This post was originally published on my Inquiring Parent blog on Sep 10, 2013, and was updated on April 26, 2018.
In the weeks before my father died, we had many conversations. Sometimes, he expressed regrets. He hinted that my sister and I had done better at parenting than he did. He thought he’d done things that weren’t kind; he said he hoped he could be forgiven.
It didn’t feel good when my father compared himself unfavourably to me. Yet, so often, especially if people didn’t have happy childhoods, they spend time and energy trying to compare themselves favourably to their parents. They want to do it better, they want to avoid the same mistakes, or give their children what they never had. Often, they also just want to be better.
Trying to be better than someone else doesn’t work. That might seem a controversial statement, but try this short exercise and you’ll understand.
What wanting to be better actually gives us: a short exercise
- Think about something you believe your parents got wrong and that you want to do better.
- Pay attention to what comes into your mind: what you notice most will depend on whether you are more visual, aural or kinesthetic, but we’ll cover all three.
- Notice the images.
- Notice the sounds you hear – in particular, the voices and your own thoughts.
- Notice the feeling of all of this: how your body feels and the overall atmosphere.
How was that? My guess is the images were of what you don’t want to do, the sounds were what you don’t want to say and the feelings were uncomfortable. When we want to do better than someone else what generally comes to mind is whatever it is we don’t want.
What happens when we hold in mind what we don’t want
When we hold in mind what we don’t want, we no longer fully connect with what is here right now. This has implications for all of us, and particularly for parents.
Here are a few consequences I’ve noticed in myself or others:
- We hold onto feelings from the past. Grief, sadness, anxiety, and anger are common emotions people experience when they can’t let go of the past.
- We experience internal conflict: our minds are torn between the images of what we don’t want and the desire to do things differently.
- If we are parents, we worry about how our children will be in the future and anticipate they will have the same problems we did. With little room for what is right in front of us, we miss cues that indicate what our kids actually need. For instance, let’s say you were left alone a lot as a child and longed for your mother to play with you. You decide your child will never suffer this way. In your determination to be there for her, you might miss your child’s longing for solitude.
Some of you might be thinking: my parents abused me, so why would I not want to be a better parent than them? Why would I want to do what they did?
I’m not suggesting that you should do what they did. Far from it. However, if you dwell on the terrible things they did, you’re still suffering even though it’s past and gone. It’s not always easy to just switch off our feelings or memories and there’s nothing wrong with feeling anger, but holding onto it because of something your parents did twenty, thirty or forty years ago is toxic to you right now. I knew a woman in her nineties who still resented her mother. Then she had a stroke and let go.
Don’t wait that long. You deserve more so get the support you need to heal. Don’t do it so that you can be a better parent and treat your children how you wish you’d been treated, but so that you can heal. You are worth it, not just your kids. You might even discover you naturally become more able to deal with whatever challenges family-life brings. (I did.)
The more we feel stuck in emotions like anxiety or anger, the harder it is to respond to what’s here now. In their article The Cost of Blaming Parents, psychologists Joshua Coleman, Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip Cowan say that when we can’t forgive our parents we are more likely to repeat old family patterns. Realising that our parents were ill-equipped (rather than bad) actually makes us more able to set limits if their behavior continues to be abusive and that this also better enables us to find our own way of doing things.
On the other hand, if we hold onto anger, we’re more likely to react to people including our children as if we’re reacting to our parents all those years ago.
Then there’s this: sometimes, even when we think we remember something clearly, we get it wrong, or we get part of it wrong. Or we muddle memories together. Research scientists who recorded people’s memories after 9/11 found that people were only 60% accurate with memory details after a year, and even less after three years. What’s really interesting is some people said their first account must be wrong, not their memories!
Many scientists think we’re also more likely to remember negative events than positive ones. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we would remember times we felt in danger – because this programs us to avoid that situation again. We also remember things more clearly when our emotions are running high.
Put those all together and of course, we’re going to remember the things our parents did that had a negative impact on us – and to magnify this as time goes by. Here’s an example from my own life. When I was very young, I developed a facial tic. The more anxious I felt, the worse it got. I grew up believing my dad disapproved and so I tried to control it, which made things even worse. Decades on, I realise I have no idea whether my dad chastised me once or a hundred times. My own fear of people’s disapproval was what controlled my life, not what happened (or didn’t happen) in my childhood.
A new type of thinking
Einstein is often quoted as saying, “You can never solve a problem on the level of thinking on which it was created.” While it’s more likely he actually said, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to a higher level, the sentiment remains true.
What is that new type of thinking that can help us to move to higher levels – in parenting and in life? It’s the type of thinking that creates compassion and love. It’s the type of thinking that means we go of trying to see ourselves as better than others in order to feel good about ourselves; it’s the type of thinking that values co-operation rather than competition. It’s the type of thinking that allows us to live in the present, not dwelling on what happened years ago. Instead of looking for who is to blame or who is right or wrong, this type of thinking notices who is hurting and seeks to heal.
On the surface, it’s easier to blame someone else for causing hurt than it is to face our part – even if our part is simply replaying painful memories in our minds again and again.
But in my experience, the work it takes to shift perspective is worth it a thousand times over. The more I let go of wanting to do a better job than my parents, the more I began to see that the incidents I had held onto as evidence were memorable because they were not the norm. When my father was berating himself for things he thought he’d done wrong, I told him this. I also told him that anything he had ever done that hurt anyone had been outweighed a thousand times by the kindness and love he gave. It wasn’t a platitude to ease the conscience of dying man. It was true.
I now realise that when my parents said or did things that they later regretted they were feeling under stress. So they were the same as I am, as we all are. Instead of trying to make myself better than someone else, I feel much happier when I notice our common humanity. That happiness, in turn, makes me better able to deal with whatever is in front of me so I more easily treat others the way I’d like to be treated.
*From: The Real Problem is in the Hearts of Men, New York Times Magazine – June 23, 1946
Russian Dolls photo by Louise Thomas