Our Parents Don't Need Our Emotional Protection | Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

Many of us owe a lot to our flawed fathers and struggle with having adult anger at parents. A large portion of the men I work with point to their father’s resilience, sacrifice, work-ethic, and ability to constantly provide for the family. They’ll tell me they weren’t abused or abandoned. They just wish he could have been….something. A little more open. A little more free with his feelings. Maybe even broke down once or twice–just to show that he had it in him.

And to show that it was ok to do it.

There’s a stereotype in therapy that you’re going to learn to hate your parents. The stereotype usually follows the mother, but dad gets his share of bad press too (take this recent New Yorker cartoon for instance.) Well, contrary to local legend, hating your parents is not de rigueur for therapy–in fact, unless your parents have done something unforgivable, then it’s probably not even a good thing to strive for.

What we do want, and what will help us out in all our other relationships (siblings, partners, co-workers, friends) is having an honest understanding and a full range of feelings toward the ones who raised us. This includes expressing anger toward our parents even as adults.

From Black & White to Gray

While it’s honest and important for a father to say that sometimes, his son or daughter, his bundle of joy, his reason for living, can sometimes be a little s**t and drive him out of his mind. We can’t have intimate relationships, true, deep intimate relationships, without really feeling both deep negative and positive feelings for that person.

It’s part of growing up. You ever talk to a child who gets in a big fight and is never, ever, absolutely not ever going to talk to Henry again–only to hear the next day that she and Henry spent the whole day together playing and having a great time? It’s infuriating.

Kids are very black and white. They hate you. They love you. And never the twain shall meet. But that’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about. Younger children don’t yet have the capacity to have full relationships.

A hidden message in fairy tales is all about this. You have your evil step-mother and your wonderful birth mother (usually dead). One is perfect, the other is horrible and wicked.

Well, all those who feel that fairy tales are terrible because they make the step-parent evil get ready for your mind to be blown. Spoiler alert: “evil step-mother” and “dead, wonderful birth mother” are the SAME PERSON. These stories are written (told, actually–the Grimm brothers collected them from townsfolk in Germany) from a child’s perspective and they see people in black and white (no, not just race, that’s different).

Folktales to Real Life

Your toddler loves that you play with him, feed him, soothe him–that you do all these great things. Unfortunately, you do lots of terrible things too. You make him go to bed when he doesn’t want to. You don’t pick up the ball for the thirty-seventh time, and worst of all, sometimes you leave. Your child is thinking: “This isn’t that awesome daddy. He must have been replaced with some horrible, mean, evil daddy. And I hate this guy!”

It takes a while for a child to get that one person can make you laugh and make you cry. And that on the whole, they’re ok.

We, hopefully, grow out of this. (If we don’t, we may be suffering from something called a personality disorder which makes it very hard for us to see people as complex and capable of both loving us while occasionally falling short.) We have a friend who is awesome, but sometimes they get really anal and it bugs us and sometimes we’ll avoid them, but in the end, they’re important to us. We forgive this about them, we ignore it, we accommodate it, we may even joke about it. Whatever we do, it doesn’t stop us from being their friend. This is the world of gray.

Seeing Our Parents in Full

As we grow up and if we still have our parents around us, we have a chance to shift in our understanding of them. We go from seeing them as all knowing, all powerful beings who live to serve us–and slowly realize they are people who have their own lives apart from us. They have relationships with each other, with our siblings, with their own friends and their own parents. We are hurt by them when they’re selfish (or when they’re just not meeting our needs), we feel proud when they appreciate what we do. We can see them as complex.

Now accepting them as complex is different. Accepting their limitations while loving them is a challenging, but a very adult way to be. And this is a major stumbling block for clients that I often see in my work.

Once we begin to get close to some deep, long-felt, rarely expressed adult anger at our parents, the client will pull himself back, often because of guilt, and chide himself for feeling this way.

Protecting Too Much

What happens is that the client will feel the need to remind me how he was never hit as a child, or that dad always came home, or didn’t cheat on his wife. I’m not sure if they’re trying to convince me that their father wasn’t an all bad guy, or they’re just so worried that if they unleash whatever they’ve been holding on to that something bad is going to happen. Their language becomes “young” and they’ll tell me they don’t want to sound like an “ungrateful, spoiled brat.”

This is often a sign to me that their parents weren’t able to handle their anger. it was too threatening. And if your parent doesn’t show you that he or she can handle your anger, then you’re going to struggle with your anger because you’ve never learned how to be angry. At least you never learned how to be angry in a healthy and appropriate way.

This is so ingrained that the client can’t even express their adult anger at his parent even when he’s not in the room! Some say they’re afraid that they’ll end up hating him if they let it all out. But we need to push through that fear because on the other side is the ability to fully love your father. Not just the generous, reliable guy that he was, but also for the guy he wasn’t –or isn’t. For clients who can work through this, some even find new ways to connect with their dad because they weren’t just avoiding the “evil step” parent and waiting for the Good Father to come back.

Finding Your Way Back

And it is work.

But our parents don’t need our emotional protection–especially when they’re not even in the room. The need to protect them may even be getting in the way of all of your other relationships as well. But it doesn’t have to and you don’t have to let it.

It does mean that you’re going to need to allow yourself to trust that if you let out your emotions that you can find your way back.

And that’s what we do in counseling. The goal is to free us to have the relationships we want. With our parents and anyone else.

If you find that you’re struggling to connect to others the way you’d like to and want some support in moving through this difficult process, please contact me via email or phone and we’ll set up a 15-minute free consultation to talk about what’s going on and how I can help you. Looking forward to talking.