Leo Tolstoy once said that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With this he opened some wounds that some people don’t want to address, which is the role of our parents and families in our overall well-being. After all, if we have a good family, then everything is perfect and we should not give it another thought. However, when families go bad, this leads to many unhappy children, broken families, and loss of human potential overall.
When Apple Falls Next to a Tree
During COVID epidemic I was (un)lucky to get stuck in Greece, Santorini. There, I found many street cats, some of which were either friendly and welcoming or afraid and straight up mean. The difference, I noticed, depended on the cat’s parents and the other cats around. Essentially, I saw that by observing a few cats in a pack we could easily predict how other cats around would behave.
Specifically, next to my house lived one family of cats with father and mother cats and four kittens. The mother cat was especially nasty, snarling and hitting me, despite me never touching or threatening this cat. The worst part was that her kittens who, despite their relatively young age, were behaving in a similar way. The whole family was afraid of us, keeping distance despite our continuous attempts to feed them and be nice to them. They were still happy to eat our food, but they would continuously show clear signs of aggression, even when they were hungry.
Oppositely, on the other side of the island, I met a group of kittens who would allow us to pet them and they actually enjoyed it, running towards us every time they saw us. We were not surprised to find pretty much every other cat in that part of the island welcoming and friendly.
For me, this is a clear example of culture, how family values pass down through generations, and how an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In other words, often, even if we dislike something about our youth, parents, and the way we were raised, we can only hope to be slightly better (if not worse) than our parents.
The only obvious way to make a major leap seems to separate ourselves from them and pursue our own life, becoming a student of our own good and bad habits that we have adopted over the years, and making clear steps to implement them. And while this is obviously the intention of most people, we only need to look at their parents, themselves, and their children to see how little is changing over the generations.
When We Should Embrace & Separate Ourselves From Our Families
American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said that we are an average of five people we surround ourselves with. With this he proposed a way to improve (or worsen) our situation, simply by taking a closer look at people who we surround ourselves with and tactically replacing them with someone else.
More specifically, Jim Rohn meant that we are an average of five people in every different area of life, such as the Six Pillars of Happiness as described in my book Optimal Happiness: A Study of the Happiest People Alive. Certainly, for most people, our family influences us on a deep level in many areas of our lives.
In other words, family matters, and we should certainly keep our family around if they are a positive influence on us. However, in some cases and for many people, families create unnecessary stress, negative emotions, and bring people down altogether. It can be in a simple way, such as they don’t come to see our football game, or in major ways, such as telling us that we will not achieve too much, and therefore, we should not even try. Arguably, in these cases we should let go of our families, in some areas of life, and give this energy to some other people.
Don’t Poke a Sleeping Dragon
For example, I know many people who will be happy to spend time together with their families, but they will not talk to them about their jobs, dating lives, or their ambitions overall. Why should they, if every time they do so, they get into an argument? Simply said, people can have good intentions, but they always don’t come out in the best way possible, so rather than keep on poking a sleeping dragon, it is best to avoid it altogether.
Certainly, for some people, there will be no boundaries, but for others, they might need to stop talking to their parents altogether. And why not? If all they are getting is poison, why keep trying to make things better? Sure, they are our parents, but in some cases people will be better off if they remove this connection for good.
You Could Be Better or Worse Because of Your Parents
I could have been born as a king or given up to adoption at the moment I was born. I could have been even killed at my birth, if, for example, I was born as a girl in places like China. I didn’t choose my family, but I can make my own decisions after I am born.
Similarly, after I was born, I could have been spoiled, not given enough attention, or my parents could have been too strict with me. Either way, every child has certain resentments towards their parents, regardless of who they are and how they were raised. This is to say that everyone has some mommy or daddy issues which they haven’t properly resolved, meaning that no one, by default, is completely fulfilled, regardless of how much or little their parents did for them.
To this degree, we can always hold something against our parents, so preferably we should not make a big fuss over small stuff, but I do recommend making a big fuss over big stuff, and overall trying to forgive and move on, if possible, in regards to our family, ourselves, and everyone else for that matter.
Forgive Your Family, Yourself, and Everyone Else
Another Canadian-American motivational public speaker and success coach, Brian Tracy, said that we should forgive 3 groups of people. First we should forgive your family. You are not perfect, they are not perfect, and this is also true for everyone else. As such, provided that your parents did the best possible job they could in regards to you, you should have humility to accept whatever your parents did or didn’t do as a given. By doing so, you should stop paying the victim and start acting as if you are in control of your own destiny and there is no one else to praise or blame but yourself, no matter what cards you were dealt. This is the only way to be healthy, happy, and reach your personal potential.
Second, you should forgive yourself. Like your parents, you are not perfect and you can’t be expected to do everything correctly. As such, you may want to do everything correctly in your life, but sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you are just lazy, procrastinating, and have all the wrong habits, like smoking. This is fine, but only to a degree that if you don’t accept who you are, and forgive yourself, you will forever carry an extra layer of negativity, which will weigh on you and prevent you from doing what needs to be done, such as addressing these sources of negativity. Simply said, no one is perfect, and even the happiest people alive realize that they are doing something wrong. They have the humility to accept these imperfections, smile, and focus on their strength, which, in turn, makes them even more happy and productive.
Lastly, we have to forgive everyone else. The world is full of people, some of whom have done something to make us dislike them or ourselves. For every such person we have in our lives, we have to carry around their negativity, which will make our lives worse. Respectfully, you are not doing yourself any favors since your negativity does not automatically translate into others’ negativity. As such, all the negativity you feel is your negativity and sure enough you can make others’ lives worse off, but all the time you will spend thinking, planning, executing, or carrying around this negativity, will make your life worse off, not theirs. So what if other people feel bad because of you? It’s not worth it. Forgive and forget and let go of the burden of negative emotions. In fact, if you really want someone else to suffer, show them how much you are thriving and how happy you are, but don’t show them your pain. This should be revenge enough.
Bobby Fischer Should Not Blame His Parents
Bobby Fischer is the guy who stole the number one chess mastery spot from the Russians, taking a several decade long held title away from the hands of the champs. This whole situation also happened in the middle of the Cold War, which made this historic victory an instant regret for Fisher.
For the rest of his life, he was looking over his shoulder convinced that the KGB was there to get him for the embarrassment he caused on international stage. From this point forward, Fisher became progressively paranoid and saw ghosts on every corner, lashing out against his closest friends and most cherished allies, as he carried around this burden of negativity for the rest of his life.
And while his story was tragic, we cannot blame Fisher’s parents for how things played out. After all, he was raised in a relatively good family, certainly with their own baggage of problems, but nothing deal breaking.
This is to say that while there is some blame that we can always attribute to our parents (or someone else), for the way they raised and took care of us, we can’t simply give away all the responsibility for our lives. As such, when things go wrong, often we don’t have anyone else to blame for ourselves.
In the case of Bobby Fisher, he was raised in a good home and even achieved extraordinary highs, but his demise was all his fault. At old age, Fisher was a very disturbed and negative person, not willing to talk to most people, fostering enemies in many places in the world, even refusing to pay taxes over his winnings to the US government, later becoming paranoid that they too wanted to arrest him at every possible turn.
In the end, the story of Fisher is one of great achievements, but also of one of the greatest failures. He died deeply distrusting, negative, and in his mind, alone.
You Don’t Owe Nothing to Your Parent
Another widely propagated lie, which society and parents themselves often instil on us, is that we owe something to our parents for all the years they have invested in and taken care of us. For example, some parents expect us to take care of them when they are old.
This is certainly one way of looking at it. A different way to see it is to imagine how selfish your parents were to have had you. They had you because they wanted you or something from you. You didn’t ask to be born and you owe them nothing because you were born. On other hand, they have full responsibility for their selfishness and they are totally accountable to raise you to the best of their abilities. In turn, you can decide to give back, but this is completely your decision. Thus, you get all the rights, but not responsibilities, unless you choose them.
In my personal opinion, you should give back to your parents, but only if you consider that their investment in you was worthwhile, but not so much if they made your life a living hell.
Here, some people comment that I probably had a bad childhood. I did and I didn’t. It was average, as I was raised in a middle class home, with our own share of problems, which I don’t particularly consider better or worse than of other people. As such, to this day, I still have a good relationship with my parents, but I no longer accept any negativity or metaphorical baggage, in terms of demands and expectations, from them either. I am my own man, but I am also friendly to them and give back as much as I receive, but I do it on my own terms and not theirs.
Furthermore, some parents have their children by mistake. They wanted to have some fun and the result of this fun was a baby. Now, some of these parents do the right thing in this position and decide to stay together and raise this child as a happy family, while others resent the fact they had one. Certainly, if a child was unplanned it raises a few extra questions and doubts for parents, that, unless they are addressed by the parents in this decisive point of life, can come up in some subtle (or not subtle) ways in the child’s life. Of course, most people will never know if they were an accident and if they were conceived in the back of a car or in some bar’s bathroom. This is to say that we are not obliged to give anything back to parents specially because we can never be certain about their real motivations.
Drawing Boundaries and Training Our Parents
Parents teach us a lot of things about life—the good and the bad. Yet, sometimes we have to give back to our parents and teach them back things that we feel they need to learn. This is, again, contrasting to popular belief that parents are omnipotent, authoritarian, and older, meaning that we would never have anything possibly to teach them.
As such, sometimes parents have bad habits that we don’t like and would like to address, such as they keep on asking us to call them every day. I know several people who, in their adult age, still to this day, give in to their parents’ demands (requests) and give them a portion of their busy lives to talk about whatever happened in the last 24h, spending on this few hours, day in and day out. This is ridiculous and we need to set some boundaries with our parents, since we are often so good at doing the same thing with other people, so why not also with our parents?
Often, this is simpler said than done, and every case may be different in terms of what we want to change and how our parents behave overall. Still, it is important to realize that the training of parents has been done in the past and it can be done again, we have a certain level of autonomy, our parents don’t own us, and we can set certain boundaries in terms of what we are willing to accept.
Dreams of Children and Their Parents
Lastly, when people have children, often they have to give up on their dreams, simply because raising a child takes so much time, money, and energy. In turn, parents might have a certain level of resentment towards what they could have had if it was not for their children. This may be a subconscious thought, but relevant nonetheless, because people are people and generally speaking, we all want certain things from life.
As such, when a baby is born, parents may realize how demanding a task of raising a child can be. They alway thought it would be fun and games, but any sleep deprived parent will confirm, it is not always the case.
As such, parents can later have certain expectations towards their children, in terms of whom they want them to be and what life path they should take. Some of these desires can be based on simple thinking that “I never did it / had courage to do so, so my child should do it.”
This can create tension between the expectations of parents and the reality, since children often want to take their own path. This, in turn, can create unnecessary tension in the lives of many, with some families even in adulthood, snarling at each over this difference between their expectations and reality.
To resolve this situation, my personal approach is to lead by example rather than to expect others to act in a way I wouldn’t. As such, if ever I think “my children (if I ever have them) should do this or that,” this actually means that I want to do it, and why am I not doing it myself right now?
Overall Families Are Important, But to a Point
Overall, we should praise our families for everything they did for us, but also blame them if our lives were bad, especially if there are good reasons for this. After all, most people are willing to forgive and forget all the harm their families brought into their lives, without ever addressing it. This leads to a lot of mommy and daddy issues, childhood traumas that follow people throughout their lives, and unreached personal potential.
Sure, we are all imperfect, and we don’t want to carry around negativity, not from our parents, ourselves, or anyone else, but when our families keep on making our lives worse off, perhaps we should compartmentalise what we share with then and time and energy we are willing to give them in our lives. Certainly, we don’t have to accept any responsibilities or demands from our parents, but we can do it only if we think it is fine.
The bottom line is that both parents should learn to lead by example rather than pure demands, while children should set certain boundaries if these expectations get out of place and over board.
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