In The Picture Of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”
This week, a reader got in touch to talk about their “conflicting feelings” towards their parents, asking whether it was “OK to feel angry and disappointed at some of the things they’ve done”.
Describing the emotional baggage that parents pass onto their children, the English poet Philip Larkin paints a picture of inherited trauma in his noted work, This Be The Verse.
For Larkin, parents were people who damaged their children, but he stresses that it’s not intentional on their part: Our parents were, in turn, damaged by their own upbringing.
Dealing with this dilemma can provoke powerful emotions. For most of us, our parents gave us everything and they provided us with many of the blessings we now enjoy. In religious teachings, all the main traditions agree that to repay what our parents did – and continue to do – for us is virtually impossible.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that many of us have feelings that our parents let us down in ways that continue to affect us, and no doubt our parents will have felt similarly towards theirs.
In my own experience, I struggled for a long time suppressing uncomfortable feelings that I had towards my parents. To criticise or feel ill towards them to any degree just felt wrong. Everything I had was thanks to my parents, regardless of their flaws and faults.
But what I discovered in this struggle was a truth that applies to any discomfort we try to suppress: The longer we try to deny or ignore how we feel, the more those feelings fester, strengthen and grow.
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that, however hard we might try to suppress unpleasant emotions, they will always find a way to express themselves. This can be through our conduct and behaviour and, in severe cases, even manifest in physical symptoms such as skin rashes.
It’s important to recognise that it’s perfectly OK to feel any emotions that arise – to deny that we feel any other way than we do is simply going to compound the issue and potentially make it worse.
Of course, what we do with those feelings is also important. Acting out on strong emotions is rarely helpful, but what is useful is to process them in a healthy way that acknowledges, “OK, this is how I’m feeling, and this is the reason”.
When we’re able to process feelings in a constructive manner, for example, through doing a daily journal, talking to a trusted friend, or speaking to a counsellor or therapist, we also allow for a better understanding as well as seeing things beyond the strength of our emotions.
Let’s say we continue to suppress our anger and disappointment towards our parents – or anyone else. There’s a good chance that, as these feelings bubble beneath the surface, the focus will always be on the mistakes our parents made, how they let us down, and on our guilt for feeling this way. In short, we cling strongly to that sense of misery.
But when we deal with our emotions, we allow our feelings room to breathe and start to feel less constricted as the anger and disappointment starts to fade. Once we give ourselves that permission to express our thoughts and emotions, we can see the bigger picture that our parents are just as flawed and unsure as we are.
No baby ever came with an instruction manual or a “first-year stress-free” guarantee.
Deep-seated inner conflict can take time to process and resolve, but we need to understand that none of us are machines. We should allow ourselves to feel – and be OK with feeling – uncomfortable emotions.
Our feelings exist for a reason. Of course, we should have understanding and compassion for others, and there is also room for us to be honest about how we are inside. Compassion for others needn’t be to the exclusion of compassion for ourselves, and nor should it.
We all have expectations of how we should act and be around others, and having standards helps to maintain the society we live in. However, when we allow strict standards to dictate how we think and feel, it often causes problems when we try to reconcile how we think we should feel with how we’re actually feeling.
This internal tug-o-war causes a lot of unnecessary suffering, which can begin to be resolved if we treat ourselves with the kindness, care, and understanding that we’ve been taught to offer others. If we can do that, then we might find that the emotional weight we’ve been carrying begins to lift.
When we stop struggling with our internal conflicts, this catharsis helps us to understand that our parents and loved ones were never perfect to begin with, and with that realisation we are relieved of the expectation to be perfect.