Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Bonding vs. Bondage: What We Learn from Our Parents

Did you feel bonded to your parents--or "bound by" them?

 

child When we bond well with our parents, we're able to feel connected, comforted and secure about our place in the family. In such cases our home is truly our sanctuary--a place to which we can regularly return (or retreat) to get the reassurance and succor that we all need as children.

 The natural process of growing up and becoming socialized is typically so full of disappointments and confusion that it's essential to have parents who can reliably offer us solace and calm us down when we've depleted our limited coping resources.

On the contrary, to feel less bonded to our caretakers than in bondage to them is to experience a relationship far more precarious. Here we're not able to safely rely on our parents for understanding and support because their actions--and reactions--to us are determined more by their own issues, or their mental and emotional states, than our actual behavior. And as long as we're left anxious and insecure about how they feel about us, we obviously can't be very comfortable having to depend on them. At some level we're aware that the degree to which they're able or willing to respond positively to our needs is determined primarily by their moods--and their not-always-predictable "hot buttons."

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As a result of such inconsistent and frequently irrational treatment, we're doomed to experience apprehension about our relationship to our caretakers. And so, desperate to feel important and cared about, we're compelled to invest a great deal of time and energy to learn as much as possible about what's "going on" with them--in order not only to pacify them but also to obtain the unequivocal acceptance we long for. We're driven to attend carefully to their various states of mind and feeling, and to do our best to adjust our behaviors accordingly. After all, it's only logical that we'd do everything in our power to optimize the chances of getting--and staying--in their good graces. In this sense, it should be clear that lacking a confident sense of attachment to our parents leads us (ironically) to be bound to, rather than bonded with, them.

The depth of our insecurity may in fact require us to focus more on our parents' well-being than our own. However unconsciously, as young children we regard our personal survival as literally dependent on them. Doing all we can to safeguard this precious alliance necessarily becomes our highest priority. Inasmuch as our deepest need is to feel secure in our parents' love and protection, we can hardly afford the luxury of focusing on much of anything until we've experienced this parental "guarantee" that--no matter what--we'll never be abandoned.

It follows that if we don't feel free to attend sufficiently to our own developmental needs, we're actually psychologically "enslaved" to our caretakers. And our home can't possibly be a sanctuary for us--a safe harbor where we can dependably feel supported and understood. Rather, it's a place where we're constantly struggling to secure the enduring parental connection that so frustratingly eludes us. Unable to experience the bond that we crave, unable to relax in the conviction that--independent of any misbehavior--we are yet loved and cared about, we're held in bondage by our never-ending quest, or compulsion, to somehow confirm that our caretakers are unequivocally dedicated to our welfare.

Developmentally speaking, it's almost tragic that parents with unresolved anger, anxiety--or unmet dependency needs from their childhood generally--are so likely to foster in us unhealthy feelings of shame, inferiority, subjugation or servitude. However unintentionally, such parents can make us feel responsible for their happiness, such that we're prompted to take on the burden of their dependencies and (without really being aware of what's happening) behave in ways contrived to offer them comfort. Paradoxically, depending on our parents to feel secure about our place in the family, we have little choice but to allow them to depend on us to help them "address" (though hardly resolve) what they couldn't get during their own childhood.

To add yet another layer of irony to this lamentable situation, such parents may actually need to cultivate in us a kind of helpless dependency on them--in order for their adequacy, competence and authority to be externally confirmed. So at times it's not at all clear who's supporting whom, since inevitably there's a certain amount of role reversal taking place in our efforts to get from them what they themselves unconsciously need to get from us. More often than not, insecure adults beget insecure children, so that everyone in such a dysfunctional family system is seeking to get fundamental needs met--yet with almost no recognition of what these needs really are.

The way we're induced to "serve" our parents (or, almost by definition, be abused by them) relates to the circumstance that if they can feel securely depended upon by us, they don't have to experience their own chronic insecurities as much. Certainly they don't have to feel the same emotional suffering of not fitting in, or belonging, as they had when they were growing up. But sadly, when as children we are also depended upon--or rather, imposed upon--by our parents to help them try to resolve their own past dependency issues, we may well experience a similar sense of loneliness and not belonging. We may grow up with many, most, or all of the same unmet dependency needs as they did.

If--on the other hand--we had parents who were in fact capable of making us feel loved and secure, then (and with no special effort on our part) we were able to establish the sort of parental bond we required. As such, our parents--actually and symbolically--became a powerful resource for us, not only in our growing up but as adults as well. Assured of their devotion, we could internalize this vital parental connection so that, once grown up, our parental attachment could be felt from deep within, enabling us to be comfortably autonomous and without the need to find (and cling to) someone outside ourselves to feel acceptable or good enough. Our parents certainly may not have been perfect, but if they were reasonably sensitive to our needs and able to adequately nurture us, we're likely to become adults who can feel good about ourselves and amply fend for ourselves--without, that is, being on an everlasting "mission" to get from another the external validation never available from our caretakers.

But, again, if we grew into adulthood (or more accurately, were hindered from truly growing into it) by being "in bondage to" needy, incomplete caretakers--caretakers who simply couldn't help but use us in the misguided attempt to compensate for deficiencies in their own childhood--then we were never at liberty to develop into the self-assured, autonomous individuals we otherwise probably would have become. Our chronically anxious dependency on our parents (as well as theirs on us) handicapped us from developing beyond this abiding family dysfunction and evolving into the fully integrated adults we were meant to be. Unfortunately, this is the price we pay for having parents not able to afford us the opportunity to comfortably internalize the security about self that only they could have "imbued" in us.

Deficiently cared for and thereby harboring a good deal of self-doubt, we must discover on our own what we have to do to grow into the confident, self-caring and -sufficient adults we still have the potential to become (whether we do this work by ourselves or facilitate it through appropriate professional assistance). Saddled with a developmental impediment not of our making, our central task--and paramount challenge--is to learn how to cultivate a healthy self-love and confirm independently our inherent worth.

And this learning requires, more than anything else, that we begin to talk to that deprived child inside us. We need to tell ourselves--over and over till the message finally reaches into the deepest recesses of our being--that we deserved what our parents weren't able to offer us, that we can now begin to treat ourselves in the nurturing way our parents couldn't, and that--most important--we can trust ourselves to provide that consistent, loving connection to self which is the essential prerequisite for healthy adult independence, as well as the very foundation for building healthy relationships with others. Such a strategy of self-remediation is, finally, how we can free ourselves from the childhood shackles that may still be binding us.

In closing, let me add that I'm well aware that not all the problems in becoming comfortably independent as adults can be traced back to our parenting. Many other environmental factors must also be considered, as well as biological and genetic ones. But I do believe that parental deficiencies typically account for the greatest part of our struggles to become self-reliant, autonomous adults. So if we're having dependency and self-esteem issues, it's imperative that we focus on "re-parenting" ourselves--on learning how to give ourselves what our parents simply could not. Only then can we--independently--learn how to navigate our own successful path through life.

NOTE: If you'd like to check out other posts I've done for Psychology Today, please click here

© 2008 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

--- I invite readers to join me on Facebook and follow my psychological/philosophical musings on Twitter.

 

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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