The Strangest Paradox – Parental Influences

There is a strange paradox that exists inside most of us.

Most people will have a good idea of just how much our parents, and our upbringing, affect us as adults. But there is a strange twist to what we have come to expect. Below is a basic description, with all the content taken out of it, leaving behind only the structure:

  • My parents said I was a bad boy/girl.
  • I want to be good.
  • To be good, I cannot contradict my parents. It is wrong to make them wrong.
  • Therefore, to be good, I have to be bad.

Of course, this “bad” can be anything – stupid, worthless, ugly, fat, a liar, angry, the list is endless. But the idea is the same: even if we haven’t seen our parents in decades, in many ways we are still children, living under their influence. We are still seeking their approval or disapproval in ways that don’t always make sense to our logical mind.

This might sound stupid, but please think about it a little. When I first discovered this strange line of reasoning in myself, many months ago, it made no sense, and I thought I was mistaken. I didn’t do anything with what I found, so this limitation remained inside me for far too long. But I was recently reading Honoring the Self, by Nathaniel Branden, and he described this exact same paradox – and stated that it was one of the most common things he has seen in therapy, if you know what to look for.

When we can see this in ourselves, things begin to change, and we slowly become our own person. Please take a moment now to think about this, to see how it applies in your own life. There is a tendency to get locked into examples, so it is a good idea to investigate before we discuss any further.

An Example

Let’s describe this with an example, with details changed to protect privacy. Samuel was recently promoted to a job with higher pay and responsibilities. This was something he had longed for, and he was feeling fantastic about it – for about a day. Then, he began feeling uncertainty. The closer he got to his goal, the more this uncertainty turned into fear, and he began to sabotage himself. These acts of self-sabotage were minor at first, not enough for him to lose his promotion, but eventually he began acting out in bigger and bigger ways. In the end, he not only lost his promotion, but endangered his entire job. This was a pattern he had followed for most of his adult life.

Strangely, this made him feel safe; he was back in his comfort zone. It actually felt wrong for him to have a secure job. Even though it was scary, being in financial danger felt right to him.

While there were many reasons for this, his parents were one of the strongest factors. They had always hinted to him that he was worthless, useless, and he will never do well in anything he tried to do. Now, we’ve all heard of someone who became very driven to achieve because their parents told them they were useless; they want to prove their parents wrong. But this was different – Sam realised one day that he unconsciously wanted to prove them right by always having to live in financial fear. To be a good son, he could not contradict his parents; he could not prove them wrong.

The Opposite

Interestingly, the opposite is often true. Just as we do things – consciously and unconsciously – to get the approval of a childhood authority, we might live our entire lives in a certain way, just to spite them!

I was discussing this issue with a psychoanalyst, who described the tendency perfectly in the expression “cutting off the nose to spite the face.” This tendency refers to an act of revenge where we hurt ourselves even more than we hurt the other person. For instance, Sam might unconsciously choose to get fired out of spite – “If you think I am worthless, well I WILL just be COMPLETELY worthless, then!”

If this sounds irrational, keep in mind that most of these are impulses and tendencies from our childhood. We have never grown out of them. They lie just below our awareness, silently influencing us even as adults.

Searching For This Paradox

Can you see why it is a good idea to do some thinking before we continue? Because of this example, the mind might start searching in the area of work, and ignore other possibilities. But these can be seen in every area of life. So, take a moment now to do some searching.

If you can’t think of anything, here are some tips. But again, these lines of inquiry might lock you in, so only use them if you are stuck.

  • Try looking for something you are afraid of.
  • Try looking for something you are procrastinating on.
  • Try looking at something you don’t want to do, and you don’t know why.
  • Look at something you have been feeling guilty about.

Further, it doesn’t have to be your parents. For many, other authority figures play a bigger role – an elder brother or sister, a teacher in middle school, perhaps.

If we really look, we can see that the variations are countless. Here’s another common example – what if Sam’s parents had always struggled financially, and Sam feels like he is somehow betraying them if he became happier, or did well in his job?

However this shows up, the end is result is the same. As Branden puts it, we end up pursuing the good by accepting the bad.

Breaking Free

What can we do about this? Branden suggests that this is, for the most part, a long process. We learn to honour ourselves, trusting our own judgements and changing the sources of approval and esteem from the external to inside ourselves. If we are struggling with a large or particularly painful issue, the care of a mental health professional is a good idea.

There are other things that we can do on our own, however. Firstly, just the mere recognition of these hidden motivations is enough for change to begin. Below are some things I’ve found to be very useful.

1. Awareness and Mindfulness. Being aware of it – and remaining aware of it the next time it arises – is often enough. When we know that the feelings and thoughts pushing us around aren’t ours, but a reaction to another person, we slowly begin to develop awareness. That is when we can make our own choices. We can simply say – that isn’t me, this is me.

2. The Desire for Approval. In some ancient teachings, such as Buddhism, it is taught that our desires are the root cause of our suffering. They also teach basic techniques to let go of these desires directly. It is a simple method, without needing conversion to any traditions or beliefs or anything like that.

This is described in the Core Practice of Welcoming and Releasing Emotions. Simply identify the desire (in this case, for our parent’s approval), and let go of wanting it. Some variations you can release are: wanting to make them right; wanting to make them wrong; wanting their disapproval; wanting to spite them. It might be a good idea to experiment to see which brings up the most “emotional charge” for you.

Otherwise, apply your favourite tool to this. If you prefer using The Work, for example, try undoing beliefs such as: I need their approval; doing _____ will make them approve of me; they know better than I do.

3. The Consequences.
The last way I’ve used is more direct and confronting, which is why I recommend it only if you feel strong enough, or if you have professional support. The idea is to mentally (not in real life) bring up the emotional consequences of being bad, of not having their approval – and then releasing that.

Use the inquiries below, or your own variations, to see what you can find:

What would happen if I did/didn’t _____? How would that make me feel?
In the worst case scenario, I am afraid that if I did/didn’t do this, _____ will happen, and that will make me feel _____.

For example, Sam is worried that his parents will resent him if he became happier than they ever were. What would that make him feel? Guilty, ashamed, afraid. Therefore, he experiences those feelings fully, and then releases them with the Core Practice. He has lived his adult life to avoid feeling this way, but the moment he is no longer afraid of them, they begin to dissipate. Now he has nothing to avoid. Now he has regained his freedom to choose for himself with a rational, adult, mind; rather than an child-like fear and shame.

As Nathaniel Branden says – we do not transcend our limitations by denying or repressing our feelings, but rather by accepting them, experiencing them, and then stepping beyond them. In doing so, we learn to think for ourselves, and to honour our own being.

A gentle reminder that this is strictly an internal process; please continue to act with common sense and respect for all involved, including yourself.

(If anyone wonders about the unrelated picture for this post, its because I couldnt find a good one. I was going to use a picture of someone dangling from some puppet strings, but I’m not sure everyone shares the same twisted sense of humour, hehehe.)