Patients in therapy tell unhappy stories about relationships with their mothers and fathers. They grieve the past. They feel the burden of the past in the present. They are uncertain of the future.
Telling these unhappy stories is, itself, a significant therapeutic victory. Sigmund Freud said, “No one is more unattackable than a parent,” and he was right. Parent/child relationships are Big Medicine. An overwhelming imbalance of power. It takes courage and great personal resolve to see our parents as they are. To tell the truth about what went right and what went wrong. What was quality. What was regrettable. Or disrespectful. Or degrading. Injurious. Or, in some cases, flat abusive.
For session after session, patients will giggle, shrug, smile as they tell tales of character flaws, ignorance, neglect, humiliation, despicable cruelty, and in some cases sexual exploitation and violence. They pause repeatedly in the stories to assure me, or, rather, assure themselves, “Now, I love my mother,” or, “I know my father loved me,” or “I know she was doing the best she could,” or, the infamous “I’m not angry.”
“My mother/father was a really good person,” the patient insists. I keep a “therapeutically correct” poker face, but make a mental note: We’ll see soon enough if that utterance was an observation born of experience, or a wish born of a child’s need.
See, a child’s need for a competent, loving parent is dire. Which is why, in all but rare cases, a child cannot allow him/herself to comprehend the possibility of having incompetent, bad or evil parents. In a child’s world, not being loved means annihilation. Death. So, left with no other choice, children go to incredible lengths to interpret ugly parental behavior as love: “There must be a reason … It’s for my own good … I deserve this … It’s my fault … I must have done something wrong.”
When these children become parents, some of them continue to interpret-as-love their parents’ behavior by behaving likewise to their own children.
One of my favorite fantasies is transmigrating my 59-year-old adult self back into my 8 year-old body and revisiting an episode of my father’s violence. Instead of terror and self-loathing, the boy would scowl indignantly and say, “Don’t know what your problem is, cowboy, but it certainly ain’t my problem! Now either get a hold of yourself, or I’m calling the police.”
No such luck. Invariably there is only one way to sustain the myth of our parents’ love and goodness in the face of contradictory evidence – the sacrifice of self. We lay truth, our dignity, our rights, and sometimes our very sanity on the altar of The Wish For Good Parents. And we lift the knife.
One of the most satisfying parts of being a therapist is encouraging people to put down the knife. To tell the truth. To feel the freedom and relief of seeing their parents as they are. The good and the bad.
I can’t imagine saying to my children, “I’m a really good person.” It’s not accurate. And because it’s not accurate, it would only be a burden to them for me to say it. The best it could do is quietly conscript them to help me carry my own self-delusion. No; quality child-rearing includes helping your children see you as you really are.
Here’s what I hope they see:
I’m a “good enough” person. Meaning, there is real goodness in me. Genuine character. Kindness and generosity. Constancy. Actual wisdom. I have a “good enough” goodness.
And then there’s the rest of me. Disquieting selfishness, laziness, and impatience. Equally genuine character flaws. A too-easy permission to not pay attention.
I want them to see it all, so that they can take what’s good for them, and leave the rest behind.
In the end, the best compliment they good give me is not “He was a good father;” rather, “He was a credible human being.” Meaning, he was who he was. And, in the big picture, he told the truth about who he was, good and bad, and accepted responsibility for all of that.
It’s stunning, really, to notice how many adults say of their deceased parents, “I never really knew him/her.” But, upon further examination, it’s easy to see how that happens. It happens because parents make sure their children never know them. It’s against the rules. And the children, dutifully following the rules, are willing to pay the price of their very selfhood so as never to intrude upon this knowledge.
One of my favorite books on the subject is called “Thou Shalt Not Be Aware” by Alice Miller. The title says it all.
(Steven Kalas is a Nevada therapist, author and Episcopal priest. Readers may write him at firstname.lastname@example.org)