Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Life Unlived: Parent's Fight for Self and the Profound Effect on Children

Lack of Fulfillment
Jung said, “Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk. Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent. If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.” The source of the majority of my clients’ suffering stems from this phenomenon. Most are completely unaware of the basis of the problem; with some exception, the majority of the clients have truly been loved by their parents. However without conscious intention, parents often project what they had hoped to achieve themselves in their nature and lives on to their children, now my adult clients, undermining the children’s unique individuality. As a result, these people grow up with the message firmly implanted, for example, that they must be perfect, good and successful. They do not understand why perfection, goodness or perhaps ongoing success, are often illusive. This is due to the fact these goals are those of the parents and not of the children; thus what is experienced as failure becomes the cause of their anxiety or depression.

Parental messages are transmitted in different ways; some directly, through verbal denigration that can be very clear: “You should have applied yourself more; you’ll never be as good as your brother.” Often, and perhaps even more destructive, the transmission is subtle and indirect, from the tone in the parent’s voice, a slight change in facial expression or body posture, to a total lack of acknowledgement or response as to what the child needs and who he is. Blatant disregard includes neglect, abuse, abandonment, an overt way to destroy the essence of a person.

Unconscious Projection
Parents generally do not intend to wear away at the integrity of the child’s innate personality, but a child always seeks his parents’ validation and draws deeply into his being that which displeases, often taking a huge toll on the child’s sense of safety in understanding who he is, his unique individuality, that he is good enough.

Over time, the child develops a confused sense of himself: on a deeper level, he or she knows that her identity is essentially good, but what the parents convey is that this is insufficient, unacceptable; it is at this point when the complexes can begin to grow and strengthen. As adults often complexes manifest themselves symptomatically in many ways including anxiety attacks that seem to come without provocation, depression that has control over the client, self doubt, repeated failed relationships and the belief that one can never get out from under the weighty blanket of hopelessness. Clients may be, on the unconscious level, aware that they are good and capable, but still fail to achieve satisfaction as sufficient or good enough employee, partner, student, parent.

Unraveling the Labyrinth
I work gently, taking the time to discover the origins of my clients’ pain. It is not unusual for one to be defensive about one’s childhood, unaware of the conflicted struggles with priorities. With little exception, even in abusive homes, I am aware that many parents love their children; it is the parents’ frustration with their own messages of inadequacy and lack of autonomy that they neglect to notice who the individual child is, what that particular child’s abilities and potentialities are and work with these aspects of personality, rather than their projected expectations that are more about the parents than the child.

Children take their parents’ messages and behaviors as absolutes. On a deeper level, there is often a quiet part that recognizes they are good, wishing for and needing validation. For the child, parents cannot be wrong; after all, if the parent doesn’t know what he or she is doing, then there is a fear of annihilation. Thus, the child ultimately forgets the authentic self and sees herself as bad. This takes hold when reinforced. A former client once described her upbringing in this manner: ”One buys a package of flower seeds with an image that depicts what the bloom will look like. When the plant flowers, if it does not look like the image on the package, one does not yank it from the earth. It has its own unique beauty, color, shape. My parents raised us like bonsai trees which are cut, wired and trained to grow as the cultivator intends.” Jung said, “A man's hatred is always concentrated upon that which makes him conscious of his bad qualities.” Although I believe he was addressing the struggle in society, it always comes down to what originates in the family. If the parent projects her failures and insecurities upon the child, the child will introject them as truths, eroding her natural abilities and encouraging confusion in identity as well as self doubt, often resulting in rebellious and defiant even self-sabotaging behavior that can continue across the lifespan. I think this is analogous to what Jung was addressing.

Separation and Individuation
The struggle to separate and individuate is challenging enough. When inhibited, it may well be the commencement of, as Sidoli puts it, “…frustration and tolerance ... for archetypal images of ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ in the psyche.” Parents must set boundaries and maintain a safe containment of their children; this facilitates the process and teaches their children many things, including emotional self-regulation. Jung identified individuation as a process through which one becomes a psychological individual, as Sidoli references, “a separate indivisible unit.” The parent must then identify that their own fear of inadequacy may not apply to their children. Children need limitations and containment; it affirms that they are loved and are being kept track of because they are loved. But it must be done without negation of who the individual child is, with encouragement of their healthy natural inclinations, capabilities and promise. The attachment between the parent and child then is deepened through mutual respect and responsibility for one another. In this way, the parent/child bond is deeply secured and the child’s individuality ensured; could this not then spread to healthier respect of all people?

-Barbara Darshan

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