Barely a day goes by when somebody doesn’t ask me how much they should blame their parents for problems that might have arisen in childhood. No matter what the specific issue, my response is always the same: Hold your parents accountable for anything wrong they said or did. But hold yourself accountable for undoing the damage in the here-and-now.
Children are vulnerable. I maintain that infants are born virtually tabula rasa, meaning “blank slate.” Parents can write on that slate whatever they wish. But even young children have their own temperaments, and as they mature they become more capable of forming concepts. This does not guarantee rational thinking, but it does allow for independent thinking.
According to cognitive research done by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, the capacity for abstract independent thought appears in the early teens. In today’s media-filled world, young adults are free to think for themselves.
Given that emotions arise from thoughts and ideas, one cannot blame one’s present psychological health (or lack thereof) on his or her parents. Their time of influence has come and gone. We are exposed to all sorts of outside psychological influences as we grow up.
You’d think that being a therapist for over 25 years would have shown me exactly how people are shaped by their parents. Not so. But it has shown me how heroically independent people can be, IF they’re willing to think and question. Unless you’re raised by extraordinarily thoughtful, rational parents — which is certainly possible — you’re in a position to question much of anything you were taught.
Most dysfunctional or abusive parents declare war on the child’s capacity to think and his or her need to be independent. Indeed, this is the very essence of what makes them dysfunctional or abusive. They probably do it to the child because they do it to themselves. It’s an extension of their own self-negligence. It’s healthy to stand back and judge your parents objectively and see them for whom they are: good, bad or some mixture of both. People who don’t do this are usually the ones more prone to getting stuck in “playing out” the kinds of unresolved conflicts they never objectively addressed in their parents. This objective judgment I recommend sets you free to sail into new waters, away from what you’ve known (or not known) in the past.
A lot of people fail to seek out better methods of thinking and coping than what their parents showed them. The resulting disappointments set them looking for someone to blame. And that’s the first mistake. It’s not about blaming anyone; it’s about holding yourself responsible for errors you’ve made that might have been fostered by your parents. As an adult, you’re now free to reject these errors — or not.
It’s easy to cop-out and say, “My parents were negligent. Therefore I’m ruined forever.” Nobody has that power over you — not even your parents. When we think of a little child, we think of a helpless, vulnerable person. But it’s not valid to project that helplessness and vulnerability onto your adult self. If a person does in fact resort to that, they’re doing themselves an injustice. It might feel like you’re bringing justice to your parents, but in fact you’re harming yourself.
Yes, you should look clearly at reality, and plainly acknowledge any wrongdoing or negligence on the part of your parents. If the situation warrants, you should even feel free to tell them so. But that’s not the same as blaming them for ‘ruining’ you. The fact that you can think for yourself is proof that the most important part of you is saved. The rest is your decision.
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