How were you parented? If you say “well,” to me that means your parents
provided affirmation, recognition, validation and support. There was relative safety and predictability in your home life. But now the difference between your parents’ unconditional love and others’ devaluation of you can result in confusion about where you stand in the world. Who do you understand yourself to be? What do you feel is your worth? If you had good parents, it can be difficult to bridge the confusion between what you feel at home and what you experience outside in the world.
Despite affirming and positive parents, many patients I work with struggle with damaged self-esteem, serially unhappy relationships, or difficulty finding a relationship in the first place. There are many reasons for this contradiction, and here I will describe two of the most common. Of course, it’s rarely this clean. No parent is perfect. But even these imperfect “good” parents can inadevertently contribute to difficulties for their children’s romantic relationships.
First, on a deep level, you can’t help but compare yourself and the relationships you have to your parents’ relationship. In families in which parenting was especially strong, the parents’ relationship may have been strong as well. Now it becomes a daunting comparison. If you feel like your parents’ relationship is an impossible act to follow, you may shy away from trying for a deeply intimate relationship because you feel you can never live up to the model your parents created.
An example: I worked with a woman in her late twenties who was in great distress because she saw herself as having driven her boyfriend away by being perpetually critical of him. "Why did I have to sabotage a good connection?" she asked.
As my patient shared her story, it became apparent that without always realizing what she was doing, she would compare the interactions in her relationship with how her parents interacted with each other. She realized she was balancing the two ideas of “nothing can come close to what they have so why bother” and “let me test this person and see if he can come through like my parents did."
The second way good parents can inadvertently contribute to adult relationship difficulties is if you had a nurturing, loving home, you may not have been built to handle the cold, cruel world. In your formative years, you didn't have to. From the 1950s to today as the balance of parenting has swung on a cultural level from parent-centered to child-centered parenting, a field of research has sprung up to describe the results. For example, this study from the Journal of Family Psychology shows that parental warmth but not indulgence predicts later success – in this case, warmth from the mother led to emotional adjustment and warmth from the father led to social and school achievement.
Imagine you make a new friend and that friend says something hurtful to you. If you haven’t experienced that in your home life, it can make you feel particularly hurt and shocked, because managing that kind of criticism has not been in your repertoire. Not only that, but differences between how your parents view you and how you perceive the world’s view of you can create a rupture – you may start to devalue your experience of your parents’ treatment and opinion of you. It can make you feel frustrated and angry as you come to understand that your “good” parents can’t protect and didn't prepare you for the meanness you encounter in the world.
Your view of yourself can hang in the balance between these two experiences – parents who adore you and a society that doesn’t necessarily put you on the same pedestal. If you’re too ashamed to bring to your parents how you’ve been shamed, this omission can start to create a divide. And maybe you think there's only so much your parents can allow themselves to know about your pain and struggle, so bringing negative experiences to your parents that challenge their view of you can create an even deeper shame that you have somehow let them down or betrayed them. Eventually these confusing dynamics can create isolation, avoidance, even anger and frustration toward your parents that you long to not have but don’t know how to stop.
If you see yourself or your relationship in these descriptions, work to understand your expectations and how your parents helped to shape them. It may not be that the world is any colder to you than it is to anyone else, but because your parents shaped your expectations for warmth and nurturing, you are less prepared and the world seems meaner. Also work to understand that all of those mean things that happened to you when you were young can contribute to eroding the power of your parents’ opinion of you, which seems unfair to both you and them.
Knowledge is power and self-knowledge is the ultimate power.
In order to build your self-esteem after you’ve been devalued, you don’t have to adopt your parents’ unrealistically positive view of you, but you can still receive their nurturing, protectiveness and bolstering. You can let yourself be comforted. This strategy of accepting internal comfort while fending off external meanness has the capacity to open new dimensions in your relationship to your parents, your partner and yourself. In this way, you don’t swing from society’s view to your parents’ view and back to the other again as these external circumstances dictate. Instead, you work to create balance between disempowering those who make you feel bad and giving credibility to those who make you feel good.
You may not immediately make better choices, but when you’re ready let go of opinions and behaviors that are self-punishing, this understanding can help you move in an empowering direction.