Why We Hate Our Parents
Refreshingly at ease with himself, Tsoknyi Rinpoche was friendly and personable. He brushed aside my efforts at formality and indicated that he was ready to talk right away. We spoke without his interpreter present, so our conversation was restricted to the essentials.
"All that attention comes with a lot of expectations," I began. "Western parents don't feel that their children already are who they are—they feel that it is their job to make them who they should be. Children feel this as a burden."
"A pressure," the lama replied.
"A pressure. And they develop an armor to guard against it. The anger is part of that armor." I thought of a patient of mine as we talked, a young woman who always felt that her parents, in her words, "had a quota on me." She had the feeling that they just couldn't take her, that she was too much for them, too imposing, perhaps even dangerous, and at the same time a disappointment, not enough of the right stuff. This woman withdrew from her mother and father, but she withdrew from other people in a more generalized way and suffered from lack of confidence and isolation as a result. I closed one fist and covered it with my other hand, holding both up to the lama. The closed fist was like the armored child, and the hand covering it, the parental expectations. "All the energy is going into the resistance," I explained. "But inside, the child feels empty. Not like in Buddhism, where emptiness connotes something akin to freedom."
"Hollow," said the lama. He understood.
"In the psychotherapy world, we call that armor 'false self.' A child creates a false self to deal with excessive expectations or with early abandonment—too much parental pressure or too little. The problem with this scenario is that children often lose touch with who they are on the inside. After a while, they only know the armor: the anger, fear, or emptiness. They have a yearning to be known, or found, or discovered, but no means to make it happen. It brings people to places like this." I gestured to indicate the retreat facility.
"Maybe it's not such a bad thing, then!" he smiled.
I knew that, in a certain way, he was right. The spiritual renaissance of our time is in many ways fueled by the disappointments of privilege. Ambitious, overprotective parents produce capable children with a yearning for something other than more accomplishments. The desire to know oneself more deeply is often rooted in the feeling of never having been known. In our culture, this often happens because of estrangement between parents and children, as I explained to the lama, but it can also occur as a result of parent-child enmeshment. If children define themselves exclusively through their relationships with parents, relatives, and culture, they can fail to know themselves.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche sensed the rebellious inspiration for some of his students' practice. "Parents see raising children as their duty or job," he told me. "But then when the child is grown, they just let go. They've done their job, fulfilled their obligations. The child feels cut off."