“When in doubt…” was a slogan on a card I received that I’ve never thrown out because it makes me laugh every time I see it. That would be an easy out, right? You don’t need to accept responsibility for yourself because your parents made you the way you are. If you do something harmful to yourself or someone else, it’s not your fault, it’s your parents’!
Sounds silly put that way, but you’d be surprised. People who had difficult childhoods sometimes use that as a justification as to why their lives are not working today. Oprah Winfrey, certainly a successful person, has shared that she overcame being sexually molested as a child; obviously she didn’t consider that a good excuse. There are many people who had traumatic childhoods whose lives are flourishing, so we really can’t blame the parents.
Clients in therapy may be reticent to do historical work because they love their parents, feel loyalty to them, and don’t want to blame them. The clients are afraid we’re going to find out the parents were villains, which is rarely the case. Usually, although not always, our parents were well-meaning people like ourselves doing the best they could with what was handed down from their own parents.
It’s not necessary to stop loving your parents to see what they taught you that wasn’t helpful, but it is necessary to identify the messages from the parents that were not accurate. I sometimes call these false messages “brainwashing” to underscore for clients just how strong this conditioning can be.
If, for example, you were taught that sex is sinful, you might want to change that brainwashing. If you were taught you should never speak up, or that your ideas are nonsense, or that you don’t have your own special form of attractiveness — these beliefs taught by well-meaning parents are not helpful in the world of adults and would benefit from examination, then elimination.
In psychotherapy, we’re not about blaming your parents. We are about you examining the things your parents instilled in you that are not helpful and throwing them out with the trash. But, we want to make sure you do keep the many useful things your parents passed on. We don’t want to interfere with you having the best relationship possible with them. The more love in the world, the better.
© 2014 Catherine Auman This article is an excerpt from Catherine’s book Shortcuts to Mindfulness: 100 Ways to Personal and Spiritual Growth