The Myth of the Perfect Parent
The ancient Greeks had a problem. The gods looked down from their ethereal playground atop Mount Olympus and passed judgment on everything the Greeks were up to. And if the gods weren't pleased, they were swift to punish. They didn't have to be kind; they didn't have to be just; they didn't even have to be right. In fact, they could be downright irrational. At their whim, they could turn you into an echo or make you push a boulder uphill for all eternity. Needless to say, the unpredictability of these powerful gods sowed quite a bit of fear and confusion among their mortal followers.
Not unlike many toxic parent-child relationships. An unpredictable parent is a fearsome god in the eyes of a child.
When we're very young, our godlike parents are everything to us. Without them, we would be unloved, unprotected, unhoused, and unfed, living in a constant state of terror, knowing we were unable to survive alone. They are our all-powerful providers. We need, they supply.
With nothing and no one to judge them against, we assume them to be perfect parents. As our world broadens beyond our crib, we develop a need to maintain this image of perfection as a defense against the great unknowns we increasingly encounter. As long as we believe our parents are perfect, we feel protected.
In our second and third years of life, we begin to assert our independence. We resist toilet training and revel in our "terrible twos." We embrace the word no because it allows us to exercise some control over our lives, whereas yes is simply an acquiescence. We struggle to develop a unique identity, establish our own will.
The process of separating from parents reaches its peak during puberty and adolescence, when we actively confront parental values, tastes, and authority. In a reasonably stable family, parents are able to withstand much of the anxiety that these changes create. For the most part, they will attempt to tolerate, if not exactly encourage, their child's emerging independence. The expression "it's just a phase" becomes a standard assurance for understanding parents, who remember their own teenage years and appreciate rebellion as a normal stage of emotional development.
Toxic parents aren't so understanding. From toilet training through adolescence, they tend to see rebellion or even individual differences as a personal attack. They defend themselves by reinforcing their child's dependence and helplessness. Instead of promoting healthy development, they unconsciously undermine it, often with the belief that they are acting in their child's best interest. They may use phrases such as "it builds character" or "she needs to learn right from wrong," but their arsenals of negativity really harm their child's self-esteem, sabotaging any budding independence. No matter how much these parents believe they're right, such assaults are confusing to a child, bewildering in their animosity, their vehemence, and their suddenness.
Our culture and our religions are almost unanimous in upholding the omnipotence of parental authority. It's acceptable to express anger at our husbands, wives, lovers, siblings, bosses, and friends, but it's almost taboo to assertively confront our parents. How often have we heard the phrases "don't talk back to your mother" or "don't you dare shout at your father"? The Judeo-Christian tradition enshrines the taboo in our collective unconscious by pronouncing "God the Father" and directing us to "honor thy father and mother." The idea finds voices in our schools, our churches, our government ("a return to family values"), even in our corporations. According to the conventional wisdom, our parents are empowered to control us simply because they gave us life.
The child is at the mercy of his godlike parents and, like the ancient Greeks, never knows when the next lightning bolt will strike. But the child of toxic parents knows that the lightning is coming sooner or later. This fear becomes deeply ingrained and grows with the child. At the core of every formerly mistreated adulteven high achieversis a little child who feels powerless and afraid.
The Cost of Appeasing the Gods
As a child's self-esteem is undermined, his dependence grows, and with it his need to believe that his parents are there to protect and provide. The only way emotional assaults or physical abuse can make sense to a child is if he or she accepts responsibility for the toxic parent's behavior.
No matter how toxic your parents might be, you still have a need to deify them. Even if you understand, on one level, that your father was wrong to beat you, you may still believe he was justified. Intellectual understanding is not enough to convince your emotions that you were not responsible.
As one of my clients put it: "I thought they were perfect, so when they treated me badly, I figured I was bad."
There are two central doctrines in this faith of godlike parents:
1."I am bad and my parents are good."
2."I am weak and my parents are strong."
These are powerful beliefs that can long outlive your physical dependence on your parents. These beliefs keep the faith alive; they allow you to avoid facing the painful truth that your godlike parents actually betrayed you when you were most vulnerable.
Your first step toward controlling your life is to face that truth for yourself. It will take courage, but if you're reading this book, you've already made a commitment to change. That took courage, too.
"They Never Let Me Forget How I Disgraced Them"
Sandy, 28, a striking brunette who seemed to "have it all," was seriously depressed when she first came to see me. She told me that she was unhappy with everything in her life. She had been a floral designer for several years at a prestigious shop. She had always dreamed of opening her own business, but she was convinced that she wasn't smart enough to succeed. She was terrified of failure.
Sandy had also been trying to get pregnant for more than two years, with no success. As we talked, I began to see that her inability to get pregnant was causing her to feel strong resentment toward her husband and inadequate in their relationship, despite the fact that he sounded genuinely understanding and loving. A recent conversation with her mother had aggravated the issue:
This whole pregnancy has become a real obsession with me. When I had lunch with my mom I told her how disappointed I was. She said to me, "I'll bet it's that abortion you had. The Lord works in mysterious ways." I haven't been able to stop crying since. She never lets me forget.
I asked her about the abortion. After some initial hesitancy, she told me the story:
It happened when I was in high school. My parents were very, very strict Catholics, so I went to parochial school. I developed early, and by the time I was twelve, I was five-foot-six, weighed one hundred thirty pounds, and wore a 36-C bra. Boys started paying attention to me, and I really liked it. It drove my dad crazy. The first time he caught me kissing a boy good night, he called me a whore so loud that the whole neighborhood heard. It was downhill from there. Every time I went out with a boy, Dad told me I was going to hell. He never let up. I figured I was damned anyway, so when I was fifteen I slept with this guy. Just my luck, I got pregnant. When my folks found out, they went nuts. Then I told them I wanted an abortion; they totally lost it. They must have screamed at me about "mortal sin" a thousand times. If I wasn't going to hell already, they were sure this would clinch it. The only way I could get them to sign a consent was to threaten to kill myself.
I asked Sandy how things went for her after the abortion. She slumped down in her chair with a dejected look that made my heart ache.
Talk about a fall from grace. I mean, Dad made me feel horrible enough before, but now I felt like I didn't even have a right to exist. The more ashamed I felt, the harder I tried to make things right. I just wanted to turn back the clock, get back the love I had when I was little. But they never miss a chance to bring it up. They're like a broken record about what I did and how I disgraced them. I can't blame them. I should've never done what I didI mean, they had such high moral expectations for me. Now I just want to make it up to them for hurting them so bad with my sins. So I do anything they want me to do. It drives my husband crazy. He and I get in these huge fights about it. But I can't help it. I just want them to forgive me.
As I listened to this lovely young woman, I was very touched by the suffering her parents' behavior had caused her and by how much she needed to deny their responsibility for that suffering. She seemed almost desperate to convince me that she was to blame for all that happened to her. Sandy's self-blame was compounded by her parents' unyielding religious beliefs. I knew I had my work cut out for me if Sandy was to see how genuinely cruel and emotionally abusive her parents had been to her. I decided this was not a time to be nonjudgmental.
Susan: You know something? I'm really angry for that young girl. I think your parents were awful to you. I think they misused your religion to punish you. I don't think you deserved any of it.
Sandy: I committed two mortal sins!
Susan: Look, you were just a kid. Maybe you made some mistakes, but you don't have to keep paying for them forever. Even the Church lets you atone and get on with your life. If your parents were as good as you say they are, they would have shown some compassion for you.
Sandy: They were trying to save my soul. If they didn't love me so much, they wouldn't care.
Susan: Let's look at this from a different perspective. What if you hadn't had that abortion? And you had a little girl. She'd be about sixteen now, right?
Sandy nodded, trying to figure out where I was headed.
Susan: Suppose she got pregnant? Would you treat her like your parents treated you?
Sandy: Not in a million years!
Sandy realized the implications of what she'd said.
Susan: You'd be more loving. And your parents should have been more loving. That's their failure, not yours.
Sandy had spent half her life constructing an elaborate wall of defense. Such defensive walls are all too common among adult children of toxic parents. They can be made of a variety of psychological building blocks, but the most common, the primary material in Sandy's wall, is a particularly obstinate brick called "denial."
The Power of Denial
Denial is both the most primitive and the most powerful of psychological defenses. It employs a make-believe reality to minimize, or even negate, the impact of certain painful life experiences. It even makes some of us forget what our parents did to us, allowing us to keep them on their pedestals.
The relief provided by denial is temporary at best, and the price for this relief is high. Denial is the lid on our emotional pressure cooker: the longer we leave it on, the more pressure we build up. Sooner or later, that pressure is bound to pop the lid, and we have an emotional crisis. When that happens, we have to face the truths we've been so desperately trying to avoid, except now we've got to face them during a period of extreme stress. If we can deal with our denial up front, we can avoid the crisis by opening the pressure valve and leting it out easily.
Unfortunately, your own denial is not the only denial you may have to contend with. Your parents have denial systems of their own. When you are struggling to reconstruct the truth of your past, especially when that truth reflects poorly on them, your parents may insist that "it wasn't so bad," "it didn't happen that way," or even that "it didn't happen at all." Such statements can frustrate your attempts to reconstruct your personal history, leading you to question your own impressions and memories. They undercut your confidence in your ability to perceive reality, making it that much harder to rebuild your self-esteem.
Sandy's denial was so strong that not only couldn't she see her own reality, she couldn't even acknowledge that there was another reality to see. I empathized with her pain, but I had to get her at least to consider the possibility that she had a false image of her parents. I tried to be as nonthreatening as possible:
I respect the fact that you love your parents and that you believe they're good people. I'm sure they did some very good things for you when you were growing up. But there's got to be a part of you that knows or at least senses that loving parents don't assault their child's dignity and self-worth so relentlessly. I don't want to pull you away from your parents or your religion. You don't have to disown them or renounce the Church. But a big part of lifting your depression may depend on giving up the fantasy that they're perfect. They were cruel to you. They hurt you. Whatever you did, you had already done. No amount of haranguing from them was going to change that. Can't you feel how deeply they hurt the sensitive young girl inside of you? And how unnecessary it was?
Sandy's "yes" was barely audible. I asked her if it scared her to think about it. She just nodded, unable to talk about the depth of her fear. But she was brave enough to hang in there.
The Hopeless Hope
After two months in therapy, Sandy had made some progress but was still clinging to the myth of her perfect parents. Until she shattered that myth, she would continue to blame herself for all the unhappiness of her life. I asked her to invite her parents to a therapy session. I hoped that if I could get them to see how deeply their behavior had affected Sandy's life, they might admit some of their responsibility, making it easier for Sandy to begin repairing her negative self-image.
We barely had time to get acquainted before her father blurted:
You don't know what a bad kid she was, Doctor. She went nuts over boys and kept leading them on. All of her problems today are because of that damned abortion.
I could see tears well up in Sandy's eyes. I rushed to defend her: