Obligation to Parents and Other Traps Built of Guilt, Kindness, and Hope

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I can begin this no other way than by quoting from Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

This stanza will strike you as funny, dark, or both. Not to mention, profane. Today’s question is, what is an adult to do about it? The parents, not the profanity.

Therapists are not in the habit of telling you to “dump” the folks. Yet, sometimes the work of therapy leads there. I will not recount all the bad things done by parents. You are aware of them, including their extraordinary range and frank ingenuity, as if mom and dad stayed up late refining their torture kit.

Most adult offspring hang in, maintain contact, show respect, and (for a while at least) hope for love. Yes, some of the now-matured children echo Larkin’s profanity and never look back, but not as many as you think.

What keeps us in such relationships long after we’ve left the home? Here are a few of the reasons in random order:

  • “They are old. The events happened ages ago. They did the best they could. I don’t wish to hurt them.” If the caretakers reformed themselves these statements are adaptive and considerate, even without receiving an apology for past mistakes. Instead, let’s focus on only those parents who persist with criticism, setting sibling against sibling, praising one to down the other, and more creative forms of mistreatment.
  • “They are my parents. I can’t just walk away. They did lots of good for me, too. I’m obligated.” In addition to those things they did to you, they did many for you: food, clothing, and even moments of affection. The inconsistency of an abusive elder ties us in knots. Were they harsh in every action, dismissing them would be easier. I can’t tell you how to weigh the good and bad in the abstract, balancing one against another on the scales of justice, but examination often reveals you came out on the losing end. Perhaps more important, you are still losing. Indeed, you may yet spend a good part of your life’s psychic energy blaming yourself, having been taught to take fault, thus compounding your injury.
  • “Shouldn’t I forgive them? My religion says so.” Forgiveness for an aggressor who removed your spleen yesterday is not the same as forgiving someone while he is slicing out your heart today. Mercy is a generous act, to oneself and to the one who harmed you. Don’t, however, make a foolish decision by giving anyone the tacit permission to repeat the crime.
  • “The parents of my friends were just like them. Some were worse.” Perhaps, but irrelevant. Were everyone to poison their child, the violence would not be acceptable. Were everyone else to beat their children for 20 minutes a day, 10 minutes would not be a kindness.
  • “They had such a terrible life themselves. They didn’t know better.” Your mom and dad still can learn.
  • “I’m not that sort of person. I can’t be mean to them.” Ending the relationship with parents or limiting contact might be thought of as heartless. My guess is, however, if an animal bites your hand whenever you offer food, your generosity might change over time. Moreover, few of the really awful parents are “hurt” by a child’s late rejection. Anger and further indictments of the adult child are more typical. Corrupt parents have been known to deny the crime. Much wrong doing gets lost in the night and fog of passing time.
  • “I’d feel guilty.” Something for you and your counselor to work on.
  • “I should be over them already.” Maybe, but is this approach working for you?
  • “I don’t want to be a whiner. I should be tougher, not so sensitive.” Those who utter these words are justifying their mistreatment and running from the past. The notion of “getting tough” suggests those who don’t are cowardly. On the contrary, facing reality displays real courage.
  • “What’s the point of talking to them about it now?” We are assuming the mistreatment takes a different shape these days than when you were a kid, but it hasn’t stopped. The point is to get it to stop now, by conversation or removal of yourself.

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  • “Talking about them is a betrayal.” Discussion with your therapist isn’t the same as a national broadcast. You do them no harm in this way.
  • “Isn’t there nobility in suffering? Don’t we all have our cross to bear?” Not all suffering is noble. As an old colleague used to say, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”
  • “I’d be ashamed to raise the issue in the family. I’d be blamed. What would my friends think? They always remind me how special my parents are.” Only those who make themselves strong risk being tossed from the arena. Therapy can help with this, especially if you have never said anything to them about how much they hurt you. Recognize that giving them a chance to repent and reform is an act of love and generosity. Similarly, exiting the home takes the bull’s eye off your chest and moves your body from the rifle range. You are not required to aid their target practice as long as they live. By giving in to the terror of family wide disapproval you accept the role of a victim.
  • “Maybe they will change — praise me, show me love, be good to me.” Ah! Here at last is the big reason, the one most often unacknowledged. This motive drives the willingness to continue to serve as cannon fodder in the hope of being recognized for your devotion. But misplaced hope is soul-killing, making you complicit in your own destruction. Should affection never come, you are dealing with what economists call a “sunk cost;” like throwing more money into an investment that has already cost you a fortune. More suffering is all you get in return.

The Marilyn Monroes of the world remain unhappy despite “having everything.” The solution requires them to challenge the long-standing internalized negative self-attributions, their critical thoughts or beliefs about themselves. If the long reach of a damaging childhood is at the core, confronting parents is not essential, but you must face the history written on your skin. You cannot recover if you continue to blame yourself and remain the victim. In childhood you had no choice. In adulthood you usually do, though the choice is not free of charge.

If your parents installed a permanent line in your vein from which to suck out your life’s blood, no good comes from sitting and watching, as you do when a phlebotomist takes a blood sample. When childhood harm is indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, there is no healthy alternative but to examine the source of the injury, grieve your losses, and reevaluate your guardians: what they did or didn’t do. Even more, when you are still being bled, the line must be removed.

Nothing about stopping or reducing the misery is easy. The treatment of such old but continuing wounds takes much time. My patients often tried everything they could to repair or improve the relationship before setting any limits on their parents. In doing so, they attempted to inoculate themselves against experiencing guilt subsequent to their decision to remove the bull’s-eye from their chest.

Still, this is not for everyone. Such a solution doesn’t fit the majority of us who had decent parents or wonderful elders. Nor, regrettably, do all of us possess the strength to protect ourselves.

Confrontation is not required, although many benefit by standing up, looking their aggressor in the eye, and saying, “Never again.” This is rather like finally getting the best of the playground bully.

You must also evaluate your own part in the sour relationship. An old injury does not give you permission to complicate your intimate contact today or become the thing you hate, however understandable.

Much of psychotherapy deals with the past, but treatment does so in the service of making your life better today. The world is a tough place, a kind place, a contradictory place: a place we are “just visiting,” as we are reminded by the game Monopoly. Time is short to put your life together.

You might have lost the game yesterday. Losing again today is not required.

Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The treatment is not intended to harm your parents, but to heal you. The firing line is no place to live out your days.

The first photo is Agaricus Silvicola, Father and Son by Frank Gardiner. The second comes from the 1963 NBC TV series, The Eleventh Hour. From left to right, Keenan Wynne, Linda Evans, and Jack Ging. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Guilt about Betraying Parents: “They Did the Best They Could”

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Young children are not the only ones who believe that their own mom and dad are the best in the world.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “My dad is stronger than your dad” and the like.

Adults do this too. Or, at least, try very hard not to think the worst of them.

Any therapist with experience has heard many heartbreaking stories about children who have been abused, deceived, lied to, cruelly and unfairly criticized, used, mistreated, and neglected. He has heard from the adult children what their parents did do and didn’t do — about folks who perpetrated the abuse directly and others who looked away or simply told the son or daughter to “try not to upset dad” rather than protecting him or her from dad.

The now-adult children will make up lots of excuses about such things: “They did the best they could” or “They didn’t know any better” or “Lots of parents were that way when I was growing up” or “How can you expect anything better when my folks had even worse childhoods themselves” or “They were having so many of their own problems at the time” or “Other people had it worse than I did” or “They’re old people now and I wouldn’t want to hurt them (by bringing this up)” or “It happened a long time ago; what is the point of talking about it now.”

Or simply, “It feels wrong to talk negatively about them.”

Most of the patients about whom I am speaking come to therapy with some sense of personal inadequacy, low self-esteem, and unhappiness, if not depression. Some have these feelings despite a considerable set of personal achievements. They may be captains of industry, millionaires, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and professional athletes. Many of them have a good and loving spouse and adoring children. But, no matter what has been accomplished or how good their current life is in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Others try to fill themselves up with acquisitions: a new car, a new house, a new spouse, a new watch or appliance or piece of clothing; and, for a brief period — an hour, a day, a month — this might even boost their mood. But then, things return to the steady-state of emptiness as the shopping-therapy fails.

For these people, the ones who seem to “have everything” but remain unhappy, the Marilyn Monroes of the world, the solution usually requires that long-standing internalized negative self-attributions (critical thoughts or beliefs about oneself) be reviewed and challenged. Sometimes cognitive behavior therapy is able to achieve this.

But there are other instances when the negative verdict of a difficult childhood is so indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, that he must look back at the original painful source of his injury, grieve his losses, and reevaluate who his guardians were and what they did, or didn’t do.

In cases such as this, the set of excuses I mentioned earlier becomes a problem. Words like “They did the best they could” stand between the patient and his ability to look frankly at his early life without feeling that he is betraying his parents in so doing.

Here is what I frequently say to those of my patients in this predicament:

First, you will do no harm to them in talking to a therapist. There is no rule that says they must be told what you are relaying to a counselor. Indeed, if your parents are dead (as is sometimes the case), then they cannot be told and are safe from any injury that you believe you might do to them.

You need not concentrate only on what they did that might have hurt you. It is equally important to look at what they did that might have helped, and at the complications in their own lives that made good parenting a challenge.

But, even if they showed you some consideration and kindness from time to time, if it really wasn’t so bad, why are you careful to raise your child differently than you were brought up?

Realize that good child rearing is not simply the sum total of all the positives and negatives of your parents’ approach to you, such that the former will always balance out the latter. Imagine that your parent gave you a million dollars and put it in your right hand; and then said, “Now in return, you must allow me to disable your left hand.” Would this be an example of good parenting? Would the provision of a million dollars compensate you for the lost use of your left hand? Not to just anyone, but due to the behavior of your parent?

Yes, it is likely true that some others had it worse than you did. But does that mean you are free of injury? Imagine that you are walking down the street. You pass a man in a wheel chair. He is moving the vehicle by use of his two arms and you think to yourself, “Poor man.” But, a few blocks down, you now encounter another wheel chair-bound individual. Unlike the former person, this man’s arms are incapacitated.

If you are to measure the physical state of these two men against one another, you are likely to evaluate the second man as worse off than the first. But, just because the first person is better off, one must admit that he still is unable to walk.

As I said, there is almost always someone worse. But that doesn’t mean that your injury counts for little or nothing.

Finally, the look back is intended not to keep you focused there, but to liberate you so that you can live more fully in the present; it isn’t to be angry with your parents or to harm them (although anger might be involved in the grieving process). Rather it is to free you from the weight of a childhood that you still carry, the sense of your own falling-short that you can’t otherwise shake, to leave you lighter and less burdened by the long reach of your youth.

Wouldn’t loving parents want this — for their child to be happy and free from any hurt they might have caused? What would you want for your child?

You see, the heart has no clock built into it. Even though you may think very little about the time elapsed, the heart still keeps a living record of the damage, as fresh as the day it was inflicted. You’ve tried ignoring it; you may have tried other types of therapy. Perhaps it is time.

You needn’t feel guilty. You needn’t feel disloyal. Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The therapy is not intended to place blame or to harm your parents, but to heal you.

Looking back may be able to help with that.

The image above is Parent with Child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava by Kelovy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Betrayal

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While betrayal comes in many forms, certainly among the very worst is the betrayal of a child by a parent. As a therapist, one hears perhaps too many of these stories for comfort. There are generic ones, where parents steal money or credit cards from their offspring; use up the college fund that a grandparent left the child; and perpetrate (or allow) verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Then there are the very particular and peculiar ones that require some amount of invention, but still break the heart.

A few stories then, followed by an attempt to answer the question “Why?”

Take a set of parents who invested themselves in “surface” things — how they looked to others. They needed the right car, the right house in the right neighborhood, the right clothes, and the right friends. And so, when one of their children had a less than attractive nose, they required this youngster to have a “nose job.” The youth was OK with the nose that nature had delivered, but this wasn’t satisfactory to the parents.

You might say that the surgery benefited the youngster, but only on the surface. It delivered the message that the child’s opinion (the desire not to have the surgery) didn’t matter, that a frightening and unnecessary operation would be inflicted, and that the offspring was not good enough without a cosmetic overhaul. All of this negated whatever benefit accrued to looking more pleasing to the eye.

Another example. Two sisters. The younger was very bright, but not particularly attractive. The older one was gorgeous, but not so bright. What did the parents do? They referred to them in public as “the smart one” and “the pretty one.” Both compliments, it’s true, but so ingeniously fashioned and used that the real message to the younger one was “You are ugly” and to the older one “You are stupid.” Devastating.

Or the parents whose oldest child committed suicide by using a handgun that had been given him by his father. After the funeral the father gave the gun to the brother next-in-line. Next-in-line for what? What was the unspoken message here?

How about the young man, a college student, disliked by his abusive father? This was back in the days before the voluntary army, back in the time of Vietnam and the draft. The father knew that his son needed to manage a full-time course load in order to keep his student deferment.

So what did the father do?

He required that his offspring pay rent to stay in the family home knowing that his kid couldn’t afford it, even though the money wasn’t essential to the upkeep of the residence. Ultimately the young man couldn’t manage his studies because of the job. He had to quit school and was drafted, then sent to S.E. Asia. His father never wrote him letters in those days before email and, in fact, sold all the son’s possessions including his car while he was overseas.

What was the message from father to son? I don’t want you to succeed? I don’t want you home? I don’t expect you to survive? I don’t want you to survive? Or all of the above?

Why do they do it? The parents, I mean. First off, we know that if you have been abused by your parents, you are more likely to abuse your children than those people who have not had this awful experience. In effect, you are at risk of becoming the thing that you hate, perhaps even rationalizing the brutal behavior of your dad or mom. “They did the best they could” is a common theme that adult children use as they reflect back on their parents’ approach to child rearing and try to minimize and normalize the mistreatment they received. Similarly, the words spoken by the abusive parent, “I’m only doing this for your own good,” often serve as a “cover” for less than benign intentions.

Children who are being abused have little recourse but to put a good face on their parents’ behavior. To realize that one’s parents are vicious or frankly deranged leaves a child desperate and hopeless. If, on the other hand, the young one can find some reason to continue to admire the parent, he may find his home life at least slightly less terrifying.

Kids in this situation are desperate to find any signal of hope about the future. If they see their predicament for what it is, hope is dead. They are stuck and there is no place to go. It is therefore (in some sense) more comforting to believe that the reason for the mistreatment is their own fault, than to think that their elders are simply evil. If mom and dad are believed to be crazy or vicious, the child can only despair. On the other hand, if the young one believes that his behavior is somehow deserved, then by working to change himself he can at least imagine that he will win better treatment from his folks.

With no alternative family to which to compare his situation, the child has no model of parenting that is different, no clear standard that tells him that his parents are corrupt, at least until many years into the abuse at a time when he is older. If, in his effort to normalize the situation, the child does find something admirable about the parent, and perhaps even something good about that person’s behavior, he is more likely to emulate it later. Furthermore, in trying to obtain a sense of mastery over his life, kids will often experiment with the very behavior that has been perpetrated on them. That is, they may obtain satisfaction (as well as an outlet for their anger) by being brutal with others, who might be their siblings or their school mates.

One could go on about this subject for quite some time, but if you’d like a place to start exploring it, you might want to read For Your Own Good by Alice Miller. Miller looks at case histories of abuse, including some very controversial speculation about Adolph Hitler and what childhood experiences might have contributed to his sociopathy.

It is definitely worth your time and attention.

The image comes from the MGM movie, Julius Caesar. Casca, about to stab Caesar, is played by Edmond O’Brien and Caesar by Louis Calhern. The movie features Marlon Brando as Marc Antony and James Mason as Brutus.