During a recent session, Becca (mid-20s) was describing a typical argument with her mother. She and her mom have a close but combative relationship; in their fights, Becca often feels frustrated at her mom’s immaturity. Becca’s parents have been divorced for many years and her mother has drifted from one low-level job to another, never fulfilling her early potential, largely because of impulsive or ill-considered choices that involved taking the easy way out. Since therapy began, Becca has worked hard to overcome similar tendencies in her own character and has done remarkably well in a difficult career.
Becca’s mother often gives unwanted advice that Becca finds irritating. “Look at what she’s done with her own life,” she told me in session. “Who is she to give me advice about how to run mine?”
“Maybe you’ve outgrown your mom,” I said to Becca. “You keep wanting her to be more the kind of mother you wished you’d had, someone you could respect, but the truth is, you’ve grown beyond her. You’re the more emotionally mature and successful person.”
Becca looked startled and unhappy. “That’s kind of depressing,” she said. It made her feel both sad and guilty, that she should be growing beyond her mother in emotional maturity. She didn’t want to accept that her mother would never grow into a person she could look up to.
Becca’s reaction and the rest of that session reminded me of a dream I had almost 30 years ago. Like Becca, I would have been in my mid-20s, and five or six years into my own therapy. It must have been around the time I decided to become a therapist. Here’s the dream:
I’m standing on a crude flat-bottom boat in a swamp or bayou, right at the shoreline. It’s one of those boats you navigate by pushing a long pole into the lake bottom; a man stands behind me and has begun to pole us away from the shore. The rest of my family stands on the shoreline. As we pull further and further away from the shore, I feel deeply sad. Guilty, too. I feel as if I’m abandoning my family and that I ought to go back for them. But I know there’s not enough room for them in the boat. Even if there were, their feet seem to be stuck in the glue-like mud. There’s no hope for escape.
I had only one association to the dream: its location made me think of squalid parts of the rural South where people live in ignorance and poverty.
Even though it’s been nearly 30 years, I have a vivid recollection of that dream. I well remember what my analyst said. He told me that after a number of years of our work together (he was the man behind me with the pole), I’d grown emotionally, to such an extent that I felt I was leaving my family of origin behind. As I became healthier, I left the illness and dysfunction behind me, on my way to something better, while everyone else in my family remained “stuck” in an emotional backwater of ignorance and mental illness. I felt saddened by this movement away, and guilty to be leaving them behind.
As I write these words, that dream still makes me sad. When I look at the lives of my nieces and nephews today, I see the dysfunction getting worse. It’s what I felt back then — so much pain and confusion, too many drugs, periods of complete emotional chaos. I’ve done well for myself and I’m grateful for the life I have, but at the point when I truly separated from my family and moved on emotionaly, as it were, I felt sad and guilty about it.
For many of us who get therapy and truly grow, it often means leaving our families of origin behind. I don’t mean that we permanently break off contact, although with deeply narcissistic or toxic parents, that may be necessary. I didn’t stop seeing my parents, but I usually felt as if I were humoring my father and keeping my mother at a distance. I still loved my family, but in many ways, being around them made me feel how little we had in common. In later years, my sister, brother and I found meaningful ways to re-connect but I never again felt much emotional contact with my parents.
This kind of separation is different from the way many teens reject their parents or treat them with contempt. In such cases, they’re usually struggling to establish their own independent identity and feel they must separate forcefully; it’s often temporary, a “phase” as they say. The grief and guilt of outgrowing your parents also differs from the very normal way that children come to view their parents as quaint and out-of-date — to mothball them, as I described it in an earlier post. Separation and gaining independence are a normal part of development; a phase of feeling superior to your parents helps you to break free of childhood. Feeling grief and guilt because you’ve grown beyond a mentally ill family system is quite another matter.
Becca has just begun this transition. I think she’d still very much like to feel she has a “real” mother, someone older and wiser to be relied upon for guidance, rather than someone who seems more like a girlfriend most of the time. Because she’s not yet fully confident in her own “adult” abilities, Becca doesn’t feel ready to accept her mother for who she is, rather than the person Becca would like her to be. But that time will come. There’s more grief and guilt ahead for her.