Your Imperfect Parents

Most people want to believe their parents are good people and were good parents to them. To keep this belief is to keep your world stable and good.    If your parents were normal people they made mistakes that have affected you. Some parents are so injured themselves that they, for the most part, weren’t good parents at all. Some parents are downright destructive and their children are lucky  ( or marvelously resilient) to come out of their childhood relatively intact. Some children don’t.

The truth  is there are no perfect parents. There really aren’t.  People not willing or able to see their parents’ limitations and mistakes lose out in understanding and forgiving themselves for their own limitations, and often feel bad about themselves.   They make excuses for their parents, seeing them so much as victims of their own situations and therefore not ultimately responsible for what they did – or didn’t do – to their own children. So the adult child inwardly makes themselves bad to protect the parent from responsibility for their own behavior. For these people the parent must remain good, or at least not as  faulted/limited  as they were. When in therapy, these adults lose out on what they might learned about who they are and why they are the way they are.  They can’t overcome the  mistakes or cruelties from their parents; you can’t fix something that didn’t happen. And you can’t find out what did happen if you aren’t willing to  be open to what you find when you look.

People who protect their parents and lose out for themselves are often relying on the parents to make them feel OK, instead of taking it on themselves to make themselves feel OK. This is a growing up process that many times people resist. Of course we all want our parents to love us, but if they screwed up and our self esteem is lower than it could / should be, it’s time to take on the work of finding out how to validate and love yourself. That’s therapy.

I am in the process of gathering a few therapists for a small consultation group that will meet in my office at the Quarry Arts Building. I am keeping it small, likely 3 to 4 therapists and me, so there is ample time for everyone’s participation. The group members will bring cases they wish to discuss and get assistance about. I’ve found that to be an excellent way to learn. There will be time for additional discussion about therapy in general as regards the case presented. A will charge a nominal fee for my time, depending on how many people are involved. If you would prefer one on one consultation, that can also be arranged.
I have had 40 years of experience in private practice in Madison, and my expertise is presented in the articles and blog entries on this site. If you have questions or are interested in joining, don’t hesitate to call: 608 535 9266.

Dissociation in Therapy Sessions

People who have had trauma in their lives disassociate in therapy sessions often, so therapists who work with trauma are quite familiar with it. The most common way to tell when someone is disassociating is by looking at their eyes, which get defocused, and seem to be “pulled inward.” Other, more extreme, examples of dissociation are : When a woman told me she saw my head off to one side of my neck, or when someone switched alters and and when the first alter came back, she/he didn’t know what happened during the time the other alter was in charge of the body – which is an experience of losing time. The last example is of someone with DID, but not everyone who disassociates has DID., People who have experienced trauma often dissociate without intention and often without awareness. It’s an automatic defence that is experienced as “just happening,” and it happens when the person feels threatened or unsafe.

When someone eyes defocus, I bring their attention to what happened so they are aware of it, and help them “come back” : changing the subject that is threatening, asking them to intentionally look around the room and say outloud what they see, ask them what percentage of them is in the present, all of which increases self awareness and normalizes the experience. Sometimes when they are back I might ask if they remember what was threatening and ask them/ help them to stay present while they describe it.

When the dissociation is more extreme, I explain what is happening , or just happened, and we talk about it conversationally. The purpose is to empower the person to not feel so unable to control the dissociative experiences and to explain why it happens and assure them it is not intentional, and that sometimes they aren’t going to be able to consciously decide not to do it. Recognizing what happened, naming it and also recognizing that nothing terrible happened because of it is also reassuring.

If you are worried about maybe disassociating in a therapy session, be sure you choose a therapist who has had experience with trauma and who is someone you can rely on to help you.


Once upon a time along time ago there was a little girl who lived under a tree. That is, she lived in the big hole in the side of the tree where the ground was soft and it was dry and not too very cold even when it was cold outside. She lived there whenever her parents got too crazy with her. Sometimes they did get too crazy and they said crazy things and did crazy things and it wasn’t safe to be near them. But she could run away and be safe in her tree. Her tree loved her and it was alive!
It was very wonderful to have some thing that was alive that loved her and would not hurt her and get crazy. She brought her softest blanket there and a bottle no one would miss that had water in it. Sometimes she brought some food that she could steal from the kitchen in the big house. And -OH ! – she knew the tree was alive because it had little new shoots at the tips of the branches every spring, ever since she could remember. Nobody from the big house ever missed her or went looking for her so whenever she wanted she could go to her loving tree.

Sometimes she wondered why she ever did go back to hang around her parents in the big house.  “I guess” she would say to herself, “maybe one of them would change and be loving like my tree.” But they never did.

One day there was a big storm with lots of rain and windy wind. Very windy wind. She went out to her loving tree and it was lying down with it’s roots showing instead of being in the ground. That was scarey, because it changed. Like her parents changed. That was very scarey. She found out that she could still get into the hole but it didn’t seem so good anymore because the hole was lying down too and there wasn’t as much room in there anymore. She knew she couldn’t get the tree to stand up like it used to. It was too big to even budge.  Now the ground did get wet and it was colder than it used to be when it got cold outside. Besides she was getting bigger herself. There really wasn’t enough room.

So one day she sadly said goodbye to her tree and went walking down the road near by.  She was very startled by a boy who she saw walking down the road too. He asked her where she was going and this she told him: “I’m going where the north wind doesn’t blow down good trees and where the people are as nice as good trees.” “Do you know  where that is?” he wanted to know.  “Not for sure,”  she answered, “but it isn’t behind me so I figured it’s got to be up ahead somewhere. So that’s where I’m looking.”  “That sounds right to me” he said, “I don’t like what’s behind me either. Can I come with you?”

” Well, yeah” she said. “But I’m not used to company.”

“Neither am I,” he answered, “but  we will figure it out.”

“Hmm,” she nodded, and so they kept walking together.

The Stages of Couple Growth

Couple relationships go through growing stages, and although this is a normal and healthy development, it can be painful to experience and  can sometimes make couples question if they should remain together. This is often why couples often come into therapy as they move through the stages, especially when one person is moving into a different stage than their partner is in.
Let’s look at stages of growth of all couples.

Stage 1 is called Symbiosis:  This is also known as  “The Honeymoon Period” – both people are swept up in  the excitement of their romance. “He (or she) has so much in common with me!” “Everything seems perfect”  and “We are so much alike!” Both are ecstatic with the  mutuality and perfection of the other, “How could anything go wrong?” It’s important to have some  time like this to establish your coupledom.

Stage 2 is called  Differentiating: After a while things happen  that show you are really two different people. Maybe you don’t really like watching  football, and that he has no interest in riding horses. She thinks you are “too” left leaning and liberal and you’ve been proud of that. It’s disappointing and hard to take for the one who wants to feel exactly alike and perfectly suited ( the one that is still symbiotic). It may feel liberating and factual for the differentiating  partner. Here indeed is trouble in paradise. As it happens, one partner  starts feeling restless or smothered. It seems like hanging out with old friends would be so nice.  Doing that sport, hobby (or whatever) that’s been neglected in spending so much of your time together – starts to look appealing.  This is a time when couples often show up in a therapist’s office.

Stage 3 is called Practicing: This is when the couple are both “trying out” being their separate selves while still being connected as a couple. They spend time apart doing separate things. They take the risk to  say they disagree and speak their differing opinions. At this time they are often dealing  with the risks and struggles of dealing with each other’s different needs and preferences , and it is a time of immense personal growth.

Stage 4 is called Rapprochement: This is when the couple is comfortable going back and forth, going away and coming together, returning to each other with ease and intimacy.  They come back to each other refreshed and happy to be connected deeply again.  Their trust is  secure in the other. The each are supporting the other’s self esteem.

Being able to see what stage your relationship is in can be reassuring and useful. Often one person is a little ahead of the other, and pulling their partner to come along with them.  When going  through these stages gets rough, couple therapy is often what is needed.

Good luck with each other! Love is a wonderful thing to cultivate at all it’s stages, and much too precious to neglect or loose.

The most exciting thing about learning how to have an Ongoing Relationship with Your Inner Child is that, done correctly, you will be accessing your unconscious mind. By doing that you will get clues about what needs your attention and what is the next step of your personal growth.  Here’s how you do it.

Start out sitting in a room by yourself. Take a few breaths, and focus on long, slow exhalations to relax.  Set the intention in your mind that you want to meet your Inner Child for the purpose of helping yourself grow into your full potential.

Imagine your Inner Child has been called into  this room where you are sitting, and watch who comes  through the door in your mind’s eye. This is the first step of the tricky part, of allowing access to your unconscious.  It is easy to make up a particular image ….perhaps an image of a happy, robust child without a care in the world. That is, very likely, an example of  deciding what you want to happen and picturing that.  That’s not what this is about.  This exercise is about letting go of control and allowing something to happen in your imagination,  not making it happen.  To do that,  set your intention, and perhaps look over at the  door to this room, and wait. Wait to “see” who comes in. The key word here is “wait” and “see” what happens of its’ own accord.

This is  the beginning of getting information from your unconscious. If your inner child is bruised, that may tell you something you didn’t even know. If your child is extremely shy, that may be tell you to think about how your parents treated you about friendships.

In session with me, all ages and descriptions of children show up:  A toddler – bewildered and scared, a 7 year old – untrusting but curious. Some Inner Children accept the invitation from their adult self to come over and sit next to them, or on their lap, quite readily.  Soom refuse in a variety of ways: they look down or shake their head, or sit in a corner with their back to the adult.

One you see your Child, you need to look a see what age your child is, the expression on their face, what they say, if they speak to you, and their general demeanor. Begin to develop a rapport and relationship with your Inner Child. Your job is to be the best parent ever and be supportive and giving of all things you didn’t get when you were little.

What you learn about your feelings from your Inner Child who shows up in your room with you speaks to what needs attention in your life today.  If your Child lacks confidence at age 11, you may indeed find that same sort of insecurity in yourself now, and  now is  the  time to address  this.  If he/she was neglected you may feel hungry for attention, or easily feel abandoned in your relationships today.  Probably it’s time to attend to this in your relationships. That’s why your unconscious brought this to your attention in the exercise.

This is where your abilities as a nurturing parent  show up. Your “job” is to explain to your Child of the past that you, as an adult, are here to help them in any way they might need you. You may have to work at getting  your child to feel comfortable enough to listen to you ( go sit on the  floor with them, or, tell them it’s OK to sit separately for a while if that suits the Child’s needs best).  Some people’s  Child takes a long time and much interaction to get comfortable. Others are over on the couch (or  chair) lickity split –  snuggled in with you (their helpful adult)  and eager to find out what’s going to happen next. Most are somewhere in between.

Another, and powerful, way to do this is to see yourself coming into your own bedroom as you remember it when you were a kid.  First step – look for the Child. Is she/he sitting on top of a made bed playing with something and looking up to see you with interest?  Some people find  their Inner Child hiding under  the bed, scared to come out. How is that like you today? Others find that there is no child in the room – an interesting statement of how much self awareness  they have of their feeling self.  That adult might search the house of their childhood to find their Child.

Build a rapport with your Inner Child.  Get into the habit of checking in to see what they are doing and where they are ( physically) in relationship to you.  I’ve had clients  go sit on the bed of their childhood at night and talk over the Child’s  problems of the day, soothing and comforting and explaining. One woman who was an artist found pictures her child had drawn for her all over the bedroom floor. Another client checked in with her Inner Child every morning; the child was about 8 months old.   The adult self was troubled with depression at this time, and when she tried to cajole her Inner Child to look at her, the Child slumped away, dull and unresponsive. She kept the Inner Child with her during the day, imaging dancing with her slowly or sitting with her in a swing. One morning when she woke up  the Inner Baby was on her chest with it’s little arms around her neck, her face borrowed into the adult self’s neck. That day the depression lifted.  Having a conscious relationship with yourself is a healing in itself.

Some people don’t have much of a nurturing adult within themselves, don’t know how to be nurturing since they didn’t get much, or any, of it themselves. They may want to go into therapy to discover what they did experience as a child, overcome the results that show up in their life now, and learn to be kind to themselves.

People who have had abuse in their childhood may find this exercise too difficult to do alone. It’s too frightening to see your Inner Child in great need, and if you were emotionally or physically hurt as a  child, consider a getting a therapist to help you. No one should deal with an abusive childhood all alone.


This article is going to list a number of suggestions about how to do your part of the work necessary to making your therapy a success.  My list will be more or less in order of what needs your attention, but after the numbers 1 through 3, you can determine the order of importance yourself.

  1. Decide if this therapist is a very good choice for you, or not. Notice if you feel comfortable with this therapist, if you “click” with her/his personality.  Don’t settle if you just don’t really like this person, or if you get the feeling she/he doesn’t much like you. Also ask yourself if  this person is a good choice for you in terms of knowledge, experience and competence in whatever  areas you need.  For example, if you know you are going to be doing trauma work, don’t let some young therapist “learn on” you.  If she/he hasn’t got trauma training and experience, look elsewhere.  If you think this therapist is a really good fit but later change your mind, reconsider the fit. Also look into my article about negative transference, which I won’t go into here, but is often why people leave their therapist when they would have gained more by staying.
  2. If one of these areas is weak, I recommend you keep looking for another therapist who can fill both requirements for trust building ( personality and knowledge).  You can, of course, go through the process of speaking your mind to the therapist and asking them to improve whatever it is you find them lacking, but this will likely only lead to the therapist’s growth, and not yours.  I don’t think it is a good idea to  bolster the therapist ( as you may have had to do with your parent(s)?)  Therapists  don’t get to learn on the job while you are paying for their help. You deserve to have a therapist who is ready to go with you, and to be the leader in the therapy.
  3. Once you’ve made your choice and are building trust, get engaged with your work. Getting engaged means thinking along with the therapist, answering questions thoughtfully , bringing up thoughts you have about yourself that pop into your mind, and  saying when you think the therapist is going in the wrong direction, or going somewhere you aren’t ready for, etc. etc. Engaging with your whole self, thoughts and feelings, and speaking of them so the therapist  knows for sure what your reaction is to whatever is going on, is probably the most helpful thing you can do to get the most out of your therapy.  Your thinking along with the therapist and saying what occurs to you makes for  two brains working instead of one. And your brain knows you!  I have clients who are interested with a passion about what’s going on in session and are deeply involved,  and others who honestly believe that if  they show up and listen, that’s all they have to do “to get better.”  There’s nothing further from the truth.
  4. The issue of trust is significant.  It may take you awhile to trust the therapist enough to speak up about what you are thinking, or cry when you feel tears, but if you aren’t ready and aren’t ready and this goes on for weeks, either bring this up or go find a different therapist. . Therapists are trained to tune in to their client’s and it’s their job to help you feel at ease by letting you know you that are interesting to him/her, and that you are accepted as you are. If you continue to feel less than comfortable with the therapist as a person, it could be the wrong therapist for you, or it could be something from your history that could be addressed successfully.
  5. Remember the therapist is hired help.  It’s the therapist’s job to reach you, whatever level of emotional intelligence you are at. The therapist needs to explain things so you understand. You don’t have to impress them, or not hurt their feelings, or be concerned how you express yourself. The therapist is supposed to come to you, where you are in every aspect, not the otherway around.