I have a cartoon I sometimes show in my workshops. It shows a huge auditorium with a banner hanging on the wall that says “Annual Convention of Adult Children of Normal Parents.” In this hugh auditorium are scattered only a half-dozen attendees.
I have a client I'll call John who has a brother one year older than he. John is a very responsible man by nature. He works hard, takes his commitments seriously, and generally does exactly what he says he is going to do. John's brother is still trying to "find himself." John describes his relationship with his parents as "nothing great--just comfortable as long as I did what I was supposed to, which I always did." John does not feel his parents were openly affectionate or demonstrative of loving or tender feelings for him. He accepts that about them, though he occasionally wishes they were otherwise. He has never doubted their love for him, though, or their earnest desire to see both of their sons become happy and successful. When John and his brother talk about their parents, John is shocked to hear him portray them as "cold, heartless people who can't give love." His brother considers their childhood "abusive" and he blames them for his lack of success in establishing either a career or a relationship. John wonders if they had the same parents! When John says, "Aw, they weren't so bad. They gave us everything--even our college educations," his brother looks at him angrily and says, "You're so wrapped up in denial, I can't believe it. Well, if you have the need to remember them as anything but abusive, I wish you luck in eventually coming to terms with the harsh reality of your childhood." John actually starts to wonder whether he is repressing some terrible memories of his parents! But when the brothers compare memories, John sees that while he consistently finds in them evidence of his parents' will for them to achieve success without sacrificing humility, his brother remembers the exact same experiences as evidence of emotional neglect and abuse.
Again we see how the "inkblots" of our lives can give rise to multiple interpretations, each of them plausible. But notice how John's interpretations enhance his life, while those of his brother limit him. Both views "make sense," but they clearly do not generate the same quality of consequence.
John offered a perspective about his brother's views that I found to be not only interesting but quite possibly true. John believes his brother feels better about himself by putting down his parents and thinking of his childhood as one involving emotional abuse. He makes comments about having "overcome adversity" and wanting John to see how far he's come since he left "that miserable family."
It's one of our strong cultural beliefs that personal character comes from overcoming adversity and that self-worth comes from surviving, then mastering, harsh conditions. It's like a scar competition--"You call that a scar? I've got scars on me that make that look like a freckle!" Few people are willing to say, "Yeah, I've always had it easy and I still do." There's no pride to be gained from having everything handed to you on a silver platter.
The greater the need to build self-esteem on having overcome adversity ("We were so poor, I never had a new pair of pants until I was seventeen"), and the less successfully one does so, the more bitter and resentful one is likely to be, and the more apt to place blame elsewhere. Few people want to say, "I guess I'm just a loser." It is much easier to say, "It's Mom and Dad's fault."
In this culture of blame, it is easy to appreciate how obvious a target parents present. In a survey of adults across the United States, the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) found that 65 percent, nearly two thirds of respondents, believe that "bad parenting" is the single greatest cause of all mental disorders. Again, we tend to review our personal history selectively, through our need to find the sources of our current problems or to bolster our beliefs. John reviews his history through the lens of believing that his parents encouraged his success, and with an easy acceptance that his parents were imperfect, even toxic in some ways. His brother reviews his own history through the lens of "emotional abuse" and selectively finds and interprets experiences to fit that framework.
The "recovery movement" consistently falls back on the claim that it does not encourage people to blame their parents for their problems. Rather, John Bradshaw says, he wants them to be held "accountable." While Bradshaw may be able to differentiate between "blame" and "accountability," a great many Americans are not quite so discriminating. They blame their parents relentlessly, and who can blame them, when leaders like Bradshaw suggest that they recover, in vivid detail, episode after episode of childhood experiences that reflect family dysfunction and parental neglect or abuse? He offers the disclaimer that parents are really not the target of the anger or rage that accompanies all these memories he cultivates while he encourages followers to view them through the lens of victimhood. It is much like telling a child about the dangers of smoking and admonishing him not to smoke while you are puffing away. "Do as I say, not as I do" has never been an effective strategy for shaping desirable behavior. Bradshaw's steady fanning of the flames of anger and resentment as a necessary path to eventual acceptance of things that happened and a greater sense of personal responsibility (which he claims are his goals) sends a very mixed message.