Obviously there are great parents. And there are children who repeatedly wound their parents. But let’s focus on parents who repeatedly wounded their children … and still continue to bully and control them even after the children have become adults. Whether that’s done consciously and intentionally, or the parents are righteous and oblivious to the effects they’re having, or they think that they’re preparing their children to be humble and moral or to face a hostile world, the pain is real and the effects can last for decades.
Before we review a typical case study and offer the keys to moving on and creating the life you want, let me ask, have you been wounded by your parents?
In general, boys are wounded just as much as girls, but let’s look at Irene. She’s now a skilled and competent nurse, but getting there was a long struggle. Her parents relentlessly belittled, denigrated and punished her. They didn’t hit her often, but they forced her to do everything their way. They knew best and were always right; she was always wrong. They said that her character and personality was fundamentally flawed. Despite everything they did for her benefit, they knew she’d never be a good or successful person. She’d always be a loser.
In response to their hostile criticism, emotional blackmail and verbal abuse, Irene became insecure and shy. Although she was very mature and competent in her professional life, when she faced her parents, she became a little girl again. She was intimidated by their certainty and rules. Facing these bullies, Irene became a self-bully; bullied by the old attitudes, beliefs, rules and critical voices she carried in her head.
Irene was like so many other wounded people in life-long therapy. She was completely focused on her parents’ continuing bullying, on resisting them, on hating them, on finally pleasing them, on getting past them. She gnawed on the bone of her parents endlessly. She was depressed and sometimes suicidal. She thought she needed repeated catharsis to keep functioning.
The relationship with her parents consumed her life. Irene kept trying to convince them to give in to her and to approve of her so she could feel good. She just wanted them to be fair and reasonable … and to like and appreciate her. She thought she mustn’t ever create a safe distance from them even though they still bullied her. The guilt would be overwhelming.
Let’s focus on the perspective that gave Irene back her life. I think there are developmental transitions we all go through. The first stage of growing up and leaving home is when we leave physically. Most of us go to school, get jobs, get stuff (homes and cars), get spouses or partners, get children, get debts … get self-supporting. We often move away so we can spread our wings without our parents’ eagle eyes on us. Then we think we’ve become free and independent adults. Externally, maybe.
We usually make this outer transition between the ages of 16-35. When did you?
But that’s only the first transition. There’s a second, necessary transition before we become truly unique, independent selves. In this transition, we clean out the internal mental, emotional and spiritual homes we gave our parents. We discard everything we took in when we were children. And we take in what fits us now. Some of the attitudes and ideas may be the same as our parents have, but much of it will be different.
In this transition, we get over our parents. The present and the future we want to create become the focus of our world. Our parents aren’t the focus any more. They no longer fill up our world. We move them off to the side or into the background, whether they like it or not.
Now we can take in attitudes and ideas as adults; adjusting them with our adult experience and wisdom. Children take in ideas as black-or-white, all-or-none RULES, and apply those rules everywhere. There’s no gray for them. Adults know there’s gray in many areas. We all did our best and it was good enough to keep us alive and get us to where we are now. But we didn’t have the experience to judge with wisdom. We misunderstood, misinterpreted and had very narrow visions. We were kids.
This second transition is usually age and life-stage dependent. For example, our careers reach a plateau, we can see the children leaving home, we become middle-aged, we notice the same, repeating life patterns and lessons, or we wonder if we’ll ever fulfill our heart’s desire.
Are you there yet?
When we’ve done this, we’re no longer controlled by our parents’ voices, rules, beliefs and attitudes. We have our own view of life and what’s important for us and how we can get it. We can create the life we’ve wanted, independent of whether they like it or not. We may or may not reject them; we’re simply not controlled by them or by having to be like or different from them. We make up our own minds.
When Irene saw her life’s movement with this perspective, she heaved a sigh of relief. She wasn’t a loser or flawed sinner caught forever in an insoluble bind. Her parents’ opinions of her faults and what she needed to do were merely their personal opinions, shaped by their upbringing. Nothing more truthful or important than personal opinions. She no longer put them on a pedestal.
She wasn’t helpless. The situation wasn’t hopeless. She was normal. She just had to persevere in order to create a life that she could call her own. And if her parents didn’t like it; so what? They didn’t get to vote. If they wanted to get close to her, they have to pass the tests of her 9 Circles of Trust.
Some people get this in a blinding flash when they’re relatively young. For Irene, it took much longer. The transition wasn’t easy for her but it was do-able. She felt free and light, like a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She was always stubborn. Now she could use her stubbornness to persevere. The light at the end of her tunnel was the life she’d always wanted to live.
She won’t let her parents wound her any more. The big difference from decades ago was that now she was just as tall as they were. She was an adult. Keeping herself safe from them was more important than old rules that had led her to accept their abuse and control. When she made her parents’ opinion unimportant and she turned to face the light at the end of her tunnel, she could feel her wounds healing, as wounds naturally do when no one is picking at the scabs.
Where are you with your parents? Where are you with your own growing independence?