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Know Yourself; Know Your Parents

We have heard over and over again through the years, “Don’t blame your parents.” It’s a saying that parents are fond of, but one that simplifies a complex process.

Therapy is not about blaming parents. It is about knowing yourself. Knowing yourself requires that you understand how you got the way you are and how your relationship with your parents and family influenced how you got the way your are. Understanding all this is not easy, and it’s the cornerstone of psychodynamic therapy.

I have had many clients who said they didn’t want to “blame their parents” and therefore had a resistance to knowing themselves. There is a defense mechanism called “splitting” that many children—especially those of abusive parents—use in order to preserve the “good parent.” They split off the imago of the bad parent, the one that abused them, relegating it to their unconscious, while preserving the good parent, the one who appeared at times to love them. Another kind of splitting occurs when the parent who abused them as a kid becomes nicer when the child grows to be an adult. The adult chooses to remember the parent who has now become nicer.

However, knowing yourself requires that you look objectively at yourself and at your upbringing. It is particularly hard to look objectively at your parents when you only have one parent and that parent idealizes you and sacrifices her life for you. How can you look objectively at such a parent? It seems like treason. This parent works long hours to make sure you have whatever you want and still has the time to spend quality time with you and tells you again and again how much you mean to her.

A patient may have a great many problems relating to people. When he is at work he feels tongue-tied. People joke with him and he doesn’t know what to say. He feels inferior to them and finds himself blurting out stupid things. Only when he gets drunk does he feel free to be himself. Then he is merry and witty and charming, and people swarm to him and pay attention. However, sometimes when he is drunk he also becomes belligerent and insulting. Why is he like this?

He comes into therapy to know himself. He can talk freely about his present state of identity confusion and lack of self-esteem. He can talk in general about his childhood: how his parents separated when he was six; how he had to be uprooted from his home country and come to the United States, where he was expected to learn a new language and new customs when all he wanted to do was go back to his homeland and sit in the laps of his grandmother and grandfather.

But for one such client, when it came to talking about his mother and about his mother’s emotionally unstable personality—particularly the times right after he came to America when he became rambunctious at school (as a boy in his situation might be), and she would suddenly scream at him and castigate him for doing something that would shame her and shame himself. His troublemaking was a way of crying out for help, but instead of helping him, she attacked him. There were only a few of these instances, but they were quite traumatic to him, because when his mother, his only parent, on whom he was dependent for everything–when she yelled at him that way, she became another person. Suddenly her eyes were crazy with rage and the six or seven-year-old boy would cower with fear and terror, thinking he had lost his only parent.

She was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Most of the time she was loving and supportive and would give him anything she could to make sure his life was comfortable. He was her little prince, for whom she would sacrifice anything. She was also well respected in her career, where she was a high-ranking medical technician. But she was unpredictable, turning into Mr. Hyde at any moment. The man never knew when this would happen. One memory was when he got into a shoving match with another little boy at school and told him he was an “idiot child.” Both mothers were called to the principal’s office.

Later, when they were back at home, his mother turned into Mr. Hyde and screamed at him for an hour about how he had brought shame on the family through his thoughtless behavior. For weeks after that she wouldn’t talk to him. Never did she ask him what he was feeling and what was going on with him. Never did she link his behavior to the divorce and his being uprooted from the old country and his need for a father.

Even when she was Dr. Jekyll, she could be quite stern about matters of etiquette. There was hardly a day when she didn’t correct his grammar or lecture him about how to hold his fork and spoon and how to open a door for a woman. Appearances were quite important to her. What was going on inside her boy was not.

So, when this client tried to know himself, he always came to a dead end when his therapist tried to link his present tongue-tied and self-conscious behavior to what happened with his mother in the past. “Yes, she yelled at me a few times, but mostly she was loving and devoted,” he protested, and he added, “I don’t want to blame her for my present condition.” If he was tongue-tied at work and if he was afraid of women in his personal life, he had to take responsibility for that. He was a grown man.

Patients like this reach the “I-don’t-want-to-blame-my-parent” block somewhere in the beginning of therapy. It can last a week or many years. Until they get past this block they can’t understand themselves completely. It’s important to get to the point where you can move past the past and be present in the present.

In order for people to know themselves they must emotionally separate from their parents. Knowing themselves means seeing themselves through their own eyes, not through their parents’ eyes. Once people define themselves through their own eyes, they find their true identity.

Know Yourself; Know Your Parents

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2017). Know Yourself; Know Your Parents. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2018, from


Last updated: 16 Dec 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 16 Dec 2017
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