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In this article I will describe a process that seems to be present to some extent in many families. If you do not recognise yourself in it at all, you probably had very wise parents. In that case, this article can help you to better understand other people’s behaviour.
Because of conditional love and unsupportive or manipulative environment, most children learn to unconsciously associate love to humiliation and power games, which is the reason for unconscious resistance to intimacy and opening up to another person.
Such a person has learned to fear expressing love, expecting to be then exploited and manipulated. Parents who are afraid that love might mean slavery, might be afraid to fully love even their own child, especially since children are “by default” demanding and usually testing their parents’ boundaries. Such parents can believe that it is their priority to “teach” children that they can not always “get their way“, even in situations when children’s needs are natural and their wishes modest.
When a parent rejects a child
A parent might see natural childish/immature behaviour as something wrong or unacceptable, creating a negative attitude towards the child’s personality, which is the result of a combination of following causes:
- immature expectations of perfection from other people in general, and one’s own child in particular
- some people might have unresolved conflicts with their own parents and project them onto the child (especially if grandparents were immature, so every immature behaviour of the child triggers memories of grandparents)
- negative feelings for one’s own inner child and its needs, feelings and requests (if the parent learned early to dislike and reject his own self).
Parent with these issues might perceive themselves as victims if their expectations are not fulfilled, and think that their children have spiteful and negative intentions. Such beliefs are reinforced as the relationship worsens (which can be expected if the child is not too scared to show resistance). Such a parent will not allow the child to learn through mistakes – which is the most natural way to learn. So children develop a feeling that mistakes mean something is essentially wrong with them – but how to avoid mistakes without adult experience?
Creation of inner conflict
For children, such labeling is a huge pressure. They might react with a conflict between love and blind trust on one side, and defensive anger on the other side. If you explore both of these feelings, you will probably describe them like this: either they (parents) are right and something is wrong with me; or they are wrong, they do not love me and they are being cruel – but why am I not loved? – in both cases, children conclude that they do not deserve to be loved.
According to Transactional Analysis, a child eventually adopts one of those two conclusions as a fixed idea, which leads to permanent “life positions”: “+/-” (I am OK, they are not OK) or “-/+” (I am not OK, they are OK), and more rarely “-/-” (neither I nor they are OK) or “+/+” (a position which is desired and healthy; I am OK and they are also OK). In my opinion, such fixed positions (or masks) dominate the outer behavior, while under the surface inner conflict continues. In other words, overconfident people are likely to hide inferiority feelings, while insecure people might easily be hiding criticism to others.
In such ways, some children conclude that love is slavery. They may fear that if they show love, they will be manipulated, humiliated or shamed. This may be generalized to all life as an existential anxiety, especially in intimate relationships, and carried over to next generations.
With time, both parents and children in such situations start to avoid considering peaceful conversation or understanding, fearing that reconciliation might lead to more disappointment and humiliation. This can make it particularly difficult for people to admit their own faults and responsibility, because of strong emotions and the energy invested into blaming others. This helps avoid guilt and fears that something is wrong with them.
Childish parts often perceive the world as either black or white, and may feel that, in a conflict, only one person can be right – not both. Therefore, if we admit that we made a mistake, we are bad, which triggers not only feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy, but also the idea that humiliation is a normal response to a mistakeOn the other hand, if we blame other person, the parts of us that still long for love are in pain and confusion.
Facing the conflict
We cannot resolve such conflicts until we recognize and heal deeply suppressed beliefs that we are somehow bad, that we do not deserve love, and that we are less worthy than others. We easily create such beliefs at young ages, when other family members seem as big as trees and act so self-assured. (Immature parents often emphasize their positions of power by underestimating children, or by openly mocking them).
As long as these parts of us exist, related emotions will burst out from time to time, which also activates the other side of the inner conflict. Strong feelings of inadequacy usually provoke a need to defend ourselves, which often comes out as anger and spite. Trying to choose between one and the other is a mistake. If we try this, we cannot resolve the conflict because neither of those parts is our true self. In Integrative Systemic Coaching, we resolve conflicts by exploring both parts, thus gradually approaching the original causes of such personality splits, which are usually covered up by a deep belief, “I cannot be me”.
I find it logical that an imbalance or immature behavior has its counterbalance in an opposite tendency, which is suppressed. In other words, a person who, at first glance, gives up easily and appears weak, probably suppresses feelings of aggression and hostility, while aggressive people often suppress fear and insecurity.
The same process is triggered not only by parents (although that is usually the most obvious) but in other situations that remind us of the original problematic circumstances, even if the only similarity is the possibility that our opinions might be wrong.
All those processes are very subtle, except in moments of crisis, and most people like to deceive themselves that they do not experience them just because they are very rarely aware of them.
A child of immature parents may feel pushed into taking responsibility for them; this creates fear and feelings of inadequacy, followed by guilt and defensive anger. As children are likely to make black-and-white conclusions and generalizations, they might expand their negative attitudes towards other irrational acts of others, resulting in unhealthy moralizing. Empty intellectualism is one possibility – escaping from feelings into thoughts. Such people often perceive expressions of feelings as weak and immature. The opposite extreme is delinquency – acts of spiteful children, who avoid responsibility and justify their behavior with perceived unfairness of others.
When describing these situations, I do not suggest you search for who to blame, rather to develop your empathy and understanding of yourself and others. If you want to resolve a problem, you first need to admit and accept it. In our work, blame is a waste of energy. It is important to recognize causes and consequences and take responsibility to work on the change.