An October 19th New York Times essay entitled “When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate” addresses the issue of adults dealing with parents who aren’t merely demanding or neurotic, but truly emotionally abusive. Sometimes, contends author Dr. Richard A. Friedman, the solution is to cease contact.
I’m always grateful for articles that question our society’s kneejerk respect-your-parents ethic; this is very grounding for those of us who didn’t happen to score in the Mom and Dad department.
But I don’t think cutting off contact with destructive parents will necessarily free you. If you’ve had a rough childhood, it can take a long time just to figure out what happened, let alone heal from it. In the meantime, you’re susceptible in a zillion different ways to whatever version of your parents’ insanity you’ve internalized—regardless of whether you interact with them.
Last week, when I was hanging out in the park with my dog, a middle-aged gentleman whom I didn’t know remarked that the dog was “funny -looking.” When I indicated that the dog was mine, I thought he would stop, but he just kept going with his critique of body proportions and hair style. Having grown up with fault-finding parents who didn’t respect personal boundaries, the interaction was all too familiar.
Where most people might want to tell the man that he, his dog, and mother were all funny-looking, I had a different set of unspoken responses. Shouldn’t I want to know it if I’m committing a hair crime against my beloved pooch? Sure, I find my dog singularly adorable, but what if that’s a sign of my inability to be objective? Has my own defensiveness or ego made me mushy in other areas of my life, too?
I tried to joke around with the guy—and probably made it worse with self-deprecation. Meanwhile, my inner questions were wacky and exhausting. Though I have much better tools than I once did to recognize and overcome my slips into nutty thinking, it can still be a challenge for me to distinguish between other people’s bad behavior and some important truth I’m supposed to be paying attention to.
When we talk of the silver spoon, we’re recognizing the good fortune of people born into money and privilege. We also acknowledge other God-given advantages in life—looks, brains, talent and physical health. In all these areas, we’re tactful about our endowments; we don’t want to gloat in front of others.
I often wonder what our society would look like if the idea of the silver spoon were expanded to include people born of two good-enough parents. Would people hesitate to say things like “I feel so close to my mom!” or “My dad was amazingly inspiring! I learned so much from him!” for fear that they might appear insensitive to the feelings of have-nots? I can tell you, that kind of statement is sometimes tough for me to hear.
For some, cutting off contact with toxic parents may be the best option. For me, the goal is more to notice my wrong-headed agreement with the craziness, and to try to make a different choice.
Published in the Piedmont Post October 28, 2009