Sassy Psychologist: Ever avoid talking about your parents in therapy? Here's why

I was at a party many years ago when a childhood friend told me how much she hated therapy.  She confided that everything she brought up in therapy ended up being about her parents.  “I was so annoyed that everything I said was brought back to my family,” is what she shared with me. …and I get it.  As a therapist, I know that I must tread lightly with family of origin interventions when someone is not willing to go there.  However, I would be short-sighted to truly believe that parents have absolutely nothing to do with how all of us develop into adulthood.

When I want to ask my clients about their parents, I always preface with, “I am not in the business of parent bashing.”  Whether our parents were good or not good, we as humans have an instinctual defense mechanism that makes us want to say “hey don’t you dare talk about my mommy like!”  Questions about the parenting style of mommy and daddy can cause feelings of guilt and shame.  It’s for this reason that it’s hard to objectively look at our parents’ parenting styles.  It’s only when we begin to rationally and maturely accept our parents’ imperfections that we can get some really good therapeutic work accomplished.  Now, I’m not saying that we should be blaming our parents for everything.  Some clients exclaim that “my parents are not to blame, I am.”  And to that I say, “great sense of self-responsibility!”  Of course, we ultimately choose our path in life.  However, none of us experienced completely flawless caregiving and we likely had moments of criticism or disregard that we internalized, personalized, and took with us into adulthood.  It may not have been done purposely, but I think it’s safe to say that there were likely bumps in the road that affected our sense of self, positively and negatively.

For example, one of my clients started putting together that part of her mother’s caregiving style helped her develop harsh perfectionism.  Her mother valued achievement and hard work.  Additionally, mom’s affection was often based on whether or not my client was performing well.  In order to get mom’s approval and mom’s “love,” my client believed she had to perform.  ..and boy did she ever!  What an overachiever she was- winning countless awards and working with leading researchers in her University program.  We discussed that while her perfectionism served her in many ways, she carried it for so long that her body was now responding back by developing an anxiety disorder.  In addition to treating her with traditional therapeutic interventions for anxiety, we had to delve into her past to help her relieve her inner child of the pressure put on her at such a young age. We never “bashed” her mother per se or judged her mother harshly; instead we pointed out certain moments of flawed caregiving and how those moments affected her sense of self.  We had to reprogram her negative thoughts into knowing that she did not have to perform well to receive approval from others.  We had to convince her brain that she was great and worthy no matter what she achieved.

In sum, while it’s important to take responsibility for your reality and to make healthy choices for your own well-being, you cannot completely disregard the negative things you may have internalized as a kid.  If you, in fact, personalized and internalized certain judgements and criticisms, you must bring those back into your present and conscious mind to defeat them.  How great would it be to rid yourself of those old lingering wounds?!  Your therapist can help you with this!

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.