While working as an RN in Pediatric Intensive Care, she pursued a Masters Degree in Pediatrics from UCLA to further her skills in caring for children. After a career in nursing that included bedside nursing, Kessler chose to focus her attention on addressing the emotional needs of children and their families by obtaining a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at California School of Professional Psychology. Her post-doctorate work was done with Child Development Institute treating autistic and developmentally challenged preschool and young children and at Reiss-Davis Child Study center addressing the needs of school children, adolescents and their families. She has contributed to Infant/Child Mental Health, Early Intervention, and Relationship-Based Therapies: A Neurorelational Framework for Interdisciplinary Practice (Lillas &Turnbull 2009). Dr. Kessler has an active practice in Montrose, California. In a family centered manner, she treats a range of developmental and emotional issues including adoption/attachment difficulties, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, autism/Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, learning challenges, regulatory difficulties and other issues that interfere with children reaching their potential.

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