Are parents responsible for how their children turn out?

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.

Kahlil Gibran

“I blame the parents”, is a common judgment, often muttered under the breath when in the presence of a badly behaved child or young person.

This kind of judgement highlights why being a parent can bring up a lot of anxieties, when it comes to what sort of person the child develops into.

And it can be a heavy burden, if a parent believes that he or she is responsible for “negative” character traits or behaviours, or for a child’s seemingly unhappy disposition.

But sometimes I believe that parents can take too much responsibility and can even beat themselves up for not being good enough.

Donald Winnicott, a pioneering paediatrician and psychotherapist, came up with the idea of the “good-enough” parent. This referred to the parent who provides a good-enough environment in which the child feels loved but is also given healthy boundaries.

It’s important to recognise that this does not mean parents can’t make mistakes. Making mistakes is inevitable – perfection is not possible. The idea of being good enough gives us permission to be imperfect and to be compassionate towards ourselves as parents.

I remember one mother, who was distressed when she saw her daughter behave in an insecure and “needy” way, convinced she had passed this onto her. Even if there was some truth in this, it would have been passed on in an unconscious way. We cannot help but pass on messages to our children through our own behaviour.

But judging ourselves harshly as parents is not the answer, I believe, as long as we have done our best given our own conditioning.

In any case the kind of person a child develops into will depend on different factors. Good-enough parenting is one factor, while inherited characteristics will be another. As the child gets older, peer pressure will play an increasing role as will the values in the society or culture the child grows up in.

But I believe there is also something else at play, which is harder to describe or measure. I’m thinking of the mysterious force which makes each person the unique individual they are.

Sure, we can look at children and make sense of their characters by referring to how they have uncle John’s creativity or mum’s dancing ability. But in his book The Soul’s Code, James Hillman talks about the guiding force that all humans are born with. He uses the analogy of the acorn becoming an oak, arguing that every person arrives in the world with a possible calling or destiny.

Hillman argues that modern psychology has become reductionist, attributing a child’s obsessions or “pathologies” to poor parenting or genetics.

A different response would be to welcome the uniqueness of each child, even the parts that cause us pain or discomfort as parents. Perhaps we could then trust that the child will find its way in the world, following its own calling or destiny.

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Resisting the pressure to be ‘happy’

‘Tears are words that need to be written.’

– Paulo Coelho

We live in a culture where there is often an unspoken pressure to be happy, upbeat or positive.

Sometimes this message is explicit, as in ‘You just need to think positive!’ or ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself, cheer up!’ We may even hear this kind of exhortation after the death of someone close, if we have not bounced back to normal after a couple of months – ‘You just need to let go and move on!.’

I think there is a danger that, in following this cultural norm we disconnect from legitimate feelings that do not fit in with this belief, such as sadness, grief, emptiness or melancholy.

Yes these ‘negative’ feelings are part of being human. The risk is that if we disconnect from these, uncomfortable, feelings we also feel less connected to all our feelings, including those of joy or excitement.

We are using record levels of anti-depressants, not to mention alcohol, food, TV and other substances/activities to distract ourselves from darker feelings.

In his book Against Happiness, Eric G. Wilson criticises the modern Western culture of striving for happiness. He points out that much of the world’s art and creativity has its origins in dark feelings.

“I am afraid that our…culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life.”

This is not to say that there are not times in life when it may be necessary or helpful to ‘think positive’ and Wilson stresses that he is not trying to romanticise clinical depression, which is a deeply distressing condition. Nor is he questioning the importance of joy, exuberance or satisfaction in one’s life, which often arises spontaneously.

His target, rather, is the superficial notion of happiness which seeks to exclude any troubling feelings and instead try and create a world where only ‘positive’ feelings are allowed.

My training is in transpersonal, or ‘soulful’ psychotherapy. This is a therapy that takes a holistic or spiritual perspective on a person’s experience and does not see pain as something to automatically try and eradicate.

James Hillman, an American psychologist and author who built on the ideas of Carl Jung, argued in favour of soul in his essay Peaks and Vales. According to Hillman it is our soul that connects us to the messy realities of life, including failures, defeats and difficult feelings. Soul also makes itself felt through our psychopathologies – our obsessions, addictions, depressions and other symptoms.

While we may want to get rid of these ‘problems’, if we can pay attention to them, look beneath them, we may discover that they are communicating something to our conscious selves about a part of us that needs to be honoured or acknowledged.

Similiarly, feelings like sadness, grief or emptiness can spur us to make a bigger place in our lives for nature, art or human connection. Or these feelings may simply need to be felt, with no obvious outcome sought.

Therapy with soul

“Any therapy which does not address the issues of soul must remain superficial in the end.”

James Hollis

Although the word “soul” has religious connotations, when I talk about bringing soul into therapy I am talking about taking a deeper view, which embraces the mystery of a person’s life and the problems they may be struggling with.

This means is that, as a soulful therapist, I try and resist the temptation to ‘fix’ the problem in a superficial way. Often attempts to resolve problems quickly do not last as the symptom returns in the same, or a different, manifestation.

Instead of seeing a client’s struggle with, say, addiction, depression or sexual problems as a symptom to cured I am interested in what this particular symptom may be saying about the person’s life and their unconscious longings and fears.

That does not mean ignoring the symptom. We need to, and the client will insist, that we attend to the problem he or she is bringing. But it does mean that we also look beneath the presenting issue to what else may be going on in that person’s life journey.

A major part of working soulfully is engaging with the shadow, which is what Jung called that part of ourselves that we reject because it does not match our self-image. The shadow often contains anger, jealousy, selfishness, lust and other ‘negative’ feelings.

Jungian therapist and author James Hollis describes working with soul in his book Swamplands of the Soul. He argues that it is the difficulties in our life – the compulsions, the  depressions, the anxieties – that mould us and create meaning. But we need to look beneath these symptoms, he says, and feel the feelings that are being covered.

He says; “Without the suffering, which seems to be the…requisite for psychological and spiritual maturation, one would remain unconscious, infantile and dependent. Yet many of our addictions, ideological attachments and neuroses are flights from suffering.”

If we are able to explore what feelings are being covered over by addiction, depression and anxiety we often discover anger (or even rage), sadness and grief. These feelings can seem so raw and frightening that we are afraid to touch them.

But, as therapist John Bradshaw says, “You can’t heal, what you can’t feel.”

A soulful approach takes us down, down into these feelings, down into the shadow. It asks what what meaning or purpose, if any, there may be in these feelings and related experiences. What it does not try and do is superficially ‘cure’ the symptom.

One way of giving painful experiences, such as abandonment or abuse, some meaning beyond our personal experience is through stories, myths and archetypes (universal symbols or patterns of behaviour).

In his book We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse, archetypal psychologist James Hillman gives the example of a man who, as a child. was abused by his father. Hillman opens up the possibility that this experience could be seen as a kind of initiatory experience, a way of understanding archetypal/universal themes concerning rage between fathers and sons, vengeance and submission.

By re-framing the experience in this way, “I’ve moved the memory, somehow, from just being a child victim of a mean father. I’ve entered fairy tales and I’ve entered myths, literature, movies. With my suffering I’ve entered an imaginal, not just a traumatic, world.”

While I agree, up to a point, with Hillman my concern is that this approach is not used to bypass the legitimate rage and sadness that the victim may feel. It may be necessary to first experience the victim feelings before being in a place to explore the mythical or archetypal elements.

But what I think Hillman is pointing at is our tendency to rigidly judge our experience as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Yes, being treated abusively is clearly ‘bad’. It affects our self-esteem, our ability to form trusting relationships and so on. But there may also something in that experience that forms our character, that perhaps gives us an extra sensitivity to other people’s suffering or that encourages us to seek an outlet in creativity.

As Hillman says: “Wounds and scars are the stuff of character. The word ‘character’ means at root ‘marked or etched with sharp lines,’ like initiation cuts.”

Paying attention to our calling

.Acclaimed ceramicist (and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes) Edmund de Waal’s ceramics are very pure and minimalist in their design. He recalled how, at age five, he made his first pot and the teacher asked him why he didn’t decorate it with some colours.

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De Waal’s ceramics

He declared to the teacher that it was finished. “Even at that age, I must have known what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.

Reading this reminded me of how a person’s “calling” can be present from a very young age but that many of us don’t pay attention to the little clues and hints that may be pointing us towards our destiny.

This theme is relevant to therapy because many people find themselves feeling unhappy or dissatisfied without quite being able to put a finger on it. They may just have a feeling that they are not fulfilling their potential in some way.

Depth psychologist James Hillman argues that from infancy we all have a definite character and calling but that we often come under pressure to behave in psychologically “healthy” and conformist ways that can rob us of our uniqueness – a bit like the pottery teacher who wanted de Waal to add colours to his pot.

In his provocative book The Soul’s Code Hillman presents his acorn theory, which is about “reading a life backwards”. This means seeing early passions and obsessions not as problems to be corrected but as possible indications of a person’s future calling.

More mystically, Hillman draws on Plato’s idea that each of us is given a kind of guardian angel, or daimon, at birth, who guides us. This can also be seen as an inner spirit or guide., the little voice in our heads that often gets drowned out.

It is very important to pay attention to our childhood, and subsequent life, to catch early glimpses of the daimon in action, says Hillman.

“A calling may be postponed, avoided, intermittently missed. It may also possess you completely. Whatever; eventually it will out. It makes its claim. The daimon does not go away.”

What usually distracts us from following our calling are the social and family pressures to do what is expected, to make money, to marry the ‘right’ person, raise the ‘right’ kind of family and do the ‘right’ things. But then we may find ourselves strangely unfulfilled.

Psychologist and story teller Michael Meade says: “The real work in this world is not simply to succeed and ‘become somebody’, the real issue is to become one’s intended self.” He adds that the challenge for us all is to live with passion and purpose, and he quotes the poet E.E. Cummings, who said: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

In therapy clients have the chance to explore what really excites them, what they are passionate about but are not honouring in their life. This could be an artistic or musical gift, a desire to study or travel, or some other kind of passion.

He highlights numerous cases of famous people whose gifts or destinies were hinted at in their childhoods. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt, civil rights campaigner and wife of the famous US president Franklin Roosevelt, came from a very difficult family background in which both parents and a brother died before she was 11. She became antisocial, threw tantrums and retreated into day dreams about being the mistress to her father’s large household and accompanying him on his travels.

A conventional therapist would find no intrinsic value in her daydreams, suggests Hillman, in fact they would probably label them as delusion. For Hillman, however, they are not a pathology but rather a manifestation of her future calling as one of the most influential  First Ladies in US history

While most of us are not going to become famous artists or public figures, we can still look at our lives, our longings and dreams from a different perspective – one that is curious about which is our unique path and how we can honour it.

Photo by escdotdot, http://tinyurl.com/osn48b2