Overcoming Pain From Imperfect Parents

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One of the most difficult psychological hurdles for many of my patients to clear is assessing whether or not they were well-loved as children, adolescents and young adults.

Looking back at your life in order to answer this question is not self-indulgent and doesn’t represent blaming anyone for your problems. It’s a responsible step in assessing whether your adult decisions are being unduly influenced by bad instincts rooted in the past.

People tend to repeat patterns in their lives, whether good or bad. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true, that many of us reproduce in our adult relationships—including our marriages—what we experienced growing up, in our relationships with our parents and siblings. We do this because we were so exquisitely open, sensitive and vulnerable during our developmental years. We needed warmth and security to survive, and would have traded away anything (if need be) to get it—including our self-esteem. And here's the really important point: If we traded away self-esteem back then and fail to realize we did so out of desperation (rather than out of love), we might do it again as adults.

Experiments with animals show that when baby monkeys (for instance) receive electric shocks whenever they cuddle with their moms, they don’t flee their mothers, they cling more tightly to them. The experiments are a good metaphor for the way human beings react to cruelty or indifference or manipulation from their parents; they tend to try to get closer to them, not to flee them.

That kind of reaction—getting closer to painful situations or disappointing people—can stay with a person for a lifetime.

A clear view of exactly how you were treated as a child allows you to choose relationships more wisely as an adult. Did a parent prefer alcohol to you? Did a parent put romantic adventures ahead of you? Were you made to fear a parent, rather than respect him or her? Were your dreams ridiculed? Whatever toxic dynamic you identify (if there is one) when you look back at the early chapters in your life story, be careful not to accept it as an adult.

If you do find yourself seemingly locked in a relationship (whether in romance or at work or anywhere else) that requires you to “willingly” suffer emotionally (or physically), think about which early relationship in your life you’re reproducing. Maybe if you find that you are recreating a familiar, but toxic drama you survived at home, you can finally decide you are worth more.

Again, none of this is meant to encourage folks ducking responsibility for their choices. It is meant to allow them to make more informed choices, fueled by real free will. It is meant to allow them to escape the gravity of the flawed orbits we tend to travel again and again and again in life, because we too often keep our eyes closed during the whole trip.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. He is a New York Times best-selling author, and co-author, with Glenn Beck, of the book "The 7: Seven Wonders That Will Change Your Life". Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.