Are Parents to Blame?

By Anthony Wilson, M. Phil

Blaming Our Parents

Concerning “Mother” Patricia Berry said “… we have blamed her extensively. At one time or another, in one way or another, we have used her to explain each of our pathological syndromes …”¹ Selfhelp literature with titles like Families and How to Survive Them or Toxic Parents: overcoming their hurtful legacy and reclaiming your life suggest that parents are often to blame. Some parents understandably feel anxious when they know their adult child is in therapy. If they cherish an internal image of themselves as nurturers and providers who exercise continuing influence, always needed by clinging offspring, they would not relish removal from their pedestals. Similarly, parents with low selfesteem could feel dis­comfort as a fly on the consulting room wall.

In therapy clients reflect on relationships and events that have shaped, and continue to influence, their perceptions and attitudes. It is almost inevitable that parents will be talked about. For example, in the initial interview the psychotherapist looks out for lacunae – gaps or absences, in the story. A client who talks extensively about one parent and hardly at all about the other will certainly provide the therapist with material.

The temptation to blame other people and circumstances comes readily to those in pain. In The Boys from The Black Stuff  Yosser, the perennial loser, wistfully remarks “I could have been a footballer, but I had a paper round.” Blaming others is often part of the process of Shadow Projection. That which is abhorrent to our Ego, and even more so to our Persona, we cannot notice in ourselves, only others. “Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”2 As Jesus graphically put it. The therapist aims to help their client claim responsibility.

Worshipping Our Parents

We project not only our negative characteristics but also positive ones. We can admire in others what we fail to see in ourselves. We can elevate our parents to exalted heights. To keep them there is a sad mistake. Harry A. Wilmer expresses it this way, “We are always disappointed by our fathers. If we don’t learn that lesson we never grow up we never mature or become our ‘own persons’.”3 As the so-called, “Gestalt Prayer” beautifully put it: “… / am not in this world to live up to your expectations. And you are not in this world to live up to mine …” No one can be all good or all bad, yet we sometimes treat our parents as if they fell into one camp or the other by Idealizing or Devaluing them. This is Splitting. It is largely unconscious and, like all neuroticism, is the psyche’s attempt at selfcure.

Understanding Splitting using Jung’s Concept of the Psyche

To make sense of why Projection, Idealization, Devaluation and Splitting should occur in relation to our parents, Jung’s model of the Psyche helps. He conceives the psyche broadly as conscious and unconscious. These are in compensatory, rather than an oppositional, relationship. Consciousness is conceptualized in two parts: Ego, which considers itself to be the centre of the Psyche, and Persona, the mask which is a performance, a compromise of how we would like to see ourselves and what society expects. If the Ego is our naked conscious self, then the Persona is the Ego’s clothing – worn to help people identify us and cover up parts we wish to keep private. Persona is necessary. People with little or no Persona continually make social blunders and naively expect forgiveness and understanding. Yesterday’s worn out Persona is tiresome to all. Persona is the first casualty of analysis as clients realize they are not who they thought they were.

Jung does not see the Unconscious as nothing but a repository of repressed material. He divides it into two: the Personal Unconscious and the Collective Unconscious. The former consists of, “… everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want and do; all future things that are taking place in me and will sometime come to consciousness… “4 The latter, “contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution …” [5] and consists of archetypes, “the psychic instinct of the human species.6 which find expression in archetypal images as seen in mythological motifs or primordial images.7 Examples of these archetypal images are The Hero, The Trickster, The Puer Aeternus, The Wise Old Man, The Maiden who are found in folk tales of many lands.

The Mother Archetype and The Father Archetype

The Mother archetype expresses itself in archetypal images, among them Magna Mater, the Great Mother. She is “the personification of the feminine principle which represents the fertile womb out of which all life comes and the darkness of the grave to which it returns. “[8] Like all archetypes, Magna Mater contains a positive and a nega­tive pole. Like the primeval swamp she both nourishes and devours. Historian, H. R. Ellis tells us, “The image of the Earth Mother, from whom we spring, by whom we are nourished and into whom we return when we die, has remained a fundamental one.“[9] This dual nature of the Mother is illustrated by Jung, writing of the Mother-Dragon who, “eats the child again, she sucks him in after having given birth to him. 10 The Great Mother symbolizes the Unconscious which can sustain and support the Ego or swallow and destroy it. We can refuse to leave Mother and her Unconscious paradise. Jung observed, “No one gets conscious without suffering. If you are always in the maternal waters at 35°C. you need nothing, but you are not conscious.”¹¹

While Mother is warm, dark, feminine, earthy and nurturing, Father represents light, spirit and epitomizes the masculine. Sun and rain are archetypal images symbolizing the power of the Father to impregnate Mother Earth. The Father archetype is one of Love, Power and Judgment. In Schiller’s Ode to Joy are the words: Brüder! Über’m Stemenzelt muβ ein lieber Vater wohnen – “Brothers, above the starry canopy there must dwell a loving father.” Freud understood the concept of the Father archetype internalized as Superego, God and the Oedipal. However, it easily slips into its negative aspect. As Moore and Gillette observe, “We need to develop a calmness about masculine power so we don’t have to act out dominating, disempowering behavior toward others.” ¹²

A fable for today

The television program, The X-Files has attained an almost cultlike status. It allows us to project our unconscious struggle against archetypal parents with its motif of a malevolent government denying all knowledge of the evil it perpetrates upon its citizens. This government cannot protect its people from extra-terrestrial forces and lies to them. The hero, Fox Mulder and heroine, Dana Scully, who fight this archetypal dragon, are in their early thirties. They have entered the second half of their lives. Childhood and early adulthood are over. They face midlife transition. Important developmental processes are being symbolized here. Mulder and Scully’s mission is to enlarge world consciousness by telling people the truths they uncover. These truths tell us that faith in an all-protecting and all-powerful government is illusory; the world is not as we perceive it to be, and we can trust no one. The Motherland or the Fatherland has become a convenient home for our Mother or Father Complex. The X-Files is popular because it resonates with us as we struggle to free ourselves from archetypal Mother and Father. It is a myth, a modern fairy story which illustrates our own story.

Enter the Complex

A complex is a group of largely unconscious feeling-toned ideas or images which cluster around an archetypal core. Drever says it is “an idea or associated group of ideas, partly or wholly repressed, strongly tinged with emotion, and in conflict with other ideas or groups of ideas more or less accepted by the individual.”[13] Rycroft elaborates … “a group of interconnected conscious and unconscious ideas and feelings which exert a dynamic effect on behavior”.14 So central was the complex to Jung, that he considered naming Analytical Psychology, “Complex Psychology”.

The complex is accompanied by affect – or heightened emotion. Therapists observe the client’s affects, to provide clues about complexes. Dieckmann suggests that the therapist should diagnose the client’s core complex, in the initial interview.13 (This is easier said than done. Jung observed, “Clinical diagnoses are important, since they give the doctor a certain observation; but they do not help the patient. The crucial thing is the story. For it alone show us the human background and the human suffering, and only at that point can the doctor’s therapy begin to operate.” [16])

Whereas Freud maintained the dream was the via regia to the Unconscious, Jung held that the complex provided this “royal road”.17 Dream interpretation is, however, a key way at “getting at the message of the unconscious”,18 and a principal tool of Jungian psychotherapists. The complex model refutes the concept of unified personality and suggests we consist of a collection of complexes, each with its characteristic personality or “splinter psyche”.19 These other selves are largely unknown and unrecognized. Jung refers to this in analyzing the “magneto” dream, in which a machine has exploded. He likens this explosion to the scattering of a person’s mental units which are experienced only through the Ego Defense Mechanism of Projection. He says, “It is quite intangible, but during the course of analysis these different parts are reassembled, the object of analysis being to gather them together into one functioning centre”.20

Mother Complexes and Father Complexes

A complex is a mix of personal and collective unconscious images and feelings. It is subjective and objective. My Mother Complex or my Father Complex will be the product of my personal experience, whether real or imagined, and a deeper layer of archetypal material. Jung observed, “The mother archetype forms the foundation of the so-called mother-complex”.21 As Samuels writes, “Complexes are eternal as well as personal.”²²

This was brought home to me some years ago. I am a Roman Catholic and I used to imagine my aversion to Marian devotions and mythology was a product of my character, a rejection of the ultramontaine and the fact that my parents were converts to Catholicism from Protestantism. A priest once suggested that it could also be a reflection of my relationship to my mother. This remark lingered and provided much to chew on. Archetypal Mother and personal mother are often undifferentiated, as they were with me. Who does the singer speak of: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comforts me, speaking words of wisdom, Let it be”? Mary, like Isis before her, is Good Mother. Comforter of the Afflicted, the Star of the Sea, are found in litanies to both of them.

In the Grip of Archetypal Forces

Commonly people identify with their Persona and believe themselves to be as they appear. This limits development. However, it is much worse to identify with an archetype. Therapists, priests, shamans, teachers and doctors, for example, are all in danger of identifying with the Savior or Redeemer archetype. The result of the techniques, processes and rituals which they use should be healing, salvation, eternal life and enlightenment. Like Prometheus they have tamed lightning. The temptation is to say, “I am doing this”, rather than, “I am privileged to use tech­niques that do this.” Personality and process can become fused. The Shadow of the Healer appears.

Likewise, mothers and fathers, can identify with Mother and Father archetype. They feel themselves creators rather than people taking part in the process of Life. They can be lead by the nose by the Unconscious Psyche. They can be possessive of their sons and daughters, and hold them psychologically bound. In their children’s eyes they become the Dragons that the hero, Saint George, or Fox or Dana must destroy in an epic fight. James Hillman suggests, “The way to ‘solve the mother complex’ would not be to cut from Mom, but to cut the antagonism that makes me heroic and her negative.”23

Are Parents to Blame?

Most parents are “good enough”, as Winnicott observed. A few are dreadful, a few are absolutely marvellous. There is a French saying, “No matter how tall your grandfather was, you have to do your own growing.” You may end up taller than granddad, and he may not like that, if he is not happy with who he is. Our growing process takes a lifetime. It is not achieved without pain to ourselves and those around us. The Parent-Child relationship is dynamic. If either party should want a static relationship they damage each person’s growth. If we stop growing, our lives are effectively over. We cease to take part in the creative process of the Cosmos.

Parents, like anyone else, err when they try to possess their children. It is never too late to give up living life through another. Kahil Gibran wrote,

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. 24

There speaks Wisdom.

Anthony Wilson is a psychotherapist at Asklepios Psychotherapy Centre, Dublin, telephone 01 294 0601.


1. Berry, P. (1990) What’s the matter with Mother? page 89.
2. Matt. 7:4, New International Version, Hodder and Staunton.
3. Wilmer, H. A. (1990) Mother/Father, page 177, Chiron.
4. Jung, C. G. On the Mature of the Psyche, CW8, para. 382, Routledge.
5. Jung, C. C. The Structure of the Psyche, CW8, para. 342, Routledge.
6. Edinger, E. (1968) An Outline of Analytical Psychology. Quadrant Notes on Analytical Psychology, reprint 1, page 6, C. G. Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology, New York.
7. Jung, C. G. op. cit, CW8, para. 325, Routledge.
8. Edinger, E., ibid., page 2.
9. Ellis, H. R. (1964) Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, page 110, Pelican.
10. Jung, C. G. Analytical Psychology op. cit. page 102.
11. Jung, C. G. op. cit. Dream Analysis, page 238.
12. Moore, R. and Gillette, D. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: rediscovering the archetypes of the mature masculine. Harper.
13. Drever, J. (1952) A Dictionary of Psychology, Penguin.
14. Rycroft, C. (1968) A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Penguin.
15. Dieckmann, H. (1991) Methods in Analytical Psychology, page 35, Chiron. Dieckmann, it should be noted, works in Germany where Insurance Companies insist on a diagnosis at a very early stage of treatment.
16. Jung, C. G. (1983) Memories, Dreams, Reflections, page 145, Flamingo.
17. Jung, C. G. A Review of Complex Theory in The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche in Collected Works vol. 8, paragraph 210 (CM8, para 210), Routledge.
18. Jung, C. G. Dream Analysis, The Seminars, vol. 1, notes of the seminar given in 1928-30, page 3, Routledge.
19. Jung, C. G. op. cit., CWB, para. 204.
20 Jung, C. G. Dream Analysis, The Seminars, vol. 1, notes of the seminar given in 1928-30, page 312, Routledge.
21. Jung, C.G. The Mother Complex in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW9(i) para. 161, Routledge.
22. Samuels, A. (1989) The Plural Psyche: personality, morality and the Father, page 24, Routledge.
23. Hillman, | (1973) The Great Mother, Her Son, Her Hero, and the Puer. In Fathers and Mothers: Five Papers on the Archetypal Background of Family Psychology. Berry, P. (ed.), page 98, Spring Publications.
24. Gibran, K. (1926) The Prophet Heinemann.