How Practicing Acceptance May Help Navigate Fraught Relationships with Parents

October 18, 2022

I wrote about searching for home recently. And afterwards, as I continued thinking through what home is for me, it occurred to me that I may actually settle here. I love the area I live in. I love the work I am doing, and I’ve never been so excited about my professional future. Gratitude consumes me every morning as I groggily stumble through the dark towards the forest with Nitro. Family- my brother, sister-in-law and niece- ground and support me, and the novel interactions and newer relationships I’m fostering exhilarate me. So long as I build travel into my life consistently, I’m happy here. I am genuinely happy here.

In fact, it may have taken some discomfort to realize that I am indeed happy. What is happiness without the occasional dose of sadness? How can we experience emotions without accepting the duality of them? And sure, this sounds kind of obnoxious and definitely privileged. But this is where I’m at. Best to accept it, I think. *shrugs*

The discomfort I’m referencing is not that of traveling to foreign and novel locales and returning home displeased that the adventure is over. No, the discomfort I’m wrestling with stems from the very beginning. The very beginning of ourselves, the very first emotional attachments formed in our lives: our parents. And never fear: I aim to keep Freudian rhetoric out of this.

First, it is worth noting that this isn’t a smear piece on my parents. I love them deeply. And in recent years I worked through an emotional process about my relationship with my Dad. I survived his physical violence as a child and teenager. I sought therapy for anxiety and somatization in 2020. I learned about ACES and connected the dots. Suddenly, I had language that validated my lived experiences and present state of being. I set boundaries and prioritized self-care. Eventually, I confronted him. We sat on the sand by a muddy lake as I tore him apart, telling him how I was affected by his past violent rage.

His ability to listen to me, validate my pain, and apologize for the past cooled my decade-old burns. To be sure, it was a difficult conversation. But we are so much better for it.

But what about for relationships where the offenses are not so clear to us? What about covert narcissism, manipulation, or how parental emotional maturity or lack thereof can impact us long-term? How do we begin healing without the ability to succinctly articulate what is actually bothering us?

Well, all that is nuanced. To be sure, a therapist may help. But mental healthcare remains inaccessible to many, so what then?

As time barrels on towards another holiday season, I am exploring acceptance and commitment therapy to improve my ability to exist peacefully around my family.

Acceptance and commitment therapy, like many therapy modalities, strives to promote psychological flexibility and acceptance of negative emotions. ACT builds on mindfulness, encouraging folks to be passive observers of their interactions with others. This should not be confused with disassociation, or temporal disintegration, a maladaptive response to stress. Rather, ACT challenges us to be mindful of our interactions while simultaneously observing from a safe distance. ACT helps folks to better align their behavior with their values, and employs mindfulness and acceptance to inform responses to uncontrollable or triggering situations.

See the core tenets of ACT below and how to practically put into practice.

Accept automatic thoughts, sensations and urges:
Ever experience the threat of anxiety or sadness and notice your mind immediately goes to work to protect you? I do. If I notice my thoughts racing, I retreat to self-care to regain control. But with ACT, the ability for us to sit with our emotions and have peace with them is a critical step of the process. Similarly, it is helpful to work to accept our parents as they are. We cannot change anyone, nor can we force them to grow. Instead of driving ourselves mad trying to do so, work to accept that your parents may not be capable of giving you what you need.

Defuse from thinking:
Become a passive observer of your thoughts and emotions around your family. Imagine having a seat on a sunny bench next to your emotions. You are very much present, but you are separate from the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing.

Experience self as context:
An extension of the second tenet, work to maintain a consistent and stable sense of yourself as an observer of your own psychological experiences.

Attend to the present moment with self awareness:
How many adults do you know that lack self-awareness? Don’t be one of them. Try to be present, but aware of how you are presenting and being perceived by others.

Clearly articulate values:
Is it important to you that you are treated a certain way? Particularly for those with trauma history, it is important that folks participate in interactions that honor boundaries and adhere to values. So flex those boundaries, articulate your needs, and don’t hesitate to be assertive if someone is disrespecting you or your values.

Engage in committed action:
Behave in a manner that is consistent with how you would like to be treated in return. This can be difficult emotionally, especially when something is on fire (figuratively or literally). But sometimes our best defense against others is modeling appropriate behavior ourselves. Doing so not only fosters our own self-esteem, but it may provide an example for others and motivate them to self-reflect and grow.

Lately, I sometimes wonder if time is indeed constant. I cannot believe the year is nearly gone. And I’m not emotionally ready for the holidays. But acceptance is helping. I hope it helps you all as well.

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Photo via Unsplash @devasangbam


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