There's a joke I first heard about 20 years ago that goes something like this: A man is talking to a friend of his and says, "You know last night I made a terrible Freudian slip." "What was that?" asks the friend. "Well, I was having dinner with my family, and I meant to ask my mother to pass the butter. But instead I said, 'You ruined my life!’”
A cousin of mine (who very much loved his own mother) told me that joke, which works well because so many of us do feel that our mother (or father) ruined our lives. Each week, across the nation, millions of hours of therapy are spent with clients learning the many ways in which their parents destroyed any chance they might have had for happiness.
Is it fair, though, to single out our parents as the people who destroyed our lives? Sure, they seem like good candidates: They raised us, but they also may have told us we were no good, and let us know either subtly or directly that we were tremendous disappointments to them. However, if you look back, you will see that there are many other people who may have contributed to the fact that you're struggling.
Let's take look at seven other suspects. [Note: This column is satirical...]
1. Your grandparents (and their parents, etc.).
How could they have ruined your life? Lots of people my age and a little older have grandchildren and never speak of the experience in anything less than superlatives. Indeed, when I think about my grandparents, I think of unconditional love. No matter what was going on with my parents, I always knew I would get uncritical love and support from my grandparents. But consider this: Your grandparents raised your parents. So the reason your parents are messed up is probably due to your grandparents. Sure, they're great to you but maybe they're trying to make up for the ways they wrecked their own children's lives.
And don’t stop there: Your grandparents were messed up because of their parents, and on and on, backward through time. Ultimately, you may realize that your life was ruined by the prehistoric couple that started the child-rearing chain that resulted in you. (And if you think parents are bad today, think about what it was like in the caves.)
2. Your teachers.
As a former teacher, I can say that teachers can and do have a very positive influence on their students. Well, some of them do. But there are others whose incompetence and, most important, clearly unfair grading practices probably helped to destroy any career aspirations you may have had.
3. Your high school guidance counselor.
Maybe you were one of the lucky ones who had a guidance counselor with a good sense of who you were, who made great suggestions about the colleges to which you should apply. Not the rest of us: There was a small college that I really thought would be good for me, but my guidance counselor said, "No, no, no. It's too competitive. You'll never get in." I heeded her advice, and then students with far lower GPAs than mine easily got into that little place, while I wound up at a big place dominated by fraternities where I didn't begin feeling at home until halfway through my senior year. Maybe she's to blame. . .
4. Your therapist.
You might never would have even started thinking about ways your parents messed you up if you hadn't started therapy. You remember how it went: You casually said something about your mother or father, and your therapist said, "Please, tell me more. Whatever comes to mind." And the more you protested that this stuff about your parents wasn't that important, the more the therapist would dig, until finally you realized the so-called "job" your parents did on you.
If it weren't for that therapist, maybe you'd still see your parents as the terrific people they really are (or were). So blame your therapist: She is probably just projecting the problems she had with her own parents on to you. . .
5. Your children.
After all you did for them, look at what they say to you—that is, when they bother to pick up the phone to call. If they were a little younger you'd make them write the Fifth Commandment (“Honor thy father and mother”) 100 times.
6. Your significant other.
Spouse, partner, whatever the term, it's always the same: Who else has put such limits on your personal growth and fulfillment by not appreciating your talents, as well as having their own selfish need for attention, recognition, and love?
When all else fails, maybe you can look at your own behavior as at least a possible reason you're unhappy. I know this seems absurd and far-fetched, but there are people, even in the mental-health field, who believe that at least some of our unhappiness is due to our own irresponsible or unproductive actions. Change your behavior, they say, and you'll change your life. (That's easy for them to say!)