Take Heart That Your Parents Made Mistakes


Each of us forms images of the world based on our experiences derived from engaging with our families. Gradually we learn that our expectations don't mesh with our encounters in real life: The world is not the same as life in our homes; it is either better or worse, more or less accepting.

As a first year college student I was surprised to learn the world was a kinder place than I envisioned. I was free of my family and my mother's needs (as a single parent) that had placed me a sisterly role. Now I was at liberty to act like an 18-year-old, to indulge in peer relationships as well as my studies.

Children who had "great" parents -- that is, understanding, communicative, and emotionally available -- paradoxically experience a handicap, too. In brief, an ideal early environment doesn't necessarily prepare them for the future.

Real life involves hard knocks in a world that hurts as well as heals. People emerging from an ideal childhood turn to a psychotherapist to address challenges presented by those who, unlike their parents, don't have their best interests in mind. Acquaintances, colleagues, friends and romantic partners, with their own needs and agendas, may undermine, lie, betray, and/or even abandon.

Mr. T.'s parents fall in the "too-good" category. As a result, he expected to find acceptance and approbation as an instructor at a well-regarded college. When he was criticized for his teaching methods, he didn't know how to respond. Confused and distraught, he crumbled and withdrew, instead of attempting to adjust to the students and faculty. Years later, he realized that he continued to fear rejection and the absence of the acceptance he'd grown accustomed to in his early life.

He had to redefine his expectations and cope with criticism before he could connect to the real world of ups and downs.

An only child with "ideal" parents, Ms. I. was unaccustomed to rivalry and competition. She didn't immediately recognize that her business partner was undermining their partnership, eventually attempting to assume control of their start-up company.

Although I'm not recommending the abolition of the ideal childhood, the rest of us can take heart and relinquish our envy by noting the downside of this rare phenomenon.

Conclusion: Some discomfort and misfortune prepare us for the real world, which alternately heals and hurts each of us at some point in our life's journey.

Although we naturally assume the world will treat us like our family, defining the differences, for better or worse, will help us adjust to what we encounter outside of our early experience.