Parents and Old Wounds

              Troubles come. One person packs up and leaves.

Another stays and deepens in a love for being human.

               In battle, one runs fearing for his life.

Another, just as scared, turns and fights more fiercely.

                                                                Rumi

There’s a story about a Buddhist tradition that I think about often: when a monk is ready to attain enlightenment he has to prove his worth by facing his deepest fears. He’s made to walk alone through a long, dark room containing everything he fears most. Once he starts he cannot turn back. If he makes it through to the other end, he’s ready to walk the path of enlightenment.  

Family ties

Thinking about this story comforts me, especially when dealing with my parents. I’m a strong, independent woman and I can deftly solve complex problems with creative ingenuity. Yet, a short conversation with my mother can derail me. Our latest conversation lasted only a few minutes: “You were so skinny the last time your father and I saw you. Be careful, being this skinny could make you sick.”  Grrrrrr, I instantly thought, blood pressure rising. Why does she always have to focus on the negative?

When I re-examine her words, they look harmless: a mother cautioning her child, showing concern. They don’t have to affect me at all. In fact:

– I’m healthier than I’ve ever been.

– I feel better than ever.

– Most of all, I love being this weight – my optimum weight.

Nonetheless, family ties are complex and words are not just words. They come weighted with past experiences, memories, and a whole bag of history. When a part of your ego’s been rubbed too many times, just the thought of it being touched is enough to make you wince. This is how families work sometimes – we rub and poke at each other, often unknowingly, until a bruise takes hold.

My parents’ way of showing love is through criticism and worry. Their conversations often lean toward the negative. Having had a lifetime of hearing about my faults, anything that even approximates a criticism sends up alarm bells and causes an internal shut down.

I can handle just about anything on the outside world with relative ease. I’m calm and assertive most of the time, but a short conversation with my parents still pulls me back to my younger, defenceless self. The wonderful thing is that I know what’s causing this reaction and I can change. It’s my thinking that triggers these feelings in me. My story, the one I choose to hold onto, is what derails me – not my parents.

Taking responsibility

The only way to change this reaction in myself is to turn around and face the fears my parents’ criticisms engender in me. Just like the monk story, we each have to face what scares us most. Otherwise we’ll never attain peace.

Also, the fact that I continue to hold onto my anger and frustration tells me that I’m doing it for a reason. Feeling this way does something for me. Maybe I get to stay the innocent victim, bullied by overbearing parents. Becoming frustrated every time I talk to them feels awful, but it’s also familiar. It’s easier to hold onto these old feeling than to change. Staying the same requires nothing from me. Changing requires courage and honesty. And the possibility of failure. I think this is why some problems seem to pop up in our lives over and over again – we’re not willing to do what it truly takes to change.

Walking to the end of the long, dark room

My favourite quote says, “The only way out is through.” This is what I intend to do with my parents’ criticisms. Whatever feelings their criticisms bring up, I’m going to feel them, stay with them. However painful it feels, however much I want to distract myself by doing something else, I’m going to feel it through. It’s the only way. Eventually they’ll lose their strength and my parents’ words will become just words.

If hearing, “You’re too skinny,” upsets me, great. It’s something I can work with. If a conversation stings, then I’m going to allow it to sting. Only by allowing what I fear most am I going to let it go. Running away doesn’t work. Resisting hasn’t worked. Neither has pretending everything’s okay. Like a bully, when you stand up to them they begin to shrink because you’re taking away what they feed on: fear. Tear that away and they start to shrivel and quake. Eventually, they’ll leave you alone – in peace.

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4 thoughts on “Parents and Old Wounds

  1. Excellent post, Tristan. Ironically, I hear the same comment from my Mom. Sometimes I think it comes from her upbringing that a healthy child is a plump child. It was through Eckhart Tolle’s book “A New Earth” that I finally came to understand that our parents comments are often a reflection of what they learned & were exposed to as children. They do the best they can given what they learned as children. I’m not saying that is an excuse but it does help to create understanding.

    Love the monk story. I will try to remember it the next time I need to walk down the metaphorical dark hall to face my fears.

    Blessings.

    1. Thank you, Amy! I’m glad you liked it.

      It really does give us a different opening, a new way of seeing things when we realize what our parents must have gone through to become who they are. Which part of A New Earth gave you that insight? I read it, and I have to admit it was a bit abstract for me. Maybe it was where I was at the time. Perhaps I’ll read it again with new eyes.

  2. Thank you for sharing your feelings and thoughts about your parents, your upbringing and your desire to move on. I am the mother of 9 children. I loved parenting — of course, I wasn’t perfect but I truly enjoyed the years I spent raising my children and I’ve always thought I did it well. Somewhere in the midst of it, we adopted 3 children with special needs, who brought extra challenges and needed extra attention. Now that my children are grown, I find it painful when one of them will explain some difficulty in their life by saying it is caused by their need for more attention when they were younger. Immediately, what comes to my mind is “grow up, if you don’t like something about yourself, change it don’t blame it on me or someone else.” After reading your post, I realize that these comments evoke a feeling of “bad parenting” and “failure” at something I have always felt proud of. I don’t like to entertain these thoughts, so I write it off as the younger generation’s way of putting blame on others rather than accept themselves complete with inadequacies. Your post has made me realize that it’s a two way street — we both have fears that we need to face.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Raising 9 children is phenomenal and a great accomplishment.

      You’re right – it is a two way street. We all do the best we can with what we know. I wrote this piece as a way to explore how I can take what was given me and make myself better. My parents came from very challenging backgounds which shaped the way they see the world. This took me a long time to acknowledge. Now that I do, I feel a great wave of compassion for them. More and more I believe we’re given our childhood circumstances so that we’re pushed to become the people we were put on this earth to be. It’s up to each of us to choose whether we want use that to move forward or stay the same.

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