Rene put down the phone. Her hands were shaking. Her mother had blindsided her again. They’d be having a good chat. Rene had said something funny that her son had done and then mentioned an upcoming vacation she was planning for them. Rene’s mom criticized Rene’s parenting and questioned her budgeting abilities. It seemed like, the minute Rene felt she was stepping forward in life, and was feeling good about their relationship, she’ d get a baseball bat across the knees. How long had it been like this and why didn’t she ever learn? It always seeme to come out of nowhere. Rene wished her mom could just support her and see that she was doing her best, and not always be looking for ways to ‘fix’ her.
Sam had stopped talking to his father years ago. The old man was either crying or yelling. Sam was sick of it, and one day, changed his number and stopped calling. Sam knew his dad had a drinking problem, but that was only part of it. He was just so self absorbed and he soured everything. Sam didn’t need that in his life. He was much better off without him. Sam had given up trying to fix his father or please him, years ago. These days, he had his own family to worry about. Sam had stayed away from alcohol. He didn’t want any part of it and ensured that no one brought it into his house. When his daughter came home smelling of it, one night, Sam just about kicked her out. He loved his kids but he would not tolerate that poison in their lives.
There are a few people who have amazing relationships with their parents, who are best friends with their mother or father, who love spending time together, go on vacations together and call each other twice a day. But not many. Most of us live with some amount of disappointment, anger or sadness related to our relationship with our parents.
Here are 5 things to consider in order to move from the current position your are in, in your relationship with one or more parent, toward something less conflicted:
1. Parents as human people
At some point in our lives, we may also become parents. We feel our own insecurities, fears, and shortcomings. While we may struggle, there are very few of us who actually believe we’ve got it together and know how to do it. This acknowledgement, and hopefully, acceptance, of ourselves, as humans does not always translate into our understanding of our parents. Of course, they are not us, and we are not them. We may believe that we would have acted much differently in similar circumstances, when looking at past parental infractions. We may never fully understand why they did what they did, or continue to do what they do, but it can be helpful to remind ourselves of their humanity. (Check out 9 Steps to Making Sense of Other People).
Being conscious of parents as humans means that we can note the variations in personality, communication styles and priorities, just as we would in any other adult-to-adult relationship. Some relationships will be easy to enjoy and understand, and others won’t. The trick is to get to a place where you recognize that your parents’ reactions and actions are not necessarily about you, but possibly just part of who they are.
2. What belongs to you?
You are also a human being with a distinct personality, experience, communication style, etc. Many people find that their siblings, who grew up in the same house have different issues with their parents than they do. This means that no parents can be 100% responsible for the outcome of their relationship with their child. There are two sides to the relationships.
When I think about my history with perfectionism, I have, in the past, connected this to various ways that I was parented. However, my siblings don’t have the same hang ups as I do, therefore, some of it is really just me. I need figure out my part and pay attention to that because that is what I bring to all of my relationships, including the one with my own children.
3. Setting boundaries
Once you can see your parent as a human and evaluate what part of the relationship issues have to do with the way they are and what parts are you, you may be able to better assess what may or may not be able to change in your relationship with them. If you are looking for approval from a person who cannot seem to say anything positive out loud, to anyone, ever, it might be time to stop looking to that person for something they may never be able to give. This is a hard thing to acknowledge. We start out, as children, with valid needs which are critical to our survival, both emotionally and physically. Not all of these needs get met. As adults, we often continue to look to our parents to fill the needs which they were initially responsible to fill. We need to know when to look elsewhere and to grief what may never be.
Knowing the limits of the relationship will help you to establish boundaries in areas that continue to cause damage. These boundaries might range from an agreement not to talk about a particular topic, to moving to another province, depending on the state of the relationship and the impact it is having. For some, disconnecting completely from a relationship that is more destructive that enriching, is appropriate. Sometimes this is permanent, sometimes, given time and space, people find the tools and perspectives they need to manage the relationship without being overwhelmed by it. And, there are actually times when people do change and things get better.
4. Building relationship
Perhaps you have set strong boundaries already, in the relationship. Sometimes we do this without being completely conscious of it. We might move elsewhere, finding reasons not to visit, forget to call, or just be emotionally unavailable. We might be a dutiful child, doing what is expected, in terms of cards, visits or gifts but hold on to grudges an avoiding in-depth connection.
If you find that you are still bothered by things that have happen in the past, or by things your parent(s) say or do in the present, then your emotional, mental or physical energy may be tied up in this irritation or pain. If a parent cannot, or likely won’t make changes, we can decide how much contact and what kind of contact we want, but, even if there is none, we may have some work to do in order to be at peace in the relationship however it stands. For some, this means letting go of unrealistic expectations of their parent(s) and grieving what was hoped for but will never be. For others it means taking ownership of what part we play in the relationship, and for others it might mean working through forgiveness (See ‘Forgiveness,’ A Dirty Word? and “I’m Sorry” 8 Steps to a Good Apology) and/or setting boundaries or re-evaluating boundaries. Whatever work needs to be done, the goal is to build a relationship that adds to your life and does not only take away from it.
Deepening understanding of others and of yourself will always contribute to growth. Learning to navigate challenges will also serve, in the long term.
5. Parenting ourselves
It’s become a bit of a cliché, the one about our parents’ voices being in our heads. Stereotypically, this is the critical voice, always pointing out our flaws and calling us down. But I see in myself, and others, the tendency to become terrible parents to ourselves, even if we try to do things differently when parenting our own children. We push ourselves to overachieve to try and please our inner critic. We abandon ourselves when we’re in pain, by disassociating through TV, alcohol, social media, etc. When we numb out it’s like we’re telling ourselves that our pain, our exhaustion and our stress is too much to be around and we need to leave. Instead we need to care for ourselves the way we would our own children, or anyone else we love by asking ourselves what we need in that moment, paying attention to what feels good, physically, emotionally and mentally and providing that for ourselves.
Once you learn how to parent yourself well, to get your own needs met in ways that might not involve looking to a parent, it is much easier to move past real or imagined slights, and embrace any good that comes our way through this relationships.
I wish you all the best in this endeavor.
For more ways to parents yourself well, check out An Emotionally Conscious Resolution