In my therapy work when I invite people to explore their childhood, I often hear this phrase: “Let’s leave the past to the past. I just want to move on. We cannot change what had happened and I don’t want to blame my parents.”
This idea – that acknowledging one’s hurt as a child involves blaming one’s parents – is very common. And it is very natural too: if I admit that I came to some harm (emotional or physical) through my parents’ action or lack of action, it implies they are at fault. In reality things are not as black and white as that and I will speak about it in the continuation of my article.
Whom or what do I protect?
People feel very protective about their parents and sometimes it takes a while until they are ready to see a connection between what their parents did or said and their emotional struggles later in life. But whom we are really protecting – our parents or ourselves?
The picture of our parents that we formed while growing up is intricately connected with our picture of the world and of our selves. Letting go of it means dismantling the established cognitive structure of our existence and this is very scary.
This picture, among other things, entails an idea (not always consciously recognized) that our parents are perfect. When we grow up our parents represent for us a supreme authority that has a power over our well-being. They protect us and they punish us. They instruct us on how we should live and what we should avoid to keep safe. Thus, in many ways, parents become to us like gods. We put them on a pedestal and even when we rebel against them, we still have a sense of rebelling against a higher authority.
The need for safety and the need for authority
Indeed, we have a need to have a higher authority. This need is wired within us very deeply as it is linked with the sense of safety. If there is no one above us then who will keep us safe in this world? I believe that resistance towards acknowledging our parents’ part in our “messed-upness” has its roots precisely in that fear of finding ourselves unprotected and alone in the tribulations of our existence. It is essentially a self-preservation response. We fight against being swung into an existential chaos where we fear we may lose ourselves.
Yet this existential fear has many guises. One of the common forms of these guises is moral reasoning where we speak from a perspective of an all-understanding and all-forgiving person. Thus I hear quite often: “My parents did their best in those circumstances, I cannot be angry with them.” Yet within a person uttering such a statement sits a raging child gagged and unable to express him- or herself.
The emotion – the hurt and the anger – is still there, but it is suppressed, pushed deep down, bottled up. And from that dark corner it poisons our existence through chipping at our self-esteem, through sudden outbursts of anger, through depression and the ongoing sense of frustration.
Parents with mental health problems
Sometimes the sense of parental authority has been instilled in a person through fear. I have been working with people whose parents were suffering from a mental illness and severe psychological distress. Growing up with such a parent never felt safe. It was not safe to make a mistake because you were punished and denounced for it. It was not safe to manifest your talents because your parent might have envied you and would try to put you down. It was not safe to make friends because the parent will try to undermine your relationship. It also was not safe to have your own opinion about anything (including your own feelings!) because the parent always knows better and “how dare you contradict me.” A great deal of emotional manipulation and blackmail goes on.
Growing up with such a parent is a highly traumatic experience. It is like being under an authority of an evil god or a witch that can flip at any point. And yet in my work I have witnessed people succeeding to break free from that dark spell and reclaim their life. This is immensely inspiring and I feel extremely privileged to be a companion to these people of incredible courage on their journey.
Beyond anger and blame
So what happens that allows people who have been very hurt and undermined by their parents or carers to move on and actually leave the past behind?
There are several stages in this journey. The first one is getting through the barrier of fear and various inhibitions that stop us from acknowledging the hurt that we suffered as children. It is when we get past this stage and become aware of the hurt that the anger kicks in. And together with it comes the blame. The anger and the blame are a necessary stage. But… it is not the final destination!
I spoke in the beginning about black and white perception of the world. Within such a frame only two perspectives on the situation are possible, and they boil down to the following:
(1) “I am good and my parents are bad” (“my parents did that to me wrongly” => “they are bad”)
(2) “I am bad and my parents are good” (“my parents did that to me rightly” => “I am bad”).
Reconciling these conflicting view points is nearly impossible. So there is a stage on the journey when a person fluctuates between them and either blames him/herself or their parents.
The breakthrough occurs when we move beyond the dualistic and evaluative thinking in terms of “good” and “bad.” It accompanies bringing down the image of our parents as gods and beginning to see them as humans. Here we are beginning to see and to accept that as humans they are capable of getting things wrong and of causing other humans (including their children) pain and distress. But… we are also beginning to see that this does not make them intrinsically evil. They are simply human, like us. And we are capable of hurting others sometimes, yet it does not make us “bad” persons.
Compassion and self-acceptance
This shift in emotional and cognitive perception takes us to a totally new stage where we are able to hold a double perspective so that the hurt and the suffering of both parties can be acknowledged. So we don’t have to wrong ourselves by denying our hurt and we don’t have to wrong our parents by blaming them. We can recognize their responsibility and at the same time have an understanding that they too were wounded people and acted out of their pain.
When we reach this stage we are able – finally – to let go of our pain (or at least of a big part of it). It is the stage of release and integration when the shards of the fragmented world begin to come together and make a whole. Our personality then is being transformed as we move towards greater acceptance and compassionate attitude – not only in relation to our parents but also in relation to our selves and others.