By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
What if God were not omnipotent? What if He or She was imperfect? Even thinking this can feel blasphemous. Yet this is essentially what children must come to terms with as they mature. Infants are dependent on their all powerful caregivers. This dependency continues into childhood. As a matter of survival, children perceive their caregivers as being god-like. So, even when parents fail in some way, children often continue to see them in as positive a light as they can.
To maintain a positive perception of their parents, children often see themselves as flawed. If a parent withholds love or is overtly angry with them, they often respond by thinking that there is something wrong with themselves. If only they were smarter, more capable, or better in some way, then their parent would love them. To think otherwise, to see their parents as flawed, can feel too threatening. It would leave them in charge of their own survival – an awesome task that they are not up to.
There are many situations in which children cannot deny a parent’s issues. Although this can be true with everyday occurrences, it is certainly true in extreme cases, such as when an actively alcoholic parent explodes with unpredictable rages. Still, children believe many of the messages from the struggling parent. So, while they might reject their parent, they also – unfortunately – might struggle with feeling unlovable.
Given these early beginnings, it can be difficult to develop a healthy, adult relationship with your parents. However, you can nurture such a relationship through two basic approaches:
Practice seeing your parents as human beings, who you do not need to rely on for emotional or physical survival. By looking at them in this way, you can begin to see them as you see others in your life. Their struggles do not need to be your struggles, so you are free to feel compassion for them. You are also free to possibly enjoy a mutually caring relationship.
Face your inner demons to free yourself. This is far from easy. Why would you want to look in a mirror if you expect to feel ashamed of the person staring back at you? Without realizing it, many people steer clear of looking closely at their negative self-perceptions because of the feelings they elicit. But, if you have the strength to look at yourself, you can begin to challenge those negative self-perceptions and to let in positive perceptions and experiences of yourself.
You can help yourself with this by developing healthy relationships. Connect with people who treat you well. Really listen to the good things they have to say about you. Rather than just going with your knee-jerk response of denying compliments, choose to take them in. Choose to see that these friends really mean what they are saying and that there might be something to it. Then work on incorporating this positive perspective into how you see yourself.
Because many people’s struggles were first developed in the context of their early childhood families, interactions with their parents sometimes feed their inner demons. By following the above advice, you can come to see yourself and your parents as both being worthy of love, as well being worthy of compassion for your human limitations and failings.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.