I wasn't seen and loved exactly how I needed to be. And neither were my kids.
When I was in my 20s, at a time when I was trying to connect more deeply with a boyfriend, I had a powerful dream. I saw myself on a broad spiral staircase in a circular tower, like a lighthouse. I stood on a step and looked at a particular section of the wall that was new to me and yet, somehow, familiar. I leaned over the railing and below I could see the markings of different times when I’d had trouble trusting men but longed for their attention. Farther down, I knew, was my lack of relationship with my dad. The image stuck with me. Other meridians of the wall hold other life lessons for me – rebellion, dishonesty, body image, speaking up - lessons I encounter repeatedly as I ascend the staircase, view my wounds and challenges from new angles and discover more of my essential Self. It has become a beautiful guide in my life. But when I was in my 20’s, it was downright annoying. Oh no, not this again...
There’s such a shift in how we see our parents from birth to young adulthood. When we’re small and completely reliant on our parents, we see them as wise, benevolent and perfect. As teens developing our separate identities, we become acutely aware of our parents’ failings (and enjoy pointing them out). In our 20’s, we’re getting a broader perspective on life and realizing how our parents’ strengths and weaknesses, their words and behaviours, affected our development. For better or for worse. Do you remember that time in your life? Perhaps you’re witnessing it now in your own children. It's a tender process that takes courage and patience. It is one of the main transitions into adulthood and it’s too bad we don't have rituals to mark such milestones. It’s awkward, liberating, confusing, exciting and messy – like any sacred transformation. For me, it was a baffling and painful period, bouncing between anger and acceptance of my parents, owning and rejecting my character traits and the overwhelming desire to break free from it all and step into living my own life. I don’t think there are many among us who turned 24 thinking, ‘I was seen, heard, appreciated and loved exactly how I needed to be.’ We were parented by humans and so, naturally, there were gaps. And there are a variety of ways in which people in their 20s respond when they recognize these gaps: (Before we continue, I want to clarify that I’m not writing about the serious traumas experienced by way too many kids; I'm referring to childhood wounds from lesser events and dynamics, like unrealistic expectations, constantly being compared to others, emotionally unavailable caregivers, etc.)
Minimizing ‘Other people had it so much worse. I have nothing to complain about. My dad was always angry but he never hit me.’ When you diminish your wound, you negate or bypass the impact it had on your nervous system, muscles, bones and organs; the way it shaped how you carried yourself and interacted with others; and the lenses through which you developed your sense of yourself. Those are real impacts. When I hear people saying, ‘I just got over it,’ I always wonder if they have actually healed internally or swept the hurts under the carpet. Blaming themselves A young, undeveloped brain comes to a rational, but erroneous, conclusion: ‘It's my fault. I'm bad. I'm unlovable. If I was a better kid, then they wouldn’t do that.’ These anguished beliefs settle into the mind, heart and body…until they resurface in their 20s. Then they may manifest as aggression, self-harm, victimhood or dangerous behaviour. Or they may fester inside as self-hatred and depression. Either way, without being validated with skilled support, these feelings and perceptions lead to increasing disconnection and the collapse of families. Blaming their parents In some 20-year-old hearts, shifting out of self-blame leads to laying it at the feet of their parents. It makes sense but it only causes more long-term pain. I know this one really well. I spent way too long blaming my parents, not for being bad people (they certainly weren’t), but for not being able to do better. Of course, I was able to see how they had been shaped by their families of origin and their environments and that they were doing their best with what they had. I also needed to assert that I didn't deserve certain treatment. In my 20's, I was unkind to them and sometimes rejected them completely. Sorry, I was frustrated and confused and didn’t know how to express it. Of course, continuing to hold your parents responsible is counterproductive. It doesn't change your needs that weren't met. It inhibits your ability to attach to others. And when you blame others, you give up your power to change. Defending their parents My colleague, Sandra, spent most of her adult life defending her parents, especially to her siblings. She wanted to be fair and grateful to them for all they’d done. 'But I see now that I wasn’t allowing myself to acknowledge that the way they parented left me with some unmet needs. Needs that have been troublesome for me for years.’ As I said, there were gaps between how you were raised and the way you needed to be seen, heard, accepted and loved. Same for our kids. ~
The healing of healing childhood wounds involves significant changes in the heart too. To be able to work with the impressions, influence and injuries of your childhood and to be able to hold all that comfortably in your heart is not a small thing at all. Acceptance and forgiveness are not easy. They require more of you than you think you can handle. They require an expansion of the heart that you may or may not have familiarity with in your 20s. It can be daunting and disorienting. Acceptance and forgiveness take time, as you discover more of your true nature, learn to be with your reality and surrender to the bigger design of your life.
So go lightly, dear parent, when you find yourself back at a particular section of your tower wall again, that same tricky spot in your heart, that tender wound. Be self-compassionate and recognize what you know this time around that you didn't know last time, and how you handle yourself differently. Nod to the keepers and guides of that tender lesson and open to receive the next teaching. Feel into your humanness and make room for the new version of yourself that you will surely come to know in the next cycle. And go lightly with the young adult in your life who is experiencing the powerful pull between their loyalty to you and their impulse toward individuation. Give them space to register how your ways of being have shaped them, both building them up and giving them challenges they wish they wouldn't have to face. Be compassionate when you see them in the confusion of how to reconcile this in their developing minds and hearts. And love them as you experiment how to separate from you and stay attached to you. Trust that they will find what they can't yet see - their adult way of loving you.
REFLECTIONS What kind of space and support do you wish you had been given during that time in your life? Knowing your child as you do, what do you sense they (not you) need as they make this tender transition? Which of those needs are you able to meet? What knowing and capabilities do you have to do so?
With you on the journey,
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