Now there’s something original; a therapist blaming your problems on your parents! Betcha didn’t see that one coming eh? Yes, I know it’s cliché’ for a therapist to talk about the role of childhood and caregivers in the formation of psychological distress but lets face it. It’s a thing. A big one.
The late Dr Walt Cubberly, who was a grad school professor of mine and a relatively large influence on my own personal brand of therapy once stated, “In all human relationships, both parties will inevitably do damage to the other. What distinguish the relationships that split apart versus the ones that stay together is their willingness to acknowledge the damage and to do the repair work necessary to mend the relationship.” (I’d like to mention as a sidenote that this is a paraphrase of Dr Cubberly and to be completely honest, I’m not 100% certain he was the one who said it but he was an amazing clinician and an overall great guy so why not just give him the credit anyway right!?) So let’s first focus on only one part of this statement: “both parties will inevitably do damage to the other”. According to this idea, when there are two or more persons in a relationship, all parties will hurt each other. You have done damage to your friends, your wife, your mother, your coworkers and they’ve done it to you. You do it to your kids and your parents did it to you. I can’t explain the why of Dr Cubberly’s prophetic words but I can vouch for the relative accuracy of the idea. In my tenure as a helping professional, I’ve worked with some 3000-5000 individuals and, in my observation, the likelihood that the person’s involvement in therapy has something to do with their parents (possibly the first and most important relationship in which involved parties can do harm) is somewhere in the 97% range. Perhaps I’m biased in this area and just projecting my own issues with my parents but that, dear reader, is for me and MY therapist to discuss so for now, please just accept the idea if for nothing more than the sake of argument.
If all relationships involve hurt and damage, doesn’t it follow that one of the most important and pervasive relationships, the one with our parents, could be a great source of psychological and emotional distress? Obviously I would say that the answer is yes, or I wouldn’t be writing about it. SPOILER ALERT! “But Brandon, I love my parents and they love me!…How can they be PART OF the damage?” (notice the emphasis on “part of”; when we’re dealing with human emotions and behaviors, things are rarely simple or black and white). Allow me to try to answer that with a personal example. I have a daughter who is now 1.5 years old. (I’m suddenly thinking back to my “parenting tips” blog and wondering how long it is before I get to see how naïve I truly was when I wrote it). My wife and I have agreed, for many reasons, that our daughter shall be an only child (and please spare me your dogmatic, blowhard lecture on why I’m morally wrong for this and don’t give me the ‘accidents might happen’ speech…I’m a grown man, I know how babies are made. I’m just saying this is the route we’ve agreed to attempt to pursue). I still don’t claim to have a super great idea of what I’m doing as a dad. I think I’m doing an okay job but I’m pretty much just making it up as I go along like most parents do. Will I be successful? Only time will tell. Here’s what I know though: I’ve already caused some damage. Not intentionally, not maliciously and certainly not without some bit of second guessing and uncertainty. But despite my conscious and intensely intentional efforts to be a good father, in the act of purposely not allowing siblings into the equation, I’ve harmed her. Through my career, I’ve had the misfortune of working with some truly awful parents. Those who were intentionally, knowingly, savagely and unremorsefully abusive and/or neglectful towards their children. Most of the parents I’ve worked with, however, have been of the category I hope I fall into; genuinely good people with good intentions and good practices who drop the ball here and there simply because they are human. It’s also been my observation that sometimes that attempt to be a good parent is THE THING that causes the damage: the father who provides everything for his son who in turn, never developed the ability to delay gratification, the mother who attempted to be so loving and caring that she created a dependent helpless daughter, the father that decided that he possibly only had enough love for only one child so he chose to have no others, thus possibly limiting greatly that child’s understanding of sharing, robbing her of another source of support and possibly taking a risk on increasing that child’s sense of entitlement through a life of being the only focal point of her parent’s attention (that one is my daughter just in case you can’t tell). If you haven’t guessed it by now, a sort of sub plot to this blog is that you will screw up your kids, at least a little, even if you’re trying not to and sometimes trying not to is the vehicle by which it occurs.
So what do we do about it? Let’s refer back to the second half of Dr Cubberly’s paraphrased statement: “acknowledge the damage and do the repair work”. Parents: acknowledge the damage you’re doing to your kids. Try to stop doing it. Understand and accept that at some level, it won’t work. Understand and accept that some of your short comings as a parent will create challenges for your child to overcome. Hopefully, these challenges will inspire growth and development and strengthen your child’s growing character. Secondly, (and this is a purely Brandonian philosophy) understand and accept that the “repair work” in the relationship may be internal. The relationship in which to do the work may be the one that one has with self. Our agreed upon age of adulthood in America is 18. Although an arbitrary age, consider that at this age and beyond, our parent’s responsibility to us is done. Yes, they’ll always be our parents but their duty to take care of us is complete. The task of self care now falls to us. Acknowledge the damage your parents did. Learn to see them as human beings who have flaws and shortcomings who usually, in all but the most extreme cases, were trying to do the right thing and accidentally fucked it up. Go to therapy. Look inside. Self heal. Do your own repair work. Live with the attitude of knowing that every human being has a core of goodness that never changes no matter what one does and no matter what is done to ones self. Although the damage your parents did may have had the brainwashing effect of leading you to believe you have no value, acknowledge this, do the repair work and chose to believe that you have value and worth and then act as if this is so.
Here’s the unrelated song(s): One of my old favorites, Zao. Please listen to the intro at least. It’s one of the best rock instrumentals of all time I think.
The unrelated (and strangely controversial) book recommendation:
“The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing)” – Marie Kondo