Working on how we genuinely see and feel about our parents provides the greatest opportunity to grow and develop into principle-centred human beings, leaders, entrepreneurs and benefactors. However, this can be incredibly sensitive, and likely painful, transformational work which we cannot do by ourselves effectively.
“All of us develop our expectations about how people will treat us based on our relationships with our parents.” Susan Forward PhD
One day, around 4-5 years ago, I was speaking to my mentor Chris Nash about my family and the plans that I had for ensuring they would be safe, well and looked after in the future. I was speaking about my different family members. Then Chris asked, “What about your mum?” I had completely omitted her from my plans… and arguably the most vulnerable member at that!
That was a humbling ego-decimating reality check to say the least!! My lack of integrity was revealed right there and it was another bitter pill to swallow in my transformational mentoring journey. This was because it awakened my conscience to show me how my resentment was causing me to be psychopathic in terms of a lack of compassion for my own mother.
Here I was, through my role at Lighthouse, talking to people about becoming a benefactor for themselves, their families and the vulnerable whilst being in complete denial of looking after the most vulnerable member of my very own family!
This article is an open, candid and heartfelt expression of how I got to this tragic point in my relationship with my mum and what I did to transform it through transforming myself. I’ll share how it was through my mentorship at Lighthouse International Group from Paul Waugh and Chris Nash that I was able to face my biggest fears when it came to my relationship with my mum. This has had a positive impact on my overall health and happiness.
Key Points Of This Article
1. Deep introspection, holistic self-examination and a fortifying commitment to absolute truth is the only way that we can start to transition and transform our characters. Part of this self-examination requires having an open and honest look at our upbringing, our parents and our relationship with them.
2. Unless our parents have proactively sought to work through their own personal challenges, they are unlikely to be able to give us the essential mentoring, coaching and counselling we need to have the foundation to become healthy growing adults. This can cause underlying resentment that’s often projected onto others.
3. To drop any resentment we feel, we need to forgive, and the work of forgiveness starts with forgiving ourselves. This forgiveness work, especially in sensitive and painful areas like our childhood, cannot be done alone. I would not have been able to genuinely forgive my mum without the mentoring, coaching and counselling I received at Lighthouse International Group.
This article is predominantly written for anyone who has:
i. experienced/is experiencing a difficult relationship with a parent (or indeed any other family member)
ii. grown up with a parent or other family member suffering from bi-polar disorder (or equivalent mental health condition)
iii. struggled/is struggling to forgive someone who has hurt them in some shape or form
iv. lost a loved one
v. an interest in how mentorship can enable them to overcome issues like the above in order to heal, strengthen and, in time, go on to help others
In particular I really hope that this will serve to help those who have had difficult relationships with their parents. I say this because these relationships are the most formative ones we have and therefore provide the biggest opportunity for us to grow.
There will likely be one or more of the following reactions to this article:
Inspired: most likely because you have gone through, are going through or want to go through the transformational experience of self-examination by working through any childhood resentment towards parents or other family members.
Indifferent: it all seems like hard work and things seem fine the way they are. Why rock the boat?
Fearful: just the prospect of questioning these formative relationships seems too scary to even look at.
Judgmental or offended: this article is on the incredibly sensitive and emotive subject of questioning family relationships which may stir up ill-feeling.
The reality is that if we do not challenge this area of our lives in order to grow up emotionally, then we will remain emotional children in adult bodies for the rest of our lives (AKA old infants). It takes great fortitude and courage to do this because it involves stepping onto tender ground. However, this challenging work enables us to grow into emotionally mature and responsible adults with healthy expectations of our parents and, by extension, any authority figures in our lives like bosses, political leaders etc. It's not healthy to be scared, in awe of and/or constantly seeking approval from such people in our lives!
M. Scott Peck addresses this issue in the Road Less Travelled in which he describes why a client transferred his experiences and expectations of his parents to others in his life,
"To a child his or her parents are everything; they represent the world. The child does not have the perspective to see that other parents are different and frequently better. He assumes that the way his parents do things is the way that things are done. Consequently the realization – the ‘reality’ – that this child came to was not ‘I can’t trust my parents’ but ‘I can’t trust people.’ Not trusting people therefore became the map with which he entered adolescence and adulthood. With this map and with an abundant store of resentment resulting from his many disappointments, it was inevitable that he came into conflict after conflict with authority figures – police, teachers, employers."
Living Our Values Is Easier Said Than Done
For years one of my core values has been forgiveness, but to apply it to my life as a virtue (i.e. a value-based behaviour) has been far easier said than done. For those who know me the best, they will know that the relationship with my mum has most definitely been the biggest challenge for me and also where my biggest personal breakthroughs have been made.
Predominantly due to her bipolar disorder, my mum was unable to give me a lot of what I needed and wanted from her as a child. There were a variety of incidents from which I carry the scars to this day. As I got older I resented her more and more for this. Then from this resentment came two of my biggest fears.
My Biggest Fear: Inheriting Bipolar Disorder
Firstly I feared that I had inherited bipolar disorder myself and because of seeing the suffering my mum experienced (and subsequently caused) I feared that I may be destined for the same fate. I suppressed this fear to the point where I felt that if no one else knew about her condition, then this fear would somehow go away. Therefore outside of my immediate family I never told anyone about my mum’s condition until I was 23 years old. Until then this fear was literally eating me alive from the inside.
For instance when living in the Caribbean after graduating I was going through a depressive phase and feared the worse as I did some self-assessments online. I felt obliged to tell my girlfriend at the time and just thought, “That's it! This relationship is over!”… with this thought I created a story that all hopes of leading a happy, healthy and fulfilling life were over.
Bless her, she was remarkably unnerved by this and yet I knew she didn’t really understand the potential future suffering I foresaw for myself and anyone close to me in the future. Because I felt like my life had ended before it had started there were times where I just felt like jumping off the top of the 5-storey block I was living in at the time. Having lived through this dark spell without deadly consequences has led to me taking my mental health very seriously. This is probably one of the biggest reasons for being involved with Lighthouse International Group; not only to become healthier in all human dimensions, but to be helping others to become healthier physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
My Second Biggest Fear: Speaking At My Mum’s Funeral
Secondly, because of my compounding resentment towards my mum, I feared the day I would need to speak at her funeral… what would I say about a parent who couldn’t be a parent to me? As I and we have learnt at Lighthouse International Group; to question, challenge or just highlight areas of imperfection in parenting can be met with such scorn and viciousness... ESPECIALLY from the mothers!
The fact that even daring to suggest that parents can become better people and parents is probably the greatest taboo we have unveiled through our research and real-life experiences meant I suppressed this fear. I feared the likely judgment from others potentially seeing me as a cold, wicked and nasty person. Yet I would cringe when seeing greetings cards like "World's best mum ever!" I would love to have been able to say and write something like that, but it was simply not true and I didn't want to live a lie for the sake of social norms, niceties and conventions.
Simply put, deep down in my soul, following graduation from university, I was coming to terms with the reality of the upbringing that I didn’t receive; not being equipped for life. Sure, I could read, write, add up and recall information (like a computer), but where was I in terms of knowing who I was and the reality of my potential? Why did I feel nervous around people? Why would I turn red like a beetroot when any form of attention was directed my way? Why would I feel awkward around the opposite sex? Why did I freak out when I thought I’d done something wrong? Why would I do things like eat when I wasn't even hungry or indulge in minor forms of self-harm? The list would go on and then on a more primary level I was debating; what was my vision for my life, my mission and my values?
The Downward Spiral Of Resentment
I felt this gap, I felt let down and the resentment towards my parents slowly started to build. In the case of my mum; not only did I want her bi-polar condition not to exist, but I also didn’t want her to exist... this is a terrible thought to have!! Please sit with that for a moment... imagine not wanting the very person who carried you for months in their womb in your most vulnerable state to even exist! Yet that’s what was going on inside of me when being prepared to face the reality of how I felt, not how I wanted to be seen to feel about my own mother of all people.
Any mention to me of ‘mum’ was met with a blankness and a void in the depths of my soul. Then at the same time I lived in fear that she would have another bi-polar episode. In my early twenties I was offered the responsibility to be her power of attorney; effectively having the authority to have my mum sectioned. Fortunately my aunt offered to take that on because she and I both knew I was too weak and fearful to take on such a responsibility. There I was, just wanting to get on with my life and with my mum’s condition it felt like I had a burden hanging round my neck. This is why I actually felt quite ashamed reading about the example of someone like Olivia who embraced the opportunity to care for a vulnerable family member.
So I went through my twenties with these fears suppressed away in my subconscious. How I felt about my mum was a bitter pill to swallow; it can be seen as social suicide to express that you resent, potentially sometimes even hate, your parents. I could, however, never heal from the damage caused by this resentment without first admitting what was going on inside to myself. After all we can’t change a situation that we fail to acknowledge even exists! This is why the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program effectively starts with admitting that there’s a problem we are unable to control.
I wanted to forgive my mum because I knew this was the right thing to do. I even remember I twice told her I forgave her, yet the resentment seemed to remain. It was eating me up inside. I simply couldn’t do this work of forgiveness by myself!
The Reality of What It Takes To Make a Breakthrough
To truly transform and make lasting breakthroughs is incredibly challenging. This is because it inevitably involves facing inconvenient and painful truths about ourselves and others. Understandably the significant majority of the world’s population find deep introspection and self-examination so intimidating to the point they will deny the need to do it themselves. Not only that, but there are those who will even judge, mock or ridicule those who do... I and we have plenty of evidence for that from the trolling at Lighthouse International Group!
Deep introspection, holistic self-examination and a fortifying commitment to absolute truth is, however, the only way that we can start to transition and transform our characters. It is through the transformation of our characters that we become truly disciplined people capable of facing uncertainty and overcoming adversity. This all starts with an impactful and lasting paradigm shift as Stephen Covey explains in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
“In the words of Thoreau, “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.” We can only achieve quantum improvements in our lives as we quit hacking at the leaves of attitude and behavior and get to work on the root, the paradigms from which our attitudes and behaviors flow.”
Our work at Lighthouse International Group is about helping conscientious people overcome the barriers to realising their potential. The integrity to this mission naturally starts with the work done by each Associate Partner, mentor, coach and counsellor at Lighthouse. So in line with this I wanted to write about my own personal experience of transitioning and transforming through one of my most testing challenges. The purpose is to share what it means for us to face our biggest fears and the need for community to do this. Naturally I wanted to do this with a real-life experience rather than academic theory because this is predominantly an emotional process, not a mental one!
Our Unrealistic Expectations Of Our Parents
Pioneering psychologists like Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby and Jean Piaget would base their work on the influence of parents on the development of a child. As stated at the start of this article, in Toxic Parents, Susan Forward PhD summarised this by saying, “All of us develop our expectations about how people will treat us based on our relationships with our parents.” Hence the reason anyone embarking on any form of therapy can expect to be asked about their relationship with their parents.
As children we often have unrealistic expectations of our parents to the point where we can have a deluded, often rose-tinted, perception of them. We see them as gods and we want them to be perfect; to be superhuman and our greatest heroes. Sukh Singh has written about this here. The reality is that, like us, our parents are fallible human beings with their own personal fears, worries and insecurities. Unless they’ve proactively sought to work through these issues, they are unlikely to be able to give us the mentoring, the coaching and the counselling we need to have the foundation to become healthy growing adults by the time we’re 18-21 years old.
The fact that social scientists state that millennials are the most infantilised generation to date shows that the next generation is simply not getting the upbringing they need to be prepared for life. What does that mean? It means that young adults are becoming increasingly dependent on their parents rather than independent; not just physically and financially, but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This means that more and more young people today lack the fortitude to face and overcome their fears.
Mentorship Helped Me Get To The Root & Start The Process Of Forgiveness
Getting to the root of what was going on is where the mentorship from Chris Nash and the community support from those involved at Lighthouse International Group helped me the most. Whilst I had dabbled with some counselling at the end of my time at university, I had never committed to looking at the darker sides of me and my personality. In line with realising my potential, this would be necessary as backed up by leading clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson who has said,
“I don't think that you have any insight whatsoever into your capacity for good until you have some well-developed insight into your capacity for evil.”
Chris was the first person who I felt genuinely wanted to understand what was actually going on inside of me AND to help me to process these toxic emotions. One experience that comes to mind is how when I was around 16 I was encouraged by my dad to write a letter to my mum to express how I felt about her and my relationship with her. It was full of bitterness and resentment; my mum acknowledged receiving it, but she didn’t really want to discuss any specifics in order to reconcile our differences. Although in hindsight I can’t blame her because of what I had invested into the letter, but at the time I resented her more for this lack of reply. I had made a photocopy of this letter and symbolically held onto it for years… similar to the way I was holding onto my resentment! Then one day when I was doing a physical clear-out I came across the letter again. Because of the way Chris was helping me to face the reality of my mum and her condition, I decided to rip the letter up to shreds. This spontaneous, yet symbolic, act felt like I’d let go of a massive weight I was carrying on my shoulders. The process of forgiving my mum only truly started happening as I started to forgive myself for the resentment I had been carrying towards my mum.
Another big breakthrough was an experience I had around the time of joining Lighthouse International Group as an Associate back in 2012. I was enjoying a curry at Kuti’s with Paul Waugh, Kris Deichler and Shaun Cooper. I was sharing a bit about my mum, her condition and the impact it had made on me. As I was opening up I remember that Paul Waugh looked at me and said, “You’re lucky not to have bi-polar.” Almost instantly I broke down into tears. At the age of 32 no one had really acknowledged this deep fear of mine in an explicit way. So the tears were tears of relief as I took another step out of the shadow of the dark cloud that had been hanging over me for pretty much the whole of my life.
Forgiveness Is An Ongoing Process
What I have learnt through my personal discovery and real-life experience is that forgiveness is not a one-off act. It is, in fact, more of an attitude, a moment-by-moment way of being. Whilst with that conversation I had dropped the fear of inheriting bipolar disorder, I hadn’t dropped the resentment.
With the wake-up Chris gave me 4-5 years ago (that I described at the start of this article) and his subsequent support I decided to change the way I saw and felt about my mum. Having unrealistic expectations of her was poisoning any opportunities to have a healthy relationship with her.
How Challenging My Mum Created A Priceless Memory
However, what I’ve been learning is that accepting someone for who they are doesn’t mean sympathising with them. It’s loving to challenge those around us at a level that is stretching, but possible for their current capabilities. Whether it’s a friend, a peer, a family member, a client or even ourselves, finding the right level of challenge requires great wisdom, discernment and the willingness to make things right where mistakes are made.
One time a few years ago when visiting my mum I had a strong feeling to do something different to previous visits. Normally I would just sit and chat with her over a cup of coffee at her house. However, I decided this time we ought to go for a walk. After some resistance she realised I wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer and came out with me. We went up the local hill and whilst out we found a memorial to a lost loved one. The family had provided cards and pens for people to write their dreams on coloured cards to hang on the tree. I took this photo of my mum with hers:
After the initial resistance to going out, it was a challenge to convince her to go back home! As well as the wonderful experience of learning more about my mum and what was important to her, I also discovered afterwards that she hadn’t actually been out of the house for months. In a way it was good that I didn’t know this because that would’ve likely affected the way I’d approached the situation. Rather than moaning at her for not going out (as I would’ve done), I affirmed her, saw an opportunity for us to build our relationship and took the lead.
This is a small example of how pushing a parent to be a healthier human being can forge a stronger relationship. It’s also why it saddens me so much when parents of those involved at Lighthouse are closed to the opportunities to build the relationship with their son or daughter through a willingness to be challenged in order to reconcile any differences. Tragically over the years we’ve seen parents (and siblings) try to assert control over their grown-up child who is simply striving to become more of an adult.
Responding To The Ultimate Wake-Up Call
Whilst spending time with family one Christmas I only got to see my mum briefly because of her being unwell. Seeing her in that vulnerable state was a huge wake-up call. So I made the commitment to speak to her each day; setting my phone reminder for 1:15pm each day to call (still set as a reminder to this day).
For the next 6 months I called her every day. At the start she didn’t really want to speak, wanting to end the call as quickly as she could (I know that move, because I’ve done that many times myself!). However, I persisted and from that we probably had the healthiest relationship since being a young boy. I dropped the resistance to her not being able to be a parent who could mentor, coach and counsel me. I started to accept more as to who she actually was rather than who I wanted her to be. The fruits of this self-examination were that for the first time since being a young boy I could feel some genuine affection towards her.
As time went on, I regrettably let this commitment slip, but I still kept in touch more than I had in previous years. I certainly kept in touch more than if I’d not had the reality check from Chris about how my resentment was poisoning the relationship with my mum. And at the same time I was also encouraging other family members to have healthier expectations for their relationship with my mum.
Growing Through The Loss Of My Mum
The next and last time I would see my mum in person was for my 40th birthday. Just a few months afterwards she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It was stage 4; malignant and terminal. It meant that I was going to need to face my second biggest fear and once again Chris was there by my side to face and navigate the concoction of emotions released through this.
The biggest breakthrough was seeing what my mum’s passing represented. It represented the death of the lingering, subconscious hope that my mum could be a parent in the truest sense of the word; a mentor, a coach, a counsellor and an inspiring force in my life as a source of security, guidance, wisdom and power. Her condition had severely restricted her ability to be the parent she wanted to be for me and that I needed her to be as a sensitive child looking to become an adult. Again I broke down in tears at facing this reality, but it was a liberation as it freed me up to accept her imminent passing. It also helped me to do my best to love her as best I could in the last weeks of her life.
I’ve publicly shared my eulogy for my mum and what I’ve written in this post explains why it took me a decade to write the letter I eventually wrote as my eulogy for her. This post has taken an additional two years to write; it is another part of the legacy I am building in honour of my mum and her life. I have made so many mistakes, but also learned many lessons thanks to being mentored that I am now able to share. This is what it means for me to atone for the way that I saw, felt about and treated my mum. I sincerely hope others can learn from the mistakes I made.
The tragic reality I’ve seen is how damaging unhealthy relationships with our parents can be for ourselves and therefore for others. If you have (or someone you know has) the self-honesty to work on letting go of parental resentment, then I would love to hear from you.
I will close by saying that whilst we do not have full responsibility for what others do to hurt us (whether intentional or not), we do have the responsibility to address any resentment and other toxic emotions we hold inside of ourselves. It’s life-decimating to hold onto this ill-feeling as is stated by Bert Ghezzi in the book The Angry Christian,
“Resentment is like a poison we carry around inside us with the hope that when we get the chance we can deposit it where it will harm another who has injured us. The fact is that we carry this poison at extreme risk to ourselves.”
I hope this has inspired you to embark on your own path to forgiveness and wish you the best for this journey whether I can be part of it or not. What I do urge again is that this can’t be done by yourself. I never would’ve been able to face this letting go of resentment without the love, care and compassion of Paul Waugh, Chris Nash and the Lighthouse Community as a whole over the last 13 years of my life. If there’s anything that I and we can do to help, then please feel free to email me or connect with me on social media.