As adults, we are told to respect and appreciate our parents. We’re often reminded to sympathize with their struggles and forgive and forget any pain they caused. If we’re at odds with a parent, we’re encouraged to reconcile and maintain a relationship. While qualities like respect, kindness, compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness are all of great importance, they do not erase the imprint of a parent’s influence, both positive and negative. Whatever our present-day relationship with our parents may be, the parent we’ve internalized in our heads still influences us in countless ways.
Our past has a heavy hand in shaping our present: how we see ourselves, how we behave, and how we expect others to respond to us. Our earliest caretakers’ impact on us is so great because of our complete helplessness and dependency on them and because how they relate to us wires the social circuits of our brain. As infants, we adapt to whatever social environment we were born into; thus, our earliest interactions have a lasting effect. Unfortunately, those interactions that were not attuned – for instance, when we were not seen clearly, when emotional hunger was directed toward us, when we were not comforted or made to feel safe, or when we were even treated in ways that left us feeling terror – shape our later connections with others and even with ourselves.
Recognizing that our parents were human and, therefore, flawed is not an effort to be hard on them or stay wrapped up in the past. It’s a matter of better understanding ourselves and deciding what patterns from our childhood are not serving us in our current lives. We may find that it’s time to peel away the negative overlays we’ve integrated, challenge destructive conceptions we picked up, and change any patterns that don’t make sense to who we really are now that we’re independent adults.
No matter how they relate to us or who our parents are today, how they treated us when we were young is what has a powerful, lingering effect. Even if our parents were hurtful in ways that led us to have little to no contact with them as adults, their influence is still likely an active part of our lives. The goal of accepting this is not to demonize our parents. Nor is it to feel victimized or get stuck in a cycle of anger and blame. Rather, the aim is to make sense of what happened to us and really come to know and recognize the parents we’ve internalized. We can then start to see ourselves and others more compassionately and clearly. We can distinguish our own point of view about things. And, ultimately, we can change our behavior to be in line with our actual wants and desires.
An important part of this process is to start to see our parents more realistically. They may not have been as bad or as good as the caricature we’ve created of them, but both their positive and negative qualities had a real impact on us. This influence probably wasn’t black or white, and we may feel different toward them now, but that doesn’t change what happened. Real things made us feel the ways we do. It’s okay to explore and challenge any inadvertent negative and destructive effect on our development.
To do this, we have to accept that whatever pain we felt growing up and whatever emotions surround that experience are real. What we felt, what we picked up, and what we internalized was our reality. In our childhood, we were made to feel a certain way, and that matters. We don’t need to make excuses for our parents or rationalize the behavior that hurt us. We can even have compassion for our parents as separate, struggling people, but that does not mean we need to agree with the way they treated us or uphold that treatment in the way we treat ourselves.
Facing our past doesn’t mean we have to remember exactly what happened to us in perfect detail. It can be difficult to piece together precisely what was said or how certain events went down, but that does not invalidate or negate our experience. A young woman I spoke to recently was struggling to recall whether or not her mother threw a book at her as a child. The specific memory felt vague and scrambled, but what she could remember was feeling terrified by her mother’s sporadic temper. A man I talked to always felt like a disappointment to his father. He remembered his dad seeming critical and uninterested in him as a little boy. Yet, he felt guilty, because his father had also taken certain actions that seemed supportive, like driving him to sporting events or paying for him to go to college. The man couldn’t recall a time his father explicitly said he disliked him, but he felt that way from the way his father looked at him and how he ignored him. What matters in these instances isn’t the exact detail, but the feelings that were picked up and then reacted to by both the man and woman as very young children.
Both of these people internalized certain attitudes from their parents that went on to affect them throughout their lives. For the woman, she found herself feeling like she was bad, like something was wrong with her that made people around her “go crazy.” She felt frightened and distrusting of others and suspicious and self-protective, in general. In the case of the man, he spent much of his life working himself to the point of extreme stress and fatigue in an effort to win a sense of approval or love that he never felt as a child. Whether we go on to feel distrusting, fearful, insecure, or unlovable, the emotional climate in which we grew up shapes our sense of identity as well as how we relate to others.
Attachment theory tells us that what matters most in our present-day relationships and our own parenting is not only what happened to us, but the extent to which we are able to make sense of and feel the full pain of what happened to us. Other studies like one recently done in Germany show that “there are strong two-way links between parent and child happiness (life satisfaction), even for ‘children’ who have grown up, moved to their own home and partnered themselves.” We need to make emotional sense of our experience with our parents in order to be free to live our own lives. That doesn’t mean we should confront our parents. Resolving our issues with the real person won’t necessarily help and often doesn’t go the way we hope. However, we must address our issues with the parent from our childhood who lingers in our minds, so we can move on, on our own terms. We can differentiate from the negative aspects of our history that inform how we treat ourselves and others as well as the ways we get triggered and react to situations rather than act as our true selves.
From the moment we are born, our lives belong to us. We can appreciate that we were given life by our parents without giving our lives to them by following a prescription they wrote for us as children. We can accept our parents as real and separate human beings, valuing and emulating their good qualities, and freely rejecting the bad. This often means challenging how they saw us and finding our own sense of who we are. Doing this is not a hostile act towards our parents but a liberation of ourselves, and for those of us who become parents, it is a true gift to our children.