The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

How to Hate Your Parents

Posted on | February 21, 2014 | 16 Comments

Too many people go through life in a search for scapegoats, seeking someone to blame for their unhappiness, so as to avoid having to confront the fact that they are responsible for their own problems. Whatever their problem is, someone must be blamed, and that someone cannot be themselves, because if they ever were to accept responsibility for their disappointments and misfortunes, their entitled worldview — their status as Special Snowflakes™ — would crumble into dust. Therefore the Great Scapegoat Hunt continues, and some of this blame-shifting is perversely marketed as “self-help.”

Now, I love Amy Alkon, the Advice Goddess, and so I don’t want this to be misinterpreted as criticism of her, but she tweeted out an article by one of her podcast guests that struck a nerve with me.

Peg Streep’s article “Daughters of Unloving Mothers: 7 Common Wounds” may be helpful to some women seeking to understand their troubled relationships with their mothers, and learning how to deal with the consequences of these relationships. But it also resembles the kind of gooey feel-good psychobabble approach to life that is at the heart of so much modern emotional misery.

In a way, you can blame Sigmund Freud for this trend.

The Viennese quack’s psychoanalytic theories located the sources of all unhappiness in early childhood, and every neurotic hypochondriac was encouraged to think that their problems were rooted in various unresolved “conflicts,” with the result that the family was depicted as a nightmare incubator of mental trauma.

We are a few decades past the Freudian heyday of the 1950s and ’60s, and the neuroscientists have long since dethroned the psychoanalysts as the chief “experts” in the mental health field, but the legacy of Freud lives on in the nervous sense of parental incompetence in which parents are afraid that their child will be permanently warped if they are not raised in the expert-approved way. And the Freudian legacy also endures in the way unhappy people tend to blame their unhappiness on childhood misfortunes, for which they ultimately blame their parents. If kids called you “fatso,” or you didn’t make the cut for varsity cheerleader, somehow this explains your adult problems and, if you follow the psychoanalytic method, it all goes back to Mom and Dad.

This is a dead-end trip, the negation of personal agency.

Good mental health does not begin with a resentful backward glance at our unhappy past. It begins in the here and now, with the idea that we are ultimately authors of our own destinies.

Nobody has perfect parents and a perfect childhood, and contemplating the variation of imperfections can be enlightening. But chances are your parents were more or less average, and your childhood was not much more unfortunate than the average. In fact, in my experience, the people most prone to resenting their parents are actually quite fortunate — they come from middle-class or upper-middle class backgrounds and are themselves usually well-educated and affluent. However, their comparatively privileged backgrounds often equip them with a sense of entitlement, and when their expectations are not met, they seek scapegoats. This is where Special Snowflakes™ Syndrome kicks in.

What is lacking — what we as a society have lost in the century or so since Doctor Freud taught us to second-guess our “impulses” and blame our problems on “complexes” — is the Stoic sensibility, the idea that enduring hardship without complaint is a virtue.

Our 19th-century ancestors — my Alabama dirt-farm forebears, for example — did not have the luxury of sitting around wondering why they weren’t happy. They had to work from dawn to sundown just to put food on the table, and the Culture of Complaint was alien to their worldview. Toiling at hard physical labor simply to avoid starvation has a way of making “happiness” more tangible, less a matter of abstract and transient emotion. It is only in the comfortable affluence of middle-class life that people care about “self-esteem” and other such psychobabble nonsense. When survival is taken for granted, ironically, “happiness” becomes harder to obtain.

OK, so that’s my rant about that. You can now go listen to Amy Alkon’s podcast interview with Peggy Streep about her book, Mastering the Art of Quitting — which is actually a good idea for a lot of people. My decision to quit the Washington Times in 2008 proved in hindsight to be a genius move. After I left, the place went to hell, and most of the people who stayed under the new management (people who thought I was crazy for quitting when I did) were laid off over the course of the next two years.

Sometimes you find yourself in untenable situation, where you feel trapped, and the tendency is to blame others for the situation. Regardless of whose fault the situation is, however, the only person you can control is yourself, and taking responsibility for your life sometimes requires you to sing that old Johnny Paycheck song, “Take This Job and Shove It.”



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  • Evi L. Bloggerlady

    How many authors made careers over stuff their parents did to them (real or imagined) as kids?

  • concern00

    A friend of mine has been suffering from severe anxiety and going through a marriage break-up. He has been seeing a psychologist for over a year and through this ‘sage’ counselling has come to the irrefutable conclusion that his parents are to blame for his problems. He’s 45 and been out from his parent’s direct influence longer than he’s been within it. Go figure. It’s just easier to blame someone else and today’s mental practitioners are pushing that very same agenda.

    Personal responsibility.

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  • bridget

    The ultimate issue is whether you love your neuroses more than the life you could have.

    That said, I’m tempted to send a copy of the book to Wendy Davis’ daughters. 😀

  • Art Deco

    In fact, in my experience, the people most prone to resenting their
    parents are actually quite fortunate — they come from middle-class or
    upper-middle class backgrounds and are themselves usually well-educated
    and affluent. However, their comparatively privileged backgrounds often
    equip them with a sense of entitlement,

    That sounds rather facile, though presumably it is true in some circumstances. An alternative hypothesis is that there is a correlation between affluence and a certain deficit of talent in human relations. The children of such homes are reared in environments amply supplied with things you can purchase (including good schooling) but the guidance and discipline they receive is haphazard and distorted in various ways because their parents are ill-adapted to the daily business of child-rearing. (A fairly lurid example of this would be Rushton Skakel, Robert Kennedy’s brother-in-law).

    Good mental health does not begin with a resentful backward glance at our unhappy past. It begins in the here and now, with the idea that we are ultimately authors of our own destinies.

    There is yesterday, today, and tomorrow. There is you and there is the network of people around you. If yesterday is something you have to charge off and the people around you are problems you have to work around, that’s an impediment to living a satisfied life. Just sayin’

  • richard mcenroe

    Stephen Spielberg’s obsession with his daddy and abandonment issues have messed up every movie he’s touched for years now.

  • Katie Scarlet

    Hehe I am sending this to my daughters. This should begin a lively back and forth. Thank you Robert.

  • Animal

    I’m reminded of one of my favorite Jeff Foxworthy observations: “You know, just once I’d like to see someone on one of these TV shows say ‘you know, my Mama was great, my Daddy was great, I’m just a shithead.'”

  • Mike G.

    I can tell you definitively when kids started having problems like blaming their parents. It was called the “Doctor Spock Baby Book.” That one book has probably done more damage to the psyche of kids than any other.

  • Zohydro

    Hear tell his own son hated him…

  • Evi L. Bloggerlady

    Philip Roth came immediately to mind for me.

  • DaveO

    Alice Walker, Woody Allen, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., Dina Lohan… yep.

  • Quartermaster

    Ain’t gonna happen with the number of special snowflakes out there.

  • jakee308

    You have a point in all of what you say here but there is the fact that parents can cause twists and warps of personality and misperceptions in their children by how they treat them, particularly in their earlier years.

    This doesn’t let them completely off the hook for any and all deficiencies of personality they may have as they grow older but there are difficulties in resolving and removing some of the worst that were imbedded the earliest. Not everyone can afford in depth therapy for years to help dig those out. Thus many with some deep set unhelpful reactions may struggle for years under that burden.

    Thus they wind up living a life that is a hell on earth with no respite for them or those around them until their death.

    Believe me when I say I know whereof I speak. But it’s difficult for others to be non judgmental over that sort of whining when the person doing so is such an obvious pos. That’s kind of the reason WHY they are what they are. It’s a circular situation that much of the time the person at the center can only retreat from people to save themselves (and thankfully others) from having to deal with these warps and twists that seem to have lives of their own. But even that self sacrificing move can become one more strike against them by their neighbors, fellow workers and any remnants of a social set they still have.

    You’ll find that many who have major personality defects are painfully aware of them and how they manifest themselves but are unable to completely stop them or are taken by surprise when they manifest themselves as much as the recipients of their bad moods and reactions.

    I think I’d rather be a complete mental case and unable to function than to be to all appearances normal and reasonable only to have episodes of dis sanity that eventually turn everyone I meet into either an outright enemy or a disdainful and dismissive neutral.

    There but for the grace of God may have gone YOU.

  • Art Deco

    The thing of it is, people have to take responsibility for each decision they make. However, people are not, as a matter of course, unaffected by their past. If you offer that people cannot be damaged by upbringing, you are also offering that they cannot be improved by it either, and that all parental efforts are for naught or (at least) have aught but short-term consequences. That’s an attractive thesis for people flogging hereditarianism (e.g. Judith Rich Harris, an admitted incompetent as a mother); it is not for anyone else.