Relationships with our parents are notoriously difficult. When we children grow into adults, year after year, the same buttons still get pushed, the same grudges resurface. After years of repeatedly dealing with the same hang-ups, and for some, years of therapy, why is it so hard to accept our parents for who they are? What can we do to be better children to our parents?
Michael Berg replies:
The Wrong Why
There are no coincidences in this life. When it comes to the topic of family, we are each born into our situations for a specific reason. This reason is called tikun.
Tikun is a kabbalistic concept that means “correction.” In order for us to be happy and fulfilled, to reveal our potential, and to accomplish what we came to this world to accomplish, there must be a process of change we go through. Sometimes that change is effected simply by ourselves; other times it is people or events that push us in ways that force us to change.
Our parents are one of our greatest catalysts for change.
All the personality quirks and negative patterns created by our parents are, in fact, exactly what our souls had asked for in the upper worlds, where they chose the mother and father to whom they would be born. All the good and bad things we experienced growing up are meant to lead us towards a change that each of our souls needs to go through in order to achieve the purpose for which it came into this world.
Some of us are born to parents who judged, ignored, or hurt us. The choice for us becomes, are we going to be a slave to our past – “Why did they do this to me?” – or are we going to grow from the pain – “Why did I need them to do this to me?” One focuses on blame and victimhood; the other puts us in control of our lives.
Too often we ask the wrong why, and it becomes very difficult to move on.
We are meant to change the way we react to our parents’ behaviors. If we are responding now, as we did as children, clearly we are not growing from the situation – and we are missing an opportunity. The goal with our family is to get to a point where we can deactivate the buttons that our parents and family know all too well how to push.
This is a great way to gauge how much of a correction we have made. How diminished is my reaction? How much kinder can I be, even in the face of those old patterns and habits that our parents have? If our reaction changes in small or even great ways, then we can know we are achieving our correction.
But if we are many years out of childhood and yet still blaming our parents and reacting to them in the same old ways, then we are not correcting and doing the work we came here to do. However, if we have developed and evolved, then our reaction to our upbringing will be different. When we realize our soul needed to come into this particular household in order to break through, to grow from, and to become the person we need to become, we begin to let go of the anger, blame, disappointment – and all the guises of the victim mentality. When we realize how necessary this was for us, we can then forgive and grow thankful. Ultimately, when we reach this level of thankfulness, having gone through the stages of change, transformation, letting go, growth, and forgiveness, we come to a point where we can start helping our parents.
It is easy to forget that our parents have their own tikun. They need us just as much as we need them to effect their own change and correction. We can assist them, provided we understand this concept and integrate it into our lives in a very real and practical way. Then we can open a window to shine Light into their lives.
I have one last thing to add regarding thankfulness. Sometimes there is a great opening for healing when we simply respect the fact that, whatever it is we experienced growing up, our parents gave us life and sustained us materially, if not always emotionally. How quickly we negate this fact by focusing only on the bad things they had done. That is why it is such a beautiful consciousness to have, especially during times of family get-togethers, to find those good aspects within them; to awaken a level of thankfulness for the positive things we know they’ve done, and to change our perspective so that we may see them in a new light.
When you are sitting around the dinner table this holiday, rolling your eyes and shaking your head, remember to ask yourself:
- What does my soul need to learn from my family?
- What beautiful qualities do my parents possess?
This will create a powerful - if not perfect - connection within your family. And it will deepen understanding of your soul’s purpose in this world.
– Michael Berg
Michael Berg is a Kabbalah scholar and author. He is co-Director of The Kabbalah Centre, www.kabbalah.com. You can follow Michael on twitter, twitter.com/inspiringchange. His latest book is, What God Meant.
Cynthia Bourgeault replies:
As the old truism goes: “No wonder our parents can push our buttons; they’re the ones who installed them in the first place!” While the notion of Original Sin has mostly fallen out of favor nowadays, with only a slight adjustment of the terminology — re-envisioning it as a “web of woundedness” — it comes right back in line with the temper of our times. We are all, inescapably, caught in a web of woundedness; because we receive our lives from imperfect beings and pass on the gift of life while we are still far from perfect ourselves.
I was a child bride when I married at age twenty, and I spent the next fifteen years growing up — at the expense of my two daughters. We can all laugh about it now — a trifle nervously. The wounds are right below the surface, and any lapse of consciousness can instantly plunge us into a replay of old scenarios.
My friends and students are constantly telling me, “Wow, you’ve really grown over the past few years!” With my daughters, it’s striking that the response is usually exactly the opposite: a slightly exasperated “Mom, you haven’t changed a bit!” While there are many reasons for this discrepancy, the one that comes closest to hitting the nail on the head is that families are the guardians of that thread of continuity in all of us. They are the keepers of our human timeline over long, long decades, and in that sense bring a tempering to our own illusions of progress and the projections of friends who know us more superficially. And this is a good thing! When Gwen or Lucy comment on a change in my patterns, I know I’m really getting somewhere! And when they keep drawing my attention back to what in the inner work group I belonged to for many years was known as “chief feature,” I have to acknowledge in all humility that I belong, inescapably, to the web of woundedness — just like all human beings. It is the most fundamental ground of our common humanity.
That being the case, the tools we need to engage are consciousness and compassion. Consciousness is the ability to step back from our own agendas and automatic behaviors and see the wider pattern; without this capacity, spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle claims, “All relationships are deeply flawed.” Compassion is the capacity to move beyond our own sense of entitlement and victimhood and move inside the other person’s heart. When I stop blaming my own mother for all the ways she failed me and start seeing the ways in which her own life was a courageous response to circumstances beyond her control; when I realize that she gave me the very best that she could and stood by me in her own way to the very end, then my heart softens: not just for her, but for my own wounded self.
It was my three-year-old daughter Gwen, incidentally, who first taught me to do this. While I was still a child bride bouncing off the walls, it was Gwen’s grandmother who first really saw and honored the beauty lurking in a ragamuffin toddler. And Gwen’s unabashed adoration of her beautiful, ladylike grandmother was the first thing that knocked the wind out of the sails of my reactive patterns. Healing is really a three-generation proposition.
And yes, there is no way our kids will escape from the web of woundedness. It’s part of our human birthright, and I believe that no amount of consciousness, maturity, and sincerity will relieve a child of her or his own piece of the family bloodline, and, as the Buddhists would say, karma. That shouldn’t be our goal. Instead, we need to be modeling for our children the “three h’s” — honesty, humility, and humor — which will allow us to cope with our imperfections and extend that same forbearance to others. Compassion and forgiveness are far more powerful virtues than even a “steady-state” maturity (if such a thing actually exists), and our family systems provide the perfect laboratory in which those alchemical virtues can be produced.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Gweneth B. Rehnborg replies:
I’m no expert in either the spiritual or psychological realm, so take my answer with a grain of salt. It’s just my perspective. I think that accepting parents for “who they are” is intertwined with accepting ourselves and recognizing the role parents play in our adolescent lives. As much as it can be comforting to attribute “who we are” to our upbringing, when it comes right down to it, we all write our own back-stories. For example, you’re equally likely to hear a famous chef claim, “I’m a great cook because my mother was a great cook and she taught me everything I know” as you are, “I’m a great cook because my mother was a lousy cook and I was sick of eating crap food.” Think of Alice Waters’ story versus that of Ruth Reichl. Great cooks are great because they developed an interest, chose to pursue it, learned how to do it, practiced, and got a few lucky breaks along the way. In effect, your life is your own to screw up or make successful. Although it’s tempting to insert parents into the narrative, for better or worse, you are responsible for what you’ve accomplished.
Parents want the best for their kids, but sometimes, without even realizing they’re doing it, they conflate their own insecurities, disappointments and dreams with those of their children causing everyone to feel like they don’t measure up. This, coupled with a life-long history of bumbling around each other, gives fuel to button pushing. Getting along with your parents requires a conscious choice to avoid the buttons, which is easier said than done as anyone who has ever watched a three-year-old on an elevator can attest.
My mom and I learned how to do this best when I had kids. I’m sure in some ways our situation is unique since my mom is a spiritual leader and travels the world teaching things even after reading her books and hearing her speak, I can only barely grasp. Still, it wasn’t until I saw my mom reach out to my children and teach them useful life lessons that I was able to see her and the gifts she has to give the world from the perspective of others. As a result of mom’s influence, my six-year-old now “meditates” while having her hair put in ponytails and her older brother used his “jedi warrior attention training” to handle a recent broken bone with remarkable calm. That goes a long way in the process of moving on from past mistakes and looking forward.
As a parent, when I feel this same thing begin to happen with my own children, I think of my mother-in-law who tells the story of her nightly prayers for my husband as he was growing up. In his childhood her prayers contained high aspirations, hoping for the right schools, good grades, and future career successes and all the typical hopes and dreams of a loving mother. By the time he was a teenager her prayers simplified. “Dear God. Just keep him alive.” Amen to that.
So, what can we do to be better children to our parents?
- Don’t blame your parents or give them too much credit for the person you are today.
- Try to separate your successes and failures from their own and engage them with the same interest and respect you’d show a friend.
- Be curious and ask them questions now because it can all of a sudden be too late and their history is important.
- Give them as much access to your kids as you can. Grandparents have the benefit of hindsight coupled with a lack of the general parental anxiety that we all carry. They will most likely do a better job with your kids than they did with you. Let them!
- And finally, here’s a wacky, but perhaps useful exercise… sit down and write your parents’ resume. Think about the frame of mind you’re in when you write your own. You present yourself in the best light, highlighting your strengths and accomplishments and leaving out the faults. In that light, when you see your parents on paper, you just might realize how fortunate you are to have them in your life.
– Gweneth B. Rehnborg
Born into a family of artists and mystics, Gweneth B. Rehnborg, daughter of Cynthia Bourgeault, learned early to make practical logistics her strong suit, specializing in the nonprofit and health sectors. Gwen earned a masters degree at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and has worked in humanitarian relief, public relations and health and fitness. Currently Gwen lives in Hong Kong with her husband and three children and aspires to write a book.
Julia Turshen replies:
I got really lucky with my parents. No seriously, they’re incredible (and this year marks their 30th wedding anniversary — no small achievement, especially for people who actually like to be around each other). I share them with my brother, which is to say two of us were blessed by being the children of a couple of insanely creative, forever wise and intensely loving people. In thinking about how we all got to have such a fulfilling, supportive, meaningful relationship, I realize it has less to do with luck than it does with an abundant amount of mutual admiration. While laughter invigorates our family (especially that with which we respond to our own jokes), respect seems to fuel it.
To accept our parents for who they are is to acknowledge them as human. Sounds simple, but it’s complicated by the seductive belief that our parents are always right, that they magically know everything and can miraculously protect us from actions they have no control over. Additionally, it often seems that they’re immune to the things we most dread — embarrassment, humiliation, even mortality. To let go of all that is to give up on a particular hopefulness; but no parent, no anyone, can meet such irrational, inflated expectations. In realizing our parents are simply people — imperfect, inconsistent, and capable of vulnerability — is surely frightening, but mostly it’s liberating. When we let go of the idea of them as our invincible protectors, providers, and proponents, we’re left with them themselves; they know us in a way no one else can or will. The moment of acceptance is not so much a defining one, but rather a redefining one.
Thinking about all this, one particular story comes to mind. After the passing of my grandfather this past spring, I spent some time at home. My family spent the immediate week deep in grief and in the strange, calm love that trails its way through grief. One morning, days after the funeral and all the rituals we’re prescribed to deal with such a huge loss, I was sitting in my parents’ living room, the one my father so precisely and affectionately designed, flipping through a book. My father came in and we talked for a moment, everything copacetic. He was on his way out of the room when he paused ever so slightly. He didn’t say anything, there was just hesitation in his movement. I asked him if he was okay and he replied that he was having a hard time. I had nothing to say. My father had just lost his parent and was experiencing an enormous vacancy that nothing could or ever will replace; the only possible comfort, it seemed, was the knowledge of the wonder that once filled the space. It suddenly hit me that this wasn’t my parent in front of me nor was it my closest friend (though he is both things). This was someone’s child and, beyond that, what he is to me was just taken from him. In this realization, in this pretty straightforward but somehow profound realization, I hugged my father and he cried for quite a while. I don’t know how long we stood there, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how safe we both felt, how honest and unabashed that exchange was.
I didn’t do anything special in that moment. I reacted the way any friend, any loved one would. The key is that I expected nothing from my father. I am often comforted by him, secured by his advice, protected by his support. In that small moment I was able to accept him completely, without wanting or needing anything in return. And, in its own elegant way, that zero expectation — that seeming nothingness — wasn’t just enough, it was everything.
– Julia Turshen
Julia Turshen, a frequent contributor to goop, is a food writer based in New York City. Most recently, she worked on Spain: A Culinary Road Trip