We all have strong emotional reactions to our parents. However 'good' they were as parents, there were inevitably conflicts between what seemed best to the mature adult, and what was needed and wanted (however irrationally) by the child. Some of us are in touch with those feelings, but others protect themselves from the intensity of their emotions by burying them.
The child in us may have come to the conclusion that it isn't safe to feel. Perhaps he was punished for expressing feelings, or perhaps his feelings were so painful that in order to make life tolerable, he pushed them deep into his subconscious. Perhaps he had to convince himself that he just didn't care, needed to prove to his parents that they couldn't get to him.
Rational Emotive Therapy provides excellent tools to examine the issues of our parenting and obtain new clarity and understanding. The following procedure is based on the book "Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life" by Susan Forward. To take your understanding of these issues further I recommend you purchase the book.
The following checklist is used as a starting point to get to deeply buried emotions.
Step 1. List One: Emotions
The checklist is divided into four groups: guilt, fear, sadness and anger. You are looking for automatic, reactive, negative feelings - the ones that usually cause self-defeating behaviors. Note which statements in the following list are true for you:
In your relationship with either or both of your parents, are any of the following statements true for you, now or in the past?
1. I feel guilty when I don't live up to my parents' expectations.
2. I feel guilty when I do something that upsets them.
3. I feel guilt when I go against their advice.
4. I feel guilty when I get angry with them.
5. I feel guilty when I disappoint my parents or hurt their feelings.
6. I feel guilty when I don't do enough for them.
7. I feel guilty when I don't do everything they ask me to do.
8. I feel guilty when I say no to them.
9. I feel scared when my parents yell at me.
10. I feel scared when they're angry at me.
11. I feel scared when I'm angry at them.
12. I feel scared when I have to tell them something they don't want to hear.
13. I feel scared when they threaten to withdraw their love.
14. I feel scared when I disagree with them.
15. I feel scared when I try to stand up to them
16. I feel sad when my parents are unhappy
17. I feel sad when I know I've let my parents down.
18. I feel sad when I can't make their lives better for them.
19. I feel sad when my parents tell me I've ruined their lives.
20. I feel sad when I do something that I want to do and it hurts my parents.
21. I feel sad when my parents don't like my (friends, lover, husband/wife).
22. I feel angry when my parents criticise me.
23. I feel angry when my parents try to control me.
24. I feel angry when they tell me how to live my life.
25. I feel angry when they tell me how I should feel, think, or behave.
26. I feel angry when they tell me what I should or shouldn't do.
27. I feel angry when they make demands on me.
28. I feel angry when they try to live their lives through me.
29. I feel angry when they expect me to take care of them.
30. I feel angry when they reject me.
Further instances may be elicited by completing the sentence:
'Regarding my parents, I feel guilty when .....', and similarly for other emotions.
Alternative feelings may also be elicited by completing the sentence:
'When I don't live up to my parents expectations I feel...', and similarly for the other situations above.
Step 2. Release
Use the Procedure for Releasing to focus on, experience and finally release the most moving or strongly felt emotion from Step 1.
Step 3. List Two: Beliefs
The second checklist identifies beliefs that underlie one's emeotions. The statement corresponding to the most moving or strongly felt emotion from Step 1 is read out, followed by 'because ....' and then each of the following Beliefs:
(Emotion statement from Step 1) because:
1. It is up to me to make my parents happy.
2. It is up to me to make my parents proud.
3. I am my parents whole life.
4. My parents couldn't survive without me.
5. I couldn't survive without my parents.
6. If I told my parents the truth about (my divorce, my abortion, my being gay, my fiancee being an atheist, etc.), it would kill them.
7. If I stand up to my parents, I'll lose them forever.
8. If I tell them how much they hurt me, they'll cut me out of their lives.
9. I shouldn't do or say anything that would hurt my parents' feelings.
10. My parents' feelings are more important than mine.
11. There's no point in talking to my parents because it wouldn't do any good.
12. If my parents would only change, I would feel better about myself.
13. I have to make it up to my parents for being such a bad person.
14. If I could just get them to see how much they're hurting me, I know they'd be different.
15. No matter what they did, they are my parents and I have to honour them.
16. My parents don't have any control over my life. I fight with them all the time.
17. Because??? (Is there some other belief that underlies this emotion?)
Step 4. Seeing the Connection
The emotion and underlying belief are then repeated as a whole statement, e.g. 'I feel guilty when I do something that upsets them because I shouldn't do or say anything that will hurt my parents' feelings'. Any further emotions that emerge are handled by the Releasing procedure.
This piggyback technique helps you to make a lot more sense out of your emotional reactions; you will probably be surprised at how many of your feelings have their roots in your beliefs. This exercise is tremendously important, because once you understand the source of your emotions - your own beliefs - you can take responsibility for them and control them.
Step 5. List Three: behaviors
Beliefs lead to rules, emotions make you obey them, and that is what leads to behavior. Having recognized relevant emotions and beliefs, behavior patterns can now be addressed. The following behaviors fall into two categories: compliant (1-11) and aggressive (12-16). See if the actions in the following list correspond to your behavior resulting from the above feeling and connected belief.
Does (the connected statement from Step 4) lead to any of the following behaviors?
1. Tending to give in to your parents no matter how you feel.
2. Not telling them what you really think.
3. Not telling them how you really feel.
4. Acting as if everything is fine between you even when it isn't.
5. Being phoney and superficial when you're with your parents.
6. Doing things out of guilt or fear, rather than out of free choice.
7. Trying very hard to get them to change.
8. Trying hard to get them to see your point of view.
9. Becoming the peacemaker between them.
10. Making painful sacrifices in your own life to please them.
11. Continuing to be the bearer of family secrets.
12. Trying to prove to your parents that you're right.
13. Doing things you know they won't like to show them your independence.
14. Screaming at your parents to show them they can't control you.
15. Having to restrain yourself to keep from attacking them.
16. Cutting your parents out of your life.
17. Some other self-defeating, painfful or inappropriate behavior?
Step 6. Complete the Procedure
Go back to Step 1 and see if there are other strongly felt emotions regarding your relationship with your parents and handle these in the same manner, until you really feel released from any bad feelings, however much you might have previously been suppressing them.
You may not be able to change lifelong patterns of behavior overnight, no matter how self-defeating they may now seem to you. What you can do is start to challenge such behaviors if they emerge again with painful consequences, and to recognize the underlying misconceived or limiting belief on which they are based. Discard them to allow your true self to emerge. That way you come to know who you really are.