Posted: June 10, 2020 in: Pain-2-Power, Personal Empowerment

The Good News and the Bad News: Your Parents Were Probably Doing Their Best

For many people, some of the significant emotional injuries they suffer during their personal development occurred when they ran into difficult or even debilitating interactions with their parents.  Certainly, we are impacted by many other relationships and events in our lives, but being supremely vulnerable as children, we are especially likely to establish counterproductive patterns with roots running back to that time.  If we did not feel unconditionally loved by our mothers and fathers, if we were born into families with significant discord between our mothers and fathers, if we lived through losses that were not well-managed by them, we can develop negative patterns of thought, emotion and behavior that last into adulthood.  Unaddressed, they can last a lifetime.

None of this reasoning is simply about blaming others or not taking responsibility for how we conduct ourselves as adults.  It is simply a fact that we are deeply affected by the adults we rely upon when we are children.

Here’s one example:  I worked with a client whose father was an alcoholic and workaholic.  She found herself, as an adult, gravitating to men who were also remote and unavailable—and substance dependent.  Why?  Because so much of her energy as a child and adolescent had been directed into trying to win her father’s attention and love that she kept reproducing the battle with men much like her dad.  In fact, men who prioritized her and showed her love felt “strange” to her.  Why wouldn’t they?  They didn’t fit the model of the first man she had met and the pattern deeply etched in her psyche to prove she was worthwhile by proving someone would give up an addiction (or two or three) for her.

As adults, those who want to become more powerful often need to examine the pain of living through imperfect parenting.  I don’t mean to say that every single person must do this, but many, many people would do well to do it.  There is tremendous power that can flow from examining these relationships, preserving the positive patterns they set in motion and extinguishing the counterproductive patterns.

Confronting the reality of suboptimal experiences with parents (sometimes profoundly flawed experiences) can also bring up a great deal of anger.  That anger may have been left underground for many years, becoming more and more intense due to being buried.  But there’s something that can help with the anger.  And that is the certain knowledge that parents, generally speaking, did their best—even when their best fell far, far short.  That’s because so many parents are themselves products of extremely damaging psychological dynamics that left them scared and scarred and broken.  Knowing their life stories (which are often just a few questions away) won’t erase anyone’s trouble or trauma, but it can spark empathy and forgiveness and a degree of healing.

The vast, vast majority of us, it turns out, are struggling to do our best, even when we fall short or fail.  To me, that makes human beings more worthy of understanding, not less.

Dr. Keith Ablow


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