I’ve always said that there’s a statute of limitations on blaming your parents for your problems. By the time you turn 30, you can’t legitimately blame them if you aren’t happy with your life. (For the sake of this reasoning, let’s assume that your parents were not grossly abusive.)
My parents were neither the best nor the worst, and my childhood was neither the most nurturing nor the least. I would say we had a typical amount of family dysfunction for that generation.
Today I have close relationships with both of my parents. Not only have I forgiven them for any missteps they made raising me and my siblings; it is my strongest wish that they have forgiven themselves. Our relationships are based on how we treat one another now, and all of us have grown and evolved since those early days.
All of that said, naturally I still struggle with issues that were first set in motion during my childhood. Those patterns are deep and many will always be there, even as some are easier to rewrite than others. Some of those patterns continue to find expression in everyday life. And every once in a while, I am given a glimpse of where that pattern started in my childhood.
I’ve shared before a familiar pattern for me where I feel unappreciated and misunderstood. Sometimes it’s at work. Unfortunately, it describes my current living situation. This pattern has surfaced time and again, despite my deliberate efforts to respond to it differently each time in the hopes of “figuring it out.”
I’ve been pondering lately the storyline of the misunderstood and mistreated hero. You can find him or her in countless stories: Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, The Hulk, John from The Green Mile. The more I thought about it, the more characters I came up with who matched this description.
I wondered if there was an Archetype that fit this type of character and did a little digging. Carl Jung references the Child Archetype, a common human theme if you think about all children as being powerless, fully dependent on others, and likely to feel misunderstood or even mistreated. This is an experience that most of us had, and if our circumstances included being belittled or mocked (whether at home or at school), we can relate to that feeling.
This was so obvious: a widely experienced Archetype that most of us can relate to, by virtue of the realities of being powerless children, unable to get away from harmful people or circumstances.
I’m sure I could come up with dozens of examples from my childhood. Growing up with three siblings meant I didn’t always get my way. Moving around a lot as we did, I was bound to have some teachers and classmates who didn’t take to me. But suddenly one childhood memory crystalized in my mind. It happened at easily the most trying time for my family, where poor health, an unwelcoming community, and insufficient income impacted each of us deeply.
I’d made a mistake in the kitchen; I didn’t mean to. My dad yelled at me then stormed off. When I tried to run to my room to cry my mom wrapped me in a hug, keeping me there, so that I was still there when my dad returned to the room and he was able to scold me again.
I can imagine the scene so clearly. But more than that, I can feel it. I can feel the tightening in my chest, like I’m being smothered, it’s hard to breathe. I can feel the sense of being trapped, desperate to get away but unable to. Every part of my body wanting to run away. My body remembers it like it was yesterday.
The same way I feel smothered and trapped, tight chest and hard to breathe, when I am reprimanded by a boss even though I’m doing my best.
Snap. So obvious. Why hadn’t I made the connection before?
Most likely I had, probably several times. But this time, I felt it. And this time, I have the understanding that this is an experience of childhood: of course we feel powerless; of course we feel trapped. Of course at times we feel misunderstood and mistreated. And because we do not have the means to change our situation, we are trapped. It isn’t an illusion; it is a fact of being a child dependent on others.
I am a person who tries her best, who is authentic and genuine. At work I put forth my best effort. I want to please. I want my bosses to like me. I want my landlords to like me. And yet sometimes, I get a boss or landlord who doesn’t seem to notice my efforts and my successes. Instead they focus on my failings, or even fabricate failings.
I feel misunderstood, because I’m trying my best and they don’t see that. I feel mistreated because not only do they not acknowledge my accomplishments, they reprimand me. And immediately my body goes back to that childhood response: constricted chest, desperation, trapped, want to run away but cannot.
Trying to resolve a tricky situation, a misunderstanding, is never helped when the body and mind are screaming, “I’m trapped,” so loudly you can’t think straight. And honestly, I’m done trying to figure out these people. I think the world is populated with people who act out their own unresolved issues around power and control, who take out their own frustrations on those least deserving of mistreatment, and most likely to take it without punching them in the throat.
And given a lifetime of trying different techniques to resolve this pattern, I can only conclude that people who act out unconsciously will not stop doing so because of something I say or do. Period.
So where does that leave me, and the rest of us who can remember so vividly how it feels to be a misunderstood and powerless child, when we find ourselves being mistreated? Heck if I know. But the sooner I can remember that my physical response is coming from my childhood when I had no control, and now that I’m an adult I do have control, I hope at the very least to disengage much more quickly from this pattern.
I won’t change the other person. But neither am I trapped, with no control over their ongoing mistreatment. I can always choose to walk away.