Then a friend confided in me that she was scared to death that her mother—who doesn’t show her much love or approval—was right about her. And someone else turned to me when her relationship with her parents unraveled because they couldn’t accept some of her lifestyle choices.
I have a rule that if the Universe brings something to my attention more than once, I listen. So here we are.
The issue takes many forms. Sometimes your parent can’t show unconditional love because of their own mental, emotional or substance abuse issues. Sometimes they seemingly could love and accept you if they wanted to, but they can’t find the courage to forgive, or tell the truth, or do the hard work it sometimes takes to make a relationship work.
Maybe your parent is technically still in your life but not in your life in any meaningful way. You just don’t seem to relate to each other or connect the way you’d like. Or maybe they’ve stopped speaking to you altogether. They might even ignore your calls and choose to have no relationship at all.
I’m in the latter camp.
It sucks when your parent disapproves, regardless of the circumstances. It matters not how old you are or how many of your own children you’ve raised.
It matters not how mentally suspect said parent is. It doesn’t even matter that you coach people through relationship issues, or that those people often claim that you’ve helped them repair their relationships. Sometimes you still can’t repair your own.
As I know from having dealt with this for some time now—and as you know if you’ve been dealing with it, too—there are many layers to it all. Rotating aspects of this difficult situation that taking their turn in the spotlight.
Here are some common parts that make this situation really suck:
1. The Part about Believing Them
We’re biologically wired to look to our parents for information about Who We Are. That natural tendency to base our identity on what our parents think never completely goes away.
As adults, we realize our parents’ judgment isn’t foolproof. Their perception is colored by their own painful history or poor choices. But innocent little kids don’t know this. Mommy and Daddy have to be trustworthy and all-knowing; if they’re not, our safety and survival is in danger.
By the time we’re old enough to see the truth, we already have years of experience believing them. The mental rut is worn; the habit well-cemented.
So even if you’ve created a fabulous life for yourself and you’re proud of who you are; even if you’ve learned to love yourself and truly believe in your own worth as much as is humanly possible…when mom or dad disapproves, you’re going to question yourself for at least a second, maybe longer. Usually longer.
You’re going to temporarily set aside everything you know and love about yourself and automatically believe your parent. You’ll wonder, “Are they right about me?” no matter how absurd their opinion may be.
But then, if you’re blessed with the gift of awareness (or if you work hard to foster it like the rest of us), you can refocus and listen to your own judgment. You can remember, “Oh yeah, mom and dad don’t know me the way I know me. They have their own stuff going on and that’s what makes them see things the way they do. I don’t need them for my survival or my identity anymore.”
So that’s a big part of what hurts when a parent disapproves of you: you question yourself, always, for a while. But don’t worry—the length of the “while” gets shorter and shorter with time and practice.
2. The Part about It Being Unfair
At some point, you realize your parent has issues of their own that drive them to be the way they are.
Then, if you’re anything like me, you get pissed. And sad. And disappointed. You feel robbed of the kind of parent you deserve, and it’s not fair.
It hurts to see our parents’ humanity. Life was so much easier when we were kids and we could inherently trust them. We had someone to look up to—mom and dad were our heroes. They were the best.
And even now. It’s not fair that other adults can turn to their parents for advice throughout their life. That they always have that solid, reliable place to turn for protection and support. Parents are supposed to love and accept their children no matter what, be their biggest cheerleaders, always proud, bragging to their friends, wanting to see them have a better life than they had.
Except when they don’t.
And they fade. Faster, when you allow yourself to feel what you feel. You don’t need more judgment in your life so don’t even think about judging yourself for how you feel. Drop the judgment and accept where you are.
3. The Part about Being Afraid You’re Like Them
Personality = genes + environment, right? You have their genes and they’ve been your environment since day one.
Yeah, but still…
Rest assured, you won’t wake up one day and find that you suddenly and magically are your mom. You may wake up one day and start using her phrases, or you might look in the mirror one day to see her gray hair or crows feet. But you won’t suddenly wake up with her insecurities, her cynicism, or her negative outlook on life. It doesn’t work that way.
In fact, with a little conscious focus on your part, it can be just the opposite.
When we experience anything we don’t want, that experience sets into motion a desire for what we do want. Crap encourages clarity.
Your relationship with your parent will undoubtedly shape you; but you get to determine how it shapes you.
I’m sorry my dad had shit show up in his life. I’m sorry that he hasn’t found a way to have easy, happy relationships. He simply doesn’t know how, no different than how I don’t know how to speak Mandarin.
Sometimes I think he could have figured it out if he really wanted to. If he were stronger or more courageous or more motivated, maybe he could have gotten some help and worked on his stuff and things would be different.
When I think that I get angry and it’s really freakin’ hard to muster compassion through anger. So the point is, there are times when compassion isn’t possible and that’s totally okay.
But when you can muster it, compassion is the antidote. Like forgiveness, you offer compassion because it makes you feel good. It has little to do with them.
It’s not like they even know what you’re doing. They’re somewhere else, in the middle of their own stuff. You offer compassion in your mind, generate it in your body, and wish it onto them. And it heals you.
As a parent myself, there’s one thing I know for sure: NO ONE would choose to have this kind of relationship with their children if they saw a reasonable way out.
Oh, and I also know this for sure: it has to feel like pure hell to withhold your love from your children and grandchildren.
I can definitely have compassion for anyone in that situation.
I also thank my dad, and that heals me. I’m grateful to him for trying when he did because I know that couldn’t have been easy on him. I’m grateful to him for being there when he was, because it wasn’t always this way.
And I’m grateful for this situation. It’s an enormous source of contrast.
This painful situation has made me a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend. The deep disappointment I feel is what fuels my passion for the radically different kind of relationship I’m building with my own child.
And that’s a really, really good thing.
My gratitude doesn’t mean I wouldn’t change it all in a second if I could. But it does make it easier to feel compassion and unconditional love for my dad, and for this shitty, shitty situation.