Gehraiyaan: When Childhood Trauma Haunts Your Adult Relationships
Mental health experts speak to FIT about recognising signs of childhood trauma and breaking out of the cycle.
(Trigger Warning: Mention of suicide, and trauma. If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs)
(This piece contains spoilers for the film, Gehraiyaan.)
"I feel so stuck," says Deepika Padukone's character, Alisha, several times in the movie Gehraiyaan, while describing her relationship with her long time partner.
She often superimposes this feeling with memories of her mother who died by suicide when she was a young child, perpetuating a downward spiral of anxiety and insecurity in her own relationships.
The film, since its release has garnered a barrage of mixed reactions, but, rest assured, this is not a movie review.
Instead, let's take a deeper look at one tenet that is woven throughout the movie that is rarely addressed in Bollywood films—mental health, childhood trauma and the lasting imprint it can leave on our relationships as adults.
The invisible burden of her past trauma is ever present in Alisha's life, and is seen weighing down not just her intimate relationships—both the mundane 'realistic' one, and the clandestine, 'freeing' one—but also familial ones.
Why do we exhibit certain patterns of behaviour in our intimate relationships? Why do we choose the partners we choose?
Do all roads, like Freud suggested, lead to our childhood and our relationship with our parents?
It also throws up the question of whether we can shake off our pasts and 'nurture' as we grow into our own?
Trauma & Relationships: How Deep Do the Fault Lines Run?
"We know that early life experiences are the ones that shape our entire functioning—whether it's body functioning, brain functioning, or world view," says Dr Ruksheda Syeda, a psychotherapist in Mumbai.
Adding to this, Dr Nisha Khanna, a marriage and family counsellor, breaks down the five key aspects of a child's life that are influenced by the kind of parenting they receive.
"If your needs are not met as a child, you may develop a fear of abandonment that can also lead to insecurity, and an insecure attachment style."Dr Nisha Khanna, Marriage and Family Counsellor
"If there has been any kind of trauma—physical or mental abuse, life-threatening events, neglect, loss of a loved one—it can impact how we look at ourselves, and how we respond to others in an interpersonal domain," explains Dr Madhusudan Singh Solanki, Senior Consultant & Head – Department of Mental Health And Behavioural Sciences, Max Smart Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi.
"People who have been traumatised or neglected during their childhood may have low self-esteem when they grow up, and they may go into insecure types of attachment styles," he adds.
"If I don't trust myself, and I don't trust that I'm loveable, or I'm worthy, even if someone loves me, I won't be able to receive it. That is what bad parenting does to a child. "Dr Ruksheda Syeda, psychotherapist
What exactly are attachment styles? It is a psychological theory that links interpersonal relationship patterns to the kind of relationship people developed with their primary caregivers as young kids.
According to British psychologist John Bowlby's attachment theory, a person has one of four types of attachment styles.
"If you have a secure attachment style with your parents, you are likely to grow up to be a secure being," says Dr Solanki.
"You feel like, 'I am an independent person, and I can exist independently, and form interpersonal relationships with others, and I can depend on others, and they can depend on me.' In this case, the relationship turns out to be healthy."Dr Madhusudan Singh Solanki, Senior Consultant & Head – Department of Mental Health And Behavioural Sciences, Max Smart Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi
Another sign of insecure attachment style, according to Dr Khanna is "for people living with trauma, their first response is often negative—towards their partners and themselves."
"If a child thinks that the child is not loved by the parent, the child doesn't stop loving the parent, but the child stops loving themselves."Dr Ruksheda Syeda, psychotherapist
Dr Syeda goes on to explain that a person who doesn't experience secure bonds with their parents in their childhood is also likely to have hot and cold responses, and tumultuousness in their intimate relationships.
That, or the person may lack the ability to express themselves at all in the relationship and feel like an outsider looking in, she adds.
In the film, we see Siddhant Chaturvedi's character—who also comes with his own baggage of childhood trauma—vocalise this insecurity to his girlfriend played by Ananya Pandey.
What Happens if You Leave It Unresolved?
Although not explicitly linked, in the movie we see how Alisha has anxiety disorder, and feelings of instability in her relationships. This is a common outcome of childhood trauma, say experts.
"If a person has experienced early childhood adversities, that means that they are that much more vulnerable to having mental health issues and disorders, like depression and anxiety," says Dr Syeda.
Adding to this, Dr Khanna points to how trauma can also cause neurological changes that can cause a person to be excessively defensive and argumentative.
Some people may also develop psychosomatic pain.
Dr Khanna, a marriage and family counsellor, also speaks of how sometimes people who live with past trauma end up lashing out at their partners and can also have deep-seated resentment towards their parents."
"You end up carrying the baggage of that trauma inside you. And imbibe the same patterns.Dr Madhusudan Singh Solanki, Senior Consultant & Head – Department of Mental Health And Behavioural Sciences, Max Smart Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi
"They start replaying and start seeking out the same kind of trauma from their past in their present relationships."
This is called trauma re-enactment.
Interestingly, in the movie, Alisha seems to recognise this possibility. She is seen being paranoid of ending up like her mother—a driving force behind the way she responds to her partners.
Breaking the Cycle: Be Kind to Yourself & Let It Go
"Her life was bigger than that one mistake, there was more to her," Alisha's father in the film, played by Nassiruddin Shah, tells her. "Even yours is."
Dr Khanna echoes the words saying, "Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s important not to be stuck in it and feel guilty."
The experts we spoke to agree that it's possible to acknowledge them and move on.
"Human beings can learn, and they can unlearn also. But it all begins with recognising the issue."Dr Madhusudan Singh Solanki, Senior Consultant & Head – Department of Mental Health And Behavioural Sciences, Max Smart Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi
According to Dr Solanki, there are three key steps to breaking out of the cycle.
“Once you start recognsising that there is something wrong that is impacting your relationship with your intimate partners and other close relationships in life, that awareness itself is the first step towards healing."Dr Madhusudan Singh Solanki, Senior Consultant & Head – Department of Mental Health And Behavioural Sciences, Max Smart Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi
"Then you start looking at your behaviour, your inner world, and then you will look for answers," he adds.
“Talking to a clinical therapist can really help you change your coping mechanisms, your behavioural skills, your communication skills so that you change the way you act in a particular relationship to make it better,” says Dr Solanki.
"Therapy can also help you work through abandonment issues, residual trauma, and trust issues," adds Dr Khanna.
Self-love, Dr Solanki says, includes everything from eating healthy, exercising, meditating, and keeping up your hobbies.
"We can learn new ways of coping, new ways of reacting, and new ways of healing, but the awareness is the first step, and the desire to heal yourself is the second step."Dr Madhusudan Singh Solanki, Senior Consultant & Head – Department of Mental Health And Behavioural Sciences, Max Smart Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi
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