Understanding Your Parents

We can blame, accuse, or praise our parents. These acts come to many of us with ease. A more complicated task is to understand them.

An old friend told the following story. His mother was waiting for a baby sitter when he was little. Like all tots, he was attached and needed the security of mom’s nearness.

Having nothing better to do, she decided to hide behind a sofa. No warning was given to her son, no announcement she’d be playing a game of hide-and-seek.

When he called out, she didn’t answer. He ran around the apartment looking. The boy’s search turned into a frenzy. Soon came his screaming breakdown into tears.

Mom jumped out laughing. As my buddy asked me many years later, “What was she thinking?”

Here are some suggestions to help you understand your own parents: what they do, what they don’t, what they think, and how their particular brand of humanity came about:

  • Talk to your grandparents if you still can. Try to find out how they raised their children. Ask them to remember what their small ones were like before and after school arrived in their lives. Observe how these elders connect with their offspring today.
  • Look at old family photos. Ask your folks about them. Who are the unrecognized friends and relatives? What became of the relationships with them?
  • Are the people in the photos happy? If you are captured there by the camera, what was your mood? Was the youthful version of those who parented you remarkably more attractive before time’s transformation? What effect might the change have had?
  • Uncles and aunts are sometimes essential sources of illumination.
  • If you have children of your own, watch how mom and dad interact with them. People do alter, but not everyone does. Their behavior is the closest visible example now available of how they brought you up.
  • One by one, do life history interviews if your father or mother cooperates. Some oldsters will be flattered; others will say no. The reason for their choice might be enlightening.
  • Learn the background of their early years: the places, neighborhoods, and economic circumstances that impacted them. Did they change residences and schools often? With what consequences?
  • Find out about significant life events, the downs and ups of love, vocation, and health. How did they respond?
  • Ask about religion, including movement toward or away from the faith. Do they expect you to “believe” as they do? What values do they hold?
  • How do your caregivers talk about their progenitors? Look at their faces for evidence of emotion. Listen to phone calls between them and your grandparents.

  • Attitudes toward money, status, and material things are useful to know.
  • Friends of the family can supply relevant information if they offer you a factual account. Do your parents maintain long-lasting friendships? Why or why not? When buddies depart or are banished, who gets blamed? Do they make new friends?
  • Research the educational and employment time-line of mom and dad. Did they achieve what they hoped for? How do they explain their success or failure? Do they live to work or work to live?
  • If your folks hold racial, ethnic, or religious biases, attempt to uncover the origin of such beliefs. How do you explain their embrace of diversity or its absence?
  • Do you remind either one of somebody from their past? Were feelings toward those individuals transferred to you because of your likeness? Transference grows not only in a therapist’s office.
  • How do your begetters get along with each other? Who is in charge? Does one criticize the other in your presence or privately express spousal grievances to you? Did you ever occupy the role of a confidant or consoler? Was the keeping of secrets required? Was your well-being considered when they overshared?

  • Do mother and father accept responsibility for their actions? How affectionate are they, how distant?
  • Might they play favorites among their children? Are the ones who gave you life reliable and honest? Do they display preferences among their grandkids? Why?
  • How do these guardians deal with their physical issues, as well as illnesses or injuries you have?
  • In what ways are you like those who cared for you? Don’t say there are no similarities, there always are.

Consider this a start. The understanding of another (not to mention yourself), comes from thinking like a therapist. I’ve offered you questions as a launching pad for your inquiry.

Your understanding will change as life proceeds. Until you reach the stage another person passed through, you lack the knowledge such passage provides.

Attaining a complete grasp of the nature of any life is never achieved in full. In the meantime, remember to live not just a good life, but one enriched by experiences. The clock on your time here is always in motion.

—–

The above images in order: 1. Willem de Kooning, Untitled XI, 1975. 2. Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, Summer 1909. 3. Paul Klee, Blossoming. Jackson Pollock, one of his untitled, numbered paintings.

25 thoughts on “Understanding Your Parents

  1. I know this may sound strange, but I think I understood my mother more deeply after reading Joyce Carol Oates’ book “A Garden of Earthly Delights.” This fictional character and her motivations just seemed to fit.

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  2. For me, answering those questions is challenging. I have tried to ask my mother many of these questions, and more. She rarely speaks, and she does not like answering questions. She has been that way her whole life.

    My father and grandparents are deceased. They have been for over 20 years. My parents were middle-aged when they had me and my sister.

    Depending on which part of me talks, the answers to the questions you present us with will differ. My life and my family’s life are mysteries. And those mysteries haunt me every day.

    It would have been better if I were adopted. At least then I would have an excuse, a reason for my not knowing.

    Maybe one day I will put together a unique journal that answers those questions, given the many facets of my being. A journal with different pictures, responses, versions, and characters. In the end, those characters hide inside my mind, and behind the mask I present to the world. My feelings are trapped with them, my thoughts are never my own.

    A family tree for a person with DID becomes a forest within each branch, leaf, and splinter. Its roots run as far down as hell, and its nourishment comes from tears that water the soil. Light peers through a darkened sky, as if the tree were planted inside a cave. The tree is paralyzed, entrapped in the same manner that we are suspended.

    My tree has no absolutes or absolution. There is only doubt embodied within our mutations.

    Our sap spills without memories, and clings to anyone who dares to climb, probe, or rest in our dwelling.

    Inside the bark lie blank and half-written parchments, diaries as diverse as multiple memoirs. Protagonists and antagonists become one and the same, yet different species within each branch, leaf, and splinter.

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  3. You’ve offered a rare vision inside the mind of someone with DID. I wonder whether an experienced DID therapist might advise you to keep a journal open to all the alters? Thanks for this, Gelb.

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    • Thank you, Dr. S. Will do, once I find a therapist who believes in DID. My diagnosis is on my record, but the problem when co-consciousness is established with the help of previous therapists’ help makes it all the more challenging to find a new therapist who accepts prior diagnoses without overt switching. My overt switching days are over, lest I regress. However, the work between co-consciousness and integration/fusion has yet to be completed because new therapists do not know how to diagnose and treat DID clients who have already been previously treated; those therapists tend to not see DID at all. I have dealt with that issue for the past decade.

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    • gb fragmented gumdrops

      Here is an example:

      Me: My mom is really sweet, but she is very hard to understand. She would rather talk about current events than discuss anything remotely related to conflict. Her idea of conflict resolution is to deny, change the subject, or gaslight.

      Little alter: Ma is scary sometimes. Ma does not like me.

      Teen alter: My mother is a wimp! She should have left our father and took care of us. She has no backbone!

      Inside helper: The mother seems to be avoidant and like a covert, vulnerable narcissist. The mother is hurting from past traumas and has never been able to discuss these things with anyone. The mother is also following some Japanese traditions. She does not mean to be cold, but she comes off that way.

      Protector alter: The mother makes us work harder.

      Twin me: I never received the warmth that other youth experience. I believe I suffered from childhood emotional neglect. I believe my mother did, too. I wonder if most Japanese people like her are too stoic in their relations with others?

      Persecutor alter turned protector: She pisses me off with her martyr complex.

      Inside helper: The mother was probably parentified. She said two years ago that she finds purpose in doing things for others. When asked about what she would like to do for herself, she declined to comment. Throughout her history, she has catered to the man in her life first, often neglecting her children in the midst. But today, she caters to helping out her grandchildren and great granddaughter. She looks at the host as a shame to the family because of her disability and lack of success.

      Teen alter: See, she doesn’t care!

      Inside helper: She does care, but in her own unique way. Juxtaposing Western culture to Eastern culture, I see how you (teen alter) would think that, but your mother is not like Western mothers. You cannot necessarily go by Westernized cultures and their idea of parental warmth. Japanese culture is different.

      Teen alter: Stop making excuses! You talk about cultural relativism, but on a universal level, mom neglected us emotionally! She is a narcissist, like you said. She only cares about my performance. She does not care about my hurt.

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      • Yes, this sounds reminiscent of the internal conversations I dealt with in treating DID patients.

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      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        On a good note, I do speak with my mom by phone about once a week. The conversations I have with her are pretty short. I mainly discuss current status stuff with her, such as asking how her day went. We always end our phone conversations with, “I love you.”

        She has her own way of being in the world, and without much dialogue about her own history, there is not much I can reflect upon except my own guesses based on observations and mixed internal biases. My relationship with her lacks the kind of heartfelt talks that loving mother-child relationships have. Our relationship felt distant my entire life.

        But my healing requires more than what I think of my parents. I was quite resilient before I experienced military sexual trauma. Only after I was honorably discharged I had PTSD and (possibly worsened symptoms of) DID. It is much harder for me to process that than it is my childhood, though I do see how our upbringing factors into our adult lives.

        Most of what I struggle with today concerns my adulthood life, since I have experienced more interpersonal and systemic traumas that reinforce my fears, post-traumatic symptoms, related physiological disorders, and the unconscious holding onto alters.

        It is challenging for me to find an affordable therapist who works well with DID. I looked at the link you sent me to, but because I was an author on a poster for one of their symposia, I do not want to be outed within that community. I had already experienced having my reputation and personal information smeared by that one mentor I had, and he did not believe in DID. It is painful to go through a process of asking about any conflicts of interest with certain members of that community. I wonder now how professional therapists find safe and confidential therapy for themselves, without having their reputations and careers on that constant line.

        This makes me feel regret for having ever studied psychology. If I had chosen a different field, I would never have to answer personal questions or get into a therapeutic dialogue with a gatekeeping mentor.

        Today, I pay the price for that mistake. I 😱 fear the same retaliation I felt decades ago when I chose to keep my military sexual trauma silent. In both cases, my reputation was on the line, my careers were a loss I had to face on my own, and justice was buried behind systemic problems related to rape culture, victim blaming, and some aspects of discrimination.

        When the focus remains on childhood, I am constantly trapped with adulthood traumas. When I try to move forward, I am told to reflect in the distal past, but at the same time being accused of being stuck in the past. These kinds of dialogue feel crazy-making to me.

        That said, I do see the importance of our upbringings and our relationship with our parents. I also see the importance of understanding our parents. All of those things shaped the way we grew up and engaged in adult relationships. Perhaps understanding our parents’ histories will buffer some of the effects of their bad parenting while also reshaping our perceptions. However, there are painful incidents that happen in adult life that are truly separate from our childhood and parent-child relationships. Being a victim of sexual assault in adulthood is first and foremost an adulthood trauma that any victim, regardless of childhood upbringing, did not deserve. Processing that trauma as separate from childhood is what I would rather do. Otherwise, I do remain stuck in the past.

        Most people who know me understand that I am a forward thinker and doer. I plan ahead. I try to be content with what I have, but I do not like settling when I want to explore life to the fullest before I die. Like my own mother has told me repeatedly, “You have a mind of your own.” Indeed, I do, and so I am nothing like my parents in terms of thinking and being. My mother tells me that the doctors told her that I was “peculiar” when I was 2 years old. No one ever explained to me what the doctors meant or what was wrong with me. I was treated as an alien to my family, a different species. I had always wanted to explore the Earth in different ways. I had always planned for a good future, even if I was shortchanged by people who violated my pursuits and traumatized me.

        When I do not receive answers to my questions, I am left with guesses. I am also left with the controversial arguments by psychologists who claim that my guesses are false memories, who attribute my DID to something negative and incorrect, who blame me for seeking help in these areas because I am lonely or want attention, etc. It feels like I am constantly on the defense with therapists who do not believe me. In victimology terms, secondary injuries occur when victims are not supported or believed. I have been dealing with secondary injuries my entire life. If only there were real answers to my questions, but when parents fail to communicate, people like me are at a disadvantage when healing requires memories or conversations I cannot produce.

        It is painful when I do not know how to answer questions about my parents. It will always be a sore spot for me.

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      • I wouldn’t necessarily assume your mother’s report of a long-ago conversation with a doctor is accurate. It might have more to do with her limitations in understanding you. Given your experiences, I can understand hesitation in relying an another person.

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      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        Thank you, Dr. S. 🙂 She reminds me all the time, so I soaked it in all these years. Maybe she did not understand, or was unwilling to.

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    • gb fragmented gumdrops

      Adding on to the example, here is me, the host:

      I remember my mom recalling that I loved orange juice as a child. I also remember my mom singing to me, “You are my 🌞 sunshine….” My mom speaks about those good things whenever we meet. She also said she was proud of my academic accomplishments. But I did not do that for her approval; I accomplished my goals for me. I am grateful for my mom’s kindness today, though I do agree that I have felt emotional neglect from her throughout my life. But we are both adults, so I shouldn’t expect much warmth back now – or should I? I understand that my mom experienced many things in life, including rape. She will not mention who raped her, but she did mention that in response to my vague sharing of my military sexual traumas. She does say, “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” because I think that is what she had to do her entire life. It is not necessarily a cultural thing as much as it is a systemic thing. I believe that her Japanese traditions have little to do with my mother’s temperament and interpersonal relating. She was born and raised in the US, so she has some assimilation with Asian American culture, not primarily Japanese culture. I feel her emotionless relations with her children stem from past traumas, and we in turn experienced historical or secondary traumas.

      I do what I can to think things through, but that involves discussions with my alters. They still only tell me how they feel without telling me what precisely happened to them. Then again, their feelings and vague descriptions make me afraid, so maybe they are still protecting me. I am not sure I want to know everything. I just want to know enough to make sense of it all.

      I am also afraid to cry.

      I love my parents, no matter what they did or did not do.

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      • The DID recovery/treatment process is always fraught, gb. And it always proceeds in small steps, leading to conversations between (and gradual mutual understanding of) these selected alters who, in this process eventually merge. The guidance of a therapist is recommended.

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      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        Thank you, Dr. S. My fear of therapy remains intact. It will be hard for me to open up about this. One day I will, but like many successful cases, I have to rebuild my reputation first. Most of the successful cases of DID treatment are published in memoirs consisting of professionals who sought therapy during mid-career, which remains in stark contrast to the efficacy of treatments for those without careers, with low SES, with less than a Master’s degree, and with no career establishment. Social capital is also an issue, especially for those who remain isolated from the world. And even then, people doubted the stories of Oxnam and Walker, two prominent men with histories of DID/MPD. Their memoirs faced scrutiny from the public and psychologists/psychiatrists. But they seemed to function successfully in life. I hope to follow their footsteps in a similar way.

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      • I hope so, too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • gb fragmented gumdrops

        Thank you! 🙂

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  4. Dr. Stein, I’m glad you’ve raised the importance of understanding our parents. We often forget that their behavior was also influenced by their own upbringing. We are products of our time and place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, Rosaliene. As I noted at the outset, the challenge is not simply judge (which is relatively easy), but to understand. Time and place can play a big part. As parents ourselves, nonetheless, we all have to rise above whatever training or example or misfortune we had. Our job is much the same as it is in preserving the planet: to do better than those who came before us.

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  5. Those are some great questions.

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