Unhelpful Parents

Sometimes our parents or other close family are not the supportive people we deserve. It is hard for me to be able to say how common this truly is, after all, if you had them, the odds are lower that you would see me for therapy, and if you didn’t the odds are higher. Letting go of some of the negative or unhelpful people in our lives is a hard but frequently necessary step.

This isn’t to say that all mental health issues are caused by parents – Freud was wrong. Mental ill health can be caused by a number of factors – genetic, enviornmental, biochemical, drug induced, organic brain damage, poor parenting, situational stress, ongoing trauma and so on. Parenting is only one of these, and a person may experience several. Good parenting can help minimise the impact of several of these, while poor parenting can exacerbate them.

Parents are not the only people who can have a strong influence on how you think mental health and your own self esteem should work and be handled. Other blood relatives like grand parents, who came from a quite different era, can give awful advice, your current social group can be bad for you and sometimes work mates are just completely unuseful to you.

Certain people seem to be of the opinion that mental health, managing stress, choosing the right thing and being functional are all a matter of will power, morals and some knowledge that you are supposed to just have.

They are wrong.

Image of angelic moral weakness
Being “strong”. “moral” or “virtuous” isn’t enough. Sometimes we need help.

We don’t live in isolation. We live in complex systems that sometimes fail us. As listed above, that failure can be a situational distress, an ongoing trauma, biological in nature or some other thing that has nothing to do with will power or moral judgement. This doesn’t exclude the occaisional person who is suffering through bad choices – consequences can be hard – but is to highlight that most people who are struggling and need help are generally struggling through things they didn’t chose or control, and being patient and waiting for it to be over is not enough.

These unhelpful people tend to fail to pass on good self management skills, good skills for managing other people and healthy ways to see the world. In short, they make shit parents, friends and colleagues.

Fortunately, as we get older (around 15 or so), pathways open up that allow us to learn from people besides our immediate family. We get to chose our own family, our own community and our own friends. We can go and get some professional help for the tricky bits, be inspired by awesome people for the general model of how to be, and go on a self discovery journey.

By no means is this journey easy. It is really hard. It means going against all of those lessons you trusted as you grew up, recognising that not only were you led astray, but that those who raised you were also led astray and they just got lucky. After all, people who see the world this way weren’t just born that way. Recognise their limitations in being the parents you deserve, their limitations in being able to support you and move forwards with your own path. Sometimes that means leaving them behind. Sometimes that means visiting them. Rarely it means retraining them.

The world is big. It is complex. It is made of more than one kind of people. There generally isn’t a “better” or “worse” kind of people (except nazi’s – they are just worse), there is just different. Some are tall, some are short, some have blue eyes, some are left handed, some have different kinds of blood, and some are very typical of the local group and some are a bit atypical of that group. They are all valid. Don’t blame neurotypical people for being normal, it isn’t really their fault. Once you learn to recognise your “self” and how your differences make some things easier, and some things harder, it makes it much easier to start adjusting to how other people may be.

The long and the short of it is, you are a different kind of people to your parents, or family, or friends, or colleagues (basically anyone that is giving you the “just try being normal”, or “toughen up”, or “moral weakness” or “willpower” style of line). They are, in this case, wrong. Don’t feel that you have failed to be them, and don’t listen to their wrong advice. Learn who you are, and find people who are your kind of people. Be inspired by those who seem to have it together and learn how they do it. And don’t hesitate to get some professional advice to get over some of the erroneous messages, skills and ways of thinking that you were raised with.

Definitions, limit problems, and solutions

When we define problems, we often focus more on what we can’t do than what our solution could be. We narrowly define why we can’t instead of opening up the solution space to what we can. Working on understanding a problem means changing how we define the problem such that it includes a solution – whether that solution is direct change, adapting to an unchangeable aspect or completely bypassing the problem.

Defining what the problem is in terms of what is stopping you is an important first step. If you don’t know what the obstacle is and why that prevents progress, you can’t factor into your solution something that addresses that issue. However if this is where our defining the problem stops, we have only defined half of the problem. The interferes with finding a solution.

Looking at what a solution can look like allows the problem to be defined in terms of outcomes and possibilities. For example, I can’t move forwards. Ok, that is good to know. Why? What does forwards look like? How will you know that you have progressed? Is forwards the only way to get to your destination? The first definition – I can’t move forwards – is accurate but limiting. Incorporating these follow up questions into the definition of the problem allows scope for finding a solution that gets the outcome you are after.

Considering the scope of the definition is similarly important. If your definition is too broad, you can paralyze yourself in your analysis of the situation. If you don’t define enough, you limit the space landscape to find a solution. If you can figure out which way you have limited yourself, then you can adjust and compensate.