Sigmund Freud was the founder of the first Viennese school of psychoanalysis and remains an icon for his work. He laid the groundwork for the “lay-on-the-couch-and-talk to me” therapist. “Talk therapy.” Being a Victorian gentleman, he also spent an unusual amount of time thinking about repressed feelings, sexual and otherwise. One of Freud’s biggest ideas that he got right digging around in the minds of his patients was that parents play a crucial role in molding the personalities and emotional health of kids. It’s an idea that continues, and is the subject of much research even today.
Prior to Freud, it was believed that parents taught certain behaviors to their offspring, using “please” and “thank you,” eat your veggies at supper, don’t eat cat poop, it’s bad for you. Freud offered the revolutionary idea that parents—through influencing a child’s unconscious—actually strongly determine how a child sees themselves and the world. He suggested that parents actually shape and mold a child’s enduring personality, for better or worse.
The idea instinctively made sense and over the next century, it took its place as an accepted part of our culture. This assumption has found its way into self-help books and movements of all kinds. In the 70s and 80s, self-help roundtables were designed around getting people to express “repressed” emotions, and in the midst of their fury, many also discovered “repressed” memories of childhood traumas that, as it turned out, may or may not have really happened. The part about creating new memories, e.g., those that didn’t really happen, caused quite a stir when it was brought to light; bad therapist…no tea!
In the 21st century, it has become normal and even acceptable to examine parents’ failings as some sort of justification for your own. It had become a universal topic among support groups, seminars, or therapy sessions. Self-development forums filled up with “poor me” stories about how parents weren’t loving enough, or never showed adequate understanding, and were somehow responsible for the current crisis.
Today, this idea of parent responsibility has become a cliché, a parody of itself. “Oh, mommy didn’t hug you enough? Let’s go drink Makers Mark and street race, you know, like, let’s be bad….” There’s a fine line between self-improvement and self-indulgence, and I’ve come to see in my coaching that this is one area where many people cross enthusiastically into self-indulgence.
Who’s To Blame?
For kids, everything is a struggle. Children are in endless need of guidance, support, and assistance. For the most part, parents provide the majority of those things. As children, we instinctively see our parents as infallible. There’s a deep sense of security that comes from the knowledge that our parents always have the answer, always know what’s right, and always know what to do next.
But one day, as we grow up, something chilling starts to happen. We realize that our parents have flaws. And we realize they, too, have problems. Sometimes those problems are indeed serious ones.
To make matters worse, once we hit our 20s and 30s, we start to realize that we too have “issues,” many of them similar to the problems that mom and dad had. At that point, it’s unlikely not to see some sort of relationship between mom and dad’s challenges growing up and our own issues as an adult. They’re too much alike to ignore.
Every parent messes something up with his or her kids. Sometimes they can really screw things up. We all do it. If you haven’t had kids, have faith; you are going to do it too. Partly because many of our problems have genetic roots, but also because it’s simply impossible to permanently control the environment in which your kids grew up.
When you continue to hold parents responsible for their negative influence on children’s lives, it is to return to the mindset of that very child. What you are doing is adopting a mindset where you feel entitled to have everything fixed for you and perceive the responsibility for your life to reside outside of yourself.
I get it, the mindset is alluring, it’s easy, but it’s a mindset that will destroy you and the life you want to build for yourself.
In my work, I define entry into adulthood as the relinquishing of the narcissistic and childish expectations of what our parents should have/could have provided for us, and what they should have/could have accomplished in raising us. True adulthood is letting go of the notion that mom and dad somehow left us with us all of our issues and owning that; regardless of where they came from, our problems are our own. Owning that we are responsible for ourselves, and while we can’t control our genetics (your parents are your parents) or our life history (your neighborhood was your neighborhood), we can always control what we do based on them, the choices we make each day.
True adulthood occurs when we realize that our parents didn’t create the hole that we discover ourselves in today. Quite the contrary, it’s the very same one they’ve been trying to climb out their whole lives. That the abuser was once the abused; the neglecter was once the neglected; the lazy one was surrounded by lack of ambition; it doesn’t really matter, your life is simply not all their fault. Freud was supposed to have said “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” (He was often photographed with a big ole cigar in his mouth) I don’t know if he really said it, but it doesn’t matter. The message is valid in any case. My adaptation of this classic phrase is “Sometimes a thing is just a thing.” Don’t beat yourself up.”
To be clear and swing this back at you, at some point, it doesn’t even matter whose fault it is, because it’s always your responsibility. So if it’s a big hole you find yourself in, stop digging and start climbing your way out. The top is there, and if you aren’t too sure, move towards the light; it doesn’t take a famous therapist, you can see it if you look.
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Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.