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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
1 / 19
The ancient Greeks had a problem. The gods looked down from their ethereal playground atop Mount Olympus and passed judgment on everything the Greeks were up to. And if the gods weren't pleased, they were swift to punish. They didn't have to be kind; they didn't have to be just; they didn't even have to be right. In fact, they could be downright irrational. At their whim, they could turn you into an echo or make you push a boulder uphill for all eternity. Needless to say, the unpredictability of these powerful gods sowed quite a bit of fear and confusion among their mortal followers.
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Not unlike many toxic parent-child relationships. An unpredictable parent is a fearsome god in the eyes of a child.
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When we're very young, our godlike parents are everything to us. Without them, we would be unloved, unprotected, unhoused, and unfed, living in a constant state of terror, knowing we were unable to survive alone. They are our all-powerful providers. We need, they supply.
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With nothing and no one to judge them against, we assume them to be perfect parents. As our world broadens beyond our crib, we develop a need to maintain this image of perfection as a defense against the great unknowns we increasingly encounter. As long as we believe our parents are perfect, we feel protected.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
2 / 19
In our second and third years of life, we begin to assert our independence. We resist toilet training and revel in our "terrible twos." We embrace the word no because it allows us to exercise some control over our lives, whereas yes is simply an acquiescence. We struggle to develop a unique identity, establish our own will.
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The process of separating from parents reaches its peak during puberty and adolescence, when we actively confront parental values, tastes, and authority. In a reasonably stable family, parents are able to withstand much of the anxiety that these changes create. For the most part, they will attempt to tolerate, if not exactly encourage, their child's emerging independence. The expression "it's just a phase" becomes a standard assurance for understanding parents, who remember their own teenage years and appreciate rebellion as a normal stage of emotional development.
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Toxic parents aren't so understanding. From toilet training through adolescence, they tend to see rebellion or even individual differences as a personal attack. They defend themselves by reinforcing their child's dependence and helplessness. Instead of promoting healthy development, they unconsciously undermine it, often with the belief that they are acting in their child's best interest. They may use phrases such as "it builds character" or "she needs to learn right from wrong," but their arsenals of negativity really harm their child's self-esteem, sabotaging any budding independence. No matter how much these parents believe they're right, such assaults are confusing to a child, bewildering in their animosity, their vehemence, and their suddenness.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
3 / 19
Our culture and our religions are almost unanimous in upholding the omnipotence of parental authority. It's acceptable to express anger at our husbands, wives, lovers, siblings, bosses, and friends, but it's almost taboo to assertively confront our parents. How often have we heard the phrases "don't talk back to your mother" or "don't you dare shout at your father"? The Judeo-Christian tradition enshrines the taboo in our collective unconscious by pronouncing "God the Father" and directing us to "honor thy father and mother." The idea finds voices in our schools, our churches, our government ("a return to family values"), even in our corporations. According to the conventional wisdom, our parents are empowered to control us simply because they gave us life.
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The child is at the mercy of his godlike parents and, like the ancient Greeks, never knows when the next lightning bolt will strike. But the child of toxic parents knows that the lightning is coming sooner or later. This fear becomes deeply ingrained and grows with the child. At the core of every formerly mistreated adult -- even high achievers -- is a little child who feels powerless and afraid.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
4 / 19
The Cost of Appeasing the Gods
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As a child's self-esteem is undermined, his dependence grows, and with it his need to believe that his parents are there to protect and provide. The only way emotional assaults or physical abuse can make sense to a child is if he or she accepts responsibility for the toxic parent's behavior.
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No matter how toxic your parents might be, you still have a need to deify them. Even if you understand, on one level, that your father was wrong to beat you, you may still believe he was justified. Intellectual understanding is not enough to convince your emotions that you were not responsible.
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As one of my clients put it: "I thought they were perfect, so when they treated me badly, I figured I was bad."
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There are two central doctrines in this faith of godlike parents:
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"I am bad and my parents are good."
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"I am weak and my parents are strong."
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These are powerful beliefs that can long outlive your physical dependence on your parents. These beliefs keep the faith alive; they allow you to avoid facing the painful truth that your godlike parents actually betrayed you when you were most vulnerable.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
5 / 19
Your first step toward controlling your life is to face that truth for yourself. It will take courage, but if you're reading this book, you've already made a commitment to change. That took courage, too.
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"THEY NEVER LET ME FORGET HOW I DISGRACED THEM"
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Sandy, 28, a striking brunette who seemed to "have it all," was seriously depressed when she first came to see me. She told me that she was unhappy with everything in her life. She had been a floral designer for several years at a prestigious shop. She had always dreamed of opening her own business, but she was convinced that she wasn't smart enough to succeed. She was terrified of failure.
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Sandy had also been trying to get pregnant for more than two years, with no success. As we talked, I began to see that her inability to get pregnant was causing her to feel strong resentment toward her husband and inadequate in their relationship, despite the fact that he sounded genuinely understanding and loving. A recent conversation with her mother had aggravated the issue:
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
6 / 19
This whole pregnancy has become a real obsession with me. When I had lunch with my mom I told her how disappointed I was. She said to me, "I'll bet it's that abortion you had. The Lord works in mysterious ways." I haven't been able to stop crying since. She never lets me forget.
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I asked her about the abortion. After some initial hesitancy, she told me the story:
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It happened when I was in high school. My parents were very, very strict Catholics, so I went to parochial school. I developed early, and by the time I was twelve, I was five-foot-six, weighed one hundred thirty pounds, and wore a 36-C bra. Boys started paying attention to me, and I really liked it. It drove my dad crazy. The first time he caught me kissing a boy good night, he called me a whore so loud that the whole neighborhood heard. It was downhill from there. Every time I went out with a boy, Dad told me I was going to hell. He never let up. I figured I was damned anyway, so when I was fifteen I slept with this guy. Just my luck, I got pregnant. When my folks found out, they went nuts. Then I told them I wanted an abortion; they totally lost it. They must have screamed at me about "mortal sin" a thousand times. If I wasn't going to hell already, they were sure this would clinch it. The only way I could get them to sign a consent was to threaten to kill myself.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
7 / 19
I asked Sandy how things went for her after the abortion. She slumped down in her chair with a dejected look that made my heart ache.
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Talk about a fall from grace. I mean, Dad made me feel horrible enough before, but now I felt like I didn't even have a right to exist. The more ashamed I felt, the harder I tried to make things right. I just wanted to turn back the clock, get back the love I had when I was little. But they never miss a chance to bring it up. They're like a broken record about what I did and how I disgraced them. I can't blame them. I should've never done what I did -- I mean, they had such high moral expectations for me. Now I just want to make it up to them for hurting them so bad with my sins. So I do anything they want me to do. It drives my husband crazy. He and I get in these huge fights about it. But I can't help it. I just want them to forgive me.
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As I listened to this lovely young woman, I was very touched by the suffering her parents' behavior had caused her and by how much she needed to deny their responsibility for that suffering. She seemed almost desperate to convince me that she was to blame for all that happened to her. Sandy's self-blame was compounded by her parents' unyielding religious beliefs. I knew I had my work cut out for me if Sandy was to see how genuinely cruel and emotionally abusive her parents had been to her. I decided this was not a time to be nonjudgmental.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
8 / 19
SUSAN: You know something? I'm really angry for that young girl. I think your parents were awful to you. I think they misused your religion to punish you. I don't think you deserved any of it.
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SANDY: I committed two mortal sins!
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SUSAN: Look, you were just a kid. Maybe you made some mistakes, but you don't have to keep paying for them forever. Even the Church lets you atone and get on with your life. If your parents were as good as you say they are, they would have shown some compassion for you.
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SANDY: They were trying to save my soul. If they didn't love me so much, they wouldn't care.
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SUSAN: Let's look at this from a different perspective. What if you hadn't had that abortion? And you had a little girl. She'd be about sixteen now, right?
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Sandy nodded, trying to figure out where I was headed.
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SUSAN: Suppose she got pregnant? Would you treat her like your parents treated you?
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SANDY: Not in a million years!
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Sandy realized the implications of what she'd said.
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SUSAN: You'd be more loving. And your parents should have been more loving. That's their failure, not yours.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
9 / 19
Sandy had spent half her life constructing an elaborate wall of defense. Such defensive walls are all too common among adult children of toxic parents. They can be made of a variety of psychological building blocks, but the most common, the primary material in Sandy's wall, is a particularly obstinate brick called "denial."
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The Power of Denial
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Denial is both the most primitive and the most powerful of psychological defenses. It employs a make-believe reality to minimize, or even negate, the impact of certain painful life experiences. It even makes some of us forget what our parents did to us, allowing us to keep them on their pedestals.
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The relief provided by denial is temporary at best, and the price for this relief is high. Denial is the lid on our emotional pressure cooker: the longer we leave it on, the more pressure we build up. Sooner or later, that pressure is bound to pop the lid, and we have an emotional crisis. When that happens, we have to face the truths we've been so desperately trying to avoid, except now we've got to face them during a period of extreme stress. If we can deal with our denial up front, we can avoid the crisis by opening the pressure valve and leting it out easily.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
10 / 19
Unfortunately, your own denial is not the only denial you may have to contend with. Your parents have denial systems of their own. When you are struggling to reconstruct the truth of your past, especially when that truth reflects poorly on them, your parents may insist that "it wasn't so bad,"
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"it didn't happen that way," or even that "it didn't happen at all." Such statements can frustrate your attempts to reconstruct your personal history, leading you to question your own impressions and memories. They undercut your confidence in your ability to perceive reality, making it that much harder to rebuild your self-esteem.
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Sandy's denial was so strong that not only couldn't she see her own reality, she couldn't even acknowledge that there was another reality to see. I empathized with her pain, but I had to get her at least to consider the possibility that she had a false image of her parents. I tried to be as nonthreatening as possible:
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I respect the fact that you love your parents and that you believe they're good people. I'm sure they did some very good things for you when you were growing up. But there's got to be a part of you that knows or at least senses that loving parents don't assault their child's dignity and self-worth so relentlessly. I don't want to pull you away from your parents or your religion. You don't have to disown them or renounce the Church. But a big part of lifting your depression may depend on giving up the fantasy that they're perfect. They were cruel to you. They hurt you. Whatever you did, you had already done. No amount of haranguing from them was going to change that. Can't you feel how deeply they hurt the sensitive young girl inside of you? And how unnecessary it was?
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
11 / 19
Sandy's "yes" was barely audible. I asked her if it scared her to think about it. She just nodded, unable to talk about the depth of her fear. But she was brave enough to hang in there.
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The Hopeless Hope
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After two months in therapy, Sandy had made some progress but was still clinging to the myth of her perfect parents. Until she shattered that myth, she would continue to blame herself for all the un-happiness of her life. I asked her to invite her parents to a therapy session. I hoped that if I could get them to see how deeply their behavior had affected Sandy's life, they might admit some of their responsibility, making it easier for Sandy to begin repairing her negative self-image.
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We barely had time to get acquainted before her father blurted:
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You don't know what a bad kid she was, Doctor. She went nuts over boys and kept leading them on. All of her problems today are because of that damned abortion.
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I could see tears well up in Sandy's eyes. I rushed to defend her:
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That's not the reason Sandy is having problems, and I didn't ask you here to read me a laundry list of her crimes. We really won't get anywhere if that's all you're here for.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
12 / 19
It didn't work. Throughout the session, Sandy's mother and father took turns attacking their daughter, despite my admonitions. It was a long hour. After they left, Sandy was quick to apologize for them:
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I know they really didn't come through for me today, but I hope you liked them. They're really good people, they just seemed nervous to be here. Maybe I shouldn't have asked them to come… It probably upset them. They're not used to this kind of thing. But they really love me… just give them some time, you'll see.
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This session and a few subsequent ones with Sandy's parents clearly indicated how closed-minded they were to anything that challenged their perception of Sandy's problems. At no point was either one willing to acknowledge any responsibility for those problems. And Sandy continued to idolize them.
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"THEY WERE ONLY TRYING TO HELP"
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For many adult children of toxic parents, denial is a simple, unconscious process of pushing certain events and feelings out of conscious awareness, pretending that those events never happened. But others, like Sandy, take a more subtle approach: rationalization. When we rationalize, we use "good reasons" to explain away what is painful and uncomfortable.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
13 / 19
Here are a few typical rationalizations:
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My father only screamed at me because my mother nagged him.
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My mother only drank because she was lonely. I should have stayed home with her more.
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My father beat me, but he didn't mean to hurt me, he only meant to teach me a lesson.
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My mother never paid any attention to me because she was so unhappy.
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I can't blame my father for molesting me. My mother wouldn't sleep with him, and men need sex.
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All these rationalizations have one thing in common: they serve to make the unacceptable acceptable. On the surface, it may appear to work, but a part of you always knows the truth.
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"HE ONLY DID IT BECAUSE…"
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Louise, a small, auburn-haired woman in her midforties, was being divorced by her third husband. She came into therapy at the insistence of her adult daughter, who threatened to cut off her relationship with Louise if she didn't do something about her uncontrollable hostility.
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When I first saw Louise, her extremely rigid posture and tight-lipped expression said it all. She was a volcano of contained anger. I asked her about her divorce and she told me that the men in her life always left her; her current husband was just the latest example:
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
14 / 19
I'm one of those women who always picks Mr. Wrong. In the beginning of each relationship, it's terrific, but I know it can never last.
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I listened intently as Louise expounded on the theme that all men are bastards. Then she began comparing the men in her life to her father:
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God, why can't I find somebody like my father? He looked like a movie star… everyone just adored him. I mean he had that charisma that just drew people to him. My mother was sick a lot, and my father would take me out… just him and me. Those were the best times in my life. After my dad, they just broke the mold.
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I asked her if her father was still alive and Louise became very tense as she replied:
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I don't know. He just disappeared one day. I guess I was around ten. My mother was a real bitch to live with, and one day he just took off. No note, no phone call, no nothing. God, I missed him. For about a year after he left, I was so sure I could hear his car drive up every night… I can't really blame him for what he did. He was so full of life. Who'd want to be tied down to a sick wife and a kid?
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
15 / 19
Louise was spending her life waiting for her idealized father to come back to her. Unable to face how callous and irresponsible he had been, Louise used extensive rationalization to keep him godlike in her eyes -- despite the unspeakable pain his behavior had caused her.
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Her rationalization also enabled her to deny her rage at him for abandoning her. Unfortunately, that rage found an outlet in her relationships with other men. Every time she started seeing a man, things would go smoothly for a while, as she got to know him. But as they grew closer, her fear of abandonment would get out of hand. The fear would invariably turn into hostility. She couldn't see a pattern in the fact that every man left her for the same reasons: the closer they got, the more hostile she became. Instead, she insisted her hostility was justified by the fact that they always left her.
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Anger Where Anger Is Due
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When I was in graduate school, one of my psychology books contained a series of drawings that graphically illustrated how people displace feelings -- particularly anger. The first frame showed a man being bawled out by his boss. Obviously, it wasn't safe for the man to yell back, so the second frame showed him displacing his anger by yelling at his wife when he got home. The third showed her yelling at the kids. The kids kicked the dog, and the dog bit the cat. What impressed me about this series of images was that, despite its seeming simplicity, it is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of how we transfer strong feelings from the appropriate person to an easier target.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
16 / 19
Louise's opinion of men is a perfect example: "They are such wimpy bastards… all of them. You can't trust them. They always turn on you. I'm sick of being used by men."
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Louise's father had abandoned her. If she had acknowledged this fact, she would have had to renounce her cherished fantasies and godlike image of him. She would have had to let him go. Instead, she displaced her anger and mistrust from her father to other men.
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Without being aware of it, Louise consistently chose men who treated her in ways that both disappointed and enraged her. As long as she could release her anger at men in general, she didn't have to feel her anger at her father.
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Sandy, whom we met earlier in this chapter, displaced onto her husband the anger and disappointment she felt toward her parents for the way they had treated her pregnancy and abortion. She couldn't allow herself to be angry at her parents -- that would have been too threatening to her deification of them.
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Don't Speak Ill of the Dead
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Death does not end the deification of toxic parents. In fact, it may increase it.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
17 / 19
As hard as it is to acknowledge the harm done by a living parent, it is infinitely harder to accuse that parent once he or she is dead. There's a powerful taboo against criticizing the dead, as if we were kicking them while they're down. As a result, death imparts a sort of sainthood to even the worst abuser. The deification of dead parents is almost automatic.
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Unfortunately, while the toxic parent is protected by the sanctity of the grave, the survivors are stuck with the emotional remains. "Don't speak ill of the dead" may be a treasured platitude, but it often inhibits the realistic resolution of conflicts with dead parents.
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"YOU'LL ALWAYS BE MY LITTLE FAILURE"
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Valerie, a tall, delicate-featured musician in her late thirties, was referred to me by a mutual friend who was concerned that Valerie's lack of confidence was preventing her from pursuing opportunities in her singing career. About fifteen minutes into our first session, Valerie admitted that her career was going nowhere:
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I haven't had any kind of a singing job -- not even a piano bar -- for over a year. I've been working temp in an office to pay my rent. I don't know. Maybe it's an impossible dream. The other night I was having dinner with my folks, and we got into my problems, and my father said, "Don't worry. You'll always be my little failure." I'm sure he didn't realize how much it hurt, but those words really tore me apart.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
18 / 19
I told Valerie that anyone would feel hurt under the circumstances. Her father had been cruel and insulting. She replied:
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I guess that's nothing new. It's the story of my life. I was the family garbage dump. I got blamed for everything. If he and my mom had problems, it was my fault. He was like a broken record. And yet, when I did anything to please him, he would beam with pride and brag about me to his cronies. God, it was wonderful to get his approval, but I felt like an emotional yo-yo sometimes.
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Valerie and I worked very closely together over the next several weeks. She was just beginning to contact the magnitude of her anger and sadness toward her father.
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Then he died of a stroke.
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It was an unexpected death -- shocking, sudden; the kind for which no one is prepared. Valerie was overwhelmed by guilt for all the anger she had expressed toward him in therapy.
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I sat there in church while he was being eulogized and I heard this outpouring of how wonderful he was all his life, and I felt like I was being an asshole for trying to blame him for my own problems. I just wanted to atone for the pain I'd caused him. I kept thinking about how much I loved him and what a bitch I'd always been to him. I don't want to talk about the bad stuff anymore… none of that matters now.
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Chapter 1: Godlike Parents The Myth of the Perfect Parent | 原生家庭: 如何修补自己的性格缺陷
19 / 19
Valerie's grief got her off the track for a time, but eventually she came to see that her father's death could not change the reality of how he had treated her during childhood and as an adult.
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Valerie has been in therapy for almost six months now. I've been happy to see her self-confidence improve steadily. She is still struggling to get her singing career off the ground, but it's no longer due to lack of trying.
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Taking Them Down Off Their Pedestals
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Godlike parents make rules, make judgments, and make pain. When you deify your parents, living or dead, you are agreeing to live by their version of reality. You are accepting painful feelings as a part of your life, perhaps even rationalizing them as being good for you. It's time to stop.
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When you bring your toxic parents down to earth, when you find the courage to look at them realistically, you can begin to equalize the power in your relationship with them.
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