Some people come to therapy full of negativity and anger toward parents whom they hold responsible for the way they feel and the lives they live. For example, they might explain their difficulties in relationships by referring to a parent’s emotional coldness, criticalness, or divorce. Or they will fault a parent’s lack of encouragement and involvement when they were growing up for their failure to do well academically or professionally. Blaming parents for their struggles keeps these people stuck in angry, anxious, and depressed feelings, and interferes with their ability to think about what they could do to make their lives different.
“Gloria” came to her first therapy session with me and immediately began to talk. Sounding irritated, she explained, “I’m here because I can’t take it anymore. I hate my life. I’m either angry or depressed. I’m 29 years old and I haven’t been in a relationship for more than three months. I can’t seem to keep my jobs for much more than a year. For nine months, I’ve been working as an assistant in a recruiting firm where I answer phones and type résumés. I know I’m smarter than that, but I don’t know what else I want to do. I seem to go from one dead-end job to another. I’m such a loser.” Then Gloria sobbed, “I am just so stuck.”
Gloria began therapy. She typically entered my office with heaviness and depression, and talked about how miserable her life was and how hopeless she felt. She believed that nothing could change. When I asked her why, she thought she was stuck in this awful place, her lethargic demeanor changed to anger, and her voice turned strong.
“How could I change?” she said. “It’s all about my childhood. My parents separated when I was 5. My father left the house and I rarely saw him. Sometimes he would take me for a weekend, but I never believed he really wanted to. He met this woman, Fran, and all he ever talked about was her. They got married when I was 7, and then he moved to another state. I would visit them three or four times a year. She had two daughters. I could see how much he loved Fran. He never looked at me like that. He would criticize how I dressed and compare me to my stepsisters. I hated them. I could never get anything right, and they were so pretty and perfect, and I could see they were the children he wanted. When I would go home to my mother and complain, she would hardly listen. She never seemed very interested in me, either. She had a big, important job, and as I grew up, I didn’t see so much of her. She never got very involved in anything I did. She would even get nasty and critical if I told her about something good that happened. I remember when I told her that I had been asked to run for class secretary in middle school. She laughed at me and said, ‘You’ll never get elected, so you shouldn’t run. You’re just not popular enough.’ I believed everything she said about me, so I didn’t run. By middle school she had a serious boyfriend and she was always with him and never had time for me. I never thought I was good enough for much. When I think about it now, I can see my mother was really into herself and I think she was competitive with me. I don’t think she wanted me to succeed or dress well or have boyfriends. I guess she is still getting her way.”
The more I learned about Gloria’s childhood, the more I could understand why it was so difficult for her to have positive feelings about herself and to believe that if she worked at something, she could succeed. She consistently assumed people’s responses toward her would be negative personally and professionally. While her expectations were understandable in light of her childhood experiences, she was able, when pushed, to come up with memories of positive relationships, work experiences, and even good feelings about herself. Nevertheless, these exceptions to what she anticipated did not go very far in allowing her to step back and consider that she was not (in her words) “doomed to fail.”
It became clear to me that Gloria was stuck in blaming her parents for how she saw herself and how her life turned out. What made it so hard for her to move on? Was there some risk in letting go of her anger? Was there a downside to not living up to what she saw as her parents’ view of her? Was there something positive in it for her to blame her parents? These were the questions that occurred to me as I listened to Gloria, who presented herself repeatedly as a victim who would always be at the mercy of the impact of her past treatment by her parents.
I began to raise these questions to Gloria, who became curious about them. She began to consider the risks of letting go of her anger and blame. She talked about worrying that she would be letting her parents “off the hook” if she stopped blaming them or being angry. “They know how I feel and I like to think I make them feel guilty,” she said. “When I was a kid, they never seemed to expect me to amount to much. They’ve gotten what they wanted, but I do think I’ve managed to finally make an impact. I think I’ve succeeded in making them feel guilty. If my life got better, maybe they wouldn’t feel so bad or guilty. I feel bad and I want them to feel bad.”
At first, when Gloria continued to talk about her desire to hurt her parents, she smiled and said, “Now that I understand that this is what I’m doing, I have to say that revenge is sweet.” She would also get angry in our sessions and acknowledge that this new awareness created a real conflict for her. “Rationally, I get that it’s me,” she said. “I can see that I think my parents are responsible for my being a failure. They made me this way, so I’ll be the loser they created. I want to hurt them. I guess I could work on getting the life I’m always moaning that I’ve never had, and I know that would be the best thing for me. But I just don’t want to give them any good stuff.”
As we continue to talk about this conflict, which creates great anguish for Gloria, she has not been able to choose to work on giving up her anger and blame. However, she is considerably less attached to viewing her life through the lens of doom and failure caused by her parents. She has begun to take some steps to get more for herself. She has gotten a promotion to recruiter, and has made a placement that will double her income this year. She has also enrolled in a management class at a local college. We’ve even begun to talk about online dating. As Gloria continues to work in therapy, I believe she will achieve more for herself and gradually be able to see her identity in a new way and identify less and less as a victim. As she allows herself to experience the satisfactions of success, I am hopeful that the pleasure of revenge will be less gratifying.
My work with Gloria is just one illustration of the ways in which blaming your parents can keep you stuck. There is a terrible paradox in these situations: You are angry and blame your parents’ treatment of you growing up for your unhappiness and failures in your adult life. But the wish for revenge and these angry, blaming feelings keep the connection and repeat the relationship between your “bad parents” and you, the unsuccessful, unhappy child. As a result, you are stuck in the position where you cannot become the person you say you wish to be or create the life you say you desire.
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