Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Am I Bad And/Or Did I Have Bad Parents?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on May 16, 2013


“Outer security is thus purchased at the price of inner security,” so says Ronald Fairbairn about a child who protects his parents, defends them, at the expense of his self-esteem and intuition. In other words, when one senses that one’s parents are malicious, then one can protect them, and discard one’s sense of right and wrong, outer security, and thereby dismissing one’s internal sense of ethics, inner security. “It is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by G-d, than to live in a world ruled by the Devil,” Fairbairn continues. To be in a world ruled by the devil, “he can have no sense of security and no hope of redemption,” he elaborates. Fairbairn is famous for his example of the boy faced with poisonous chocolate pudding, as a symbol of difficult parents. He can either eat the poison and die, or starve and die. Inevitably, the boy will eat the poison, as this wins over starvation. This example is meant to illustrate how paranoid thinking can come into existence, if one grows up needing to trust people, who ultimately betray them. In essence, unwinding  from bad parenting is a long journey of self-reflection, requiring a separation from parental figures which is both agonizing and destabilizing.





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11 Responses to “Am I Bad And/Or Did I Have Bad Parents?”

  1. Jon said

    To see the world as it is, and not as how we either want or fear it to be is a noble goal. Unfortunately, it is much easier said than done. However, what progress that can be made in that direction is most helpful in life. While desire and conviction can be good motivators, objectivity and truth are good discriminators.

    • Hmmmmmm….I am not sure that I like the way I wrote this post, based on your comment. I think I failed to get my point across, that growing up with insensitive parents, makes one question one’s own judgment, leading one to tilt towards an identification with his parents, with the consequence of giving up feelings which seem to be warm and generous. This conflict, between internal judgment, and external identification is at the heart of all traumatized children. Fairbairn was not a good writer, so perhaps quoting him was not such a good idea. Thanks, as always.

  2. Shelly said

    Ok, now I’m going to take you to task: I didn’t like this post. It is always easy to blame the parents when someone has issues. Don’t we always blame our families of origin for everything? Most parents don’t put their own selfish ideals ahead of the good of their children. Most parents put their children first and foremost in their lives and the consequences of life get in the way…Their children get traumatized by a combination of life events, epigenetics and stressors including and independent of what happens in the home.

    • Shelly, this post is trying to explain the dilemma a child experiences, in the event that his parents are not supportive of him. I think we can agree that some parents hurt their children, psychologically speaking, and as such, the child is left in a position of either recognizing the fault in the parents (the world ruled by the Devil) or placing the fault in himself (I am the devil). This common dilemma leads most children to take the fall, because as Fairbairn points out, it is better to be a devil in a world ruled by saints, then to be a saint in a world ruled by devils. One can change oneself, but one cannot change the rulers, and so the helplessness of childhood makes some children feel bad about themselves leading to long-term issues of self-esteem. Shelly, you are taking the position that most parents are psychologically nourishing to their children, but I would argue, that some are, and some are not, and of course there is a wide continuum. Thanks.

  3. Ashana M said

    I think for most people raised by malicious parents, continuing to think well of them and denying their maliciousness actually protects the individual’s self-esteem and accords with his or her ethics. Parents like that usually praise and reward their children for supporting their distorted world views. They think well of their children as long as the child is providing the parent with the supply the parent wants. In that world, being “good” means pleasing the parent. Children who grow up with that as a model assume that is how everyone thinks.

    The ethics are to deny the malice. That is why adult children feel guilty for pointing it. Right and wrong have been distorted. “Good” does not mean having integrity. It may not mean being warm or generous at all. It will be whatever the parent thought was good, and usually involves a high degree of arrogance. But “bad” is not serving the parents’ needs. Changing one’s ethics involves temporarily seeing oneself as irredeemably bad until one can construct a new set of ethics. The parents’ distorted view is not an external view. It is the adult child’s view as well. There is no conflict between the internal and external to rexolve. People who abandon a distorted view of right and wrong aren’t afraid their parents’ won’t love them so much as they won’t be able to love themselves, that no one can love them, that God himself cannot love them. Change doesn’t involve resolving a conflict. It involves making fundamental alterations to the self which will, in fact, create conflict. The most difficult part of the journey is tolerating an intense degree of cognitive dissonance while the change occurs. It involves tolerating a sense that you actually don’t know what reality is, what right and wrong is, what will be punished and what will be rewarded, and you have a life you cannot be confident of successfully navigating.

    We know an enormous amount about the mind now that Fairbairn did not know. It is not simply about identification with parents. The reality is much more complex.

    • Shelly said

      Most parents do not set out to be malicious. They set out to be the best that they can be. And they don’t consciously reward behaviors that support their world view either. The trend in the world today is to blame the parents for a child’s ills. What about the child taking responsibility for himself/herself and saying, “I screwed up?” instead of always saying, “My parents made me?”

      • Ashana M said

        Most don’t. Some do. Selfish, controlling people are as likely to have children as anyone else. Serial killers and check forgers–those who intentionally harm others for their own gain as a matter of habit–have spouses and families just as other people do. And it is to malicious parents that Fairbairn is referring, not parents who simply make mistakes as loving but imperfect parents generally do.

        I don’t agree that the trend in the world is to blame parents. It may be in some places, but here in the US we charge children as young as ten as adults for their crimes, even though they lack the cognitive ability to make adult judgments or exercise an adult level of self-control. We increasingly hold children responsible for their actions in a way that is developmentally inappropriate and unreasonable.

        I also disagree with the assumption that we need to either blame parents or their off-spring. I have never seen that blaming anyone for a problem has ever made much of a difference. What matters is understanding the issue as accurately as possible and taking appropriate action to create change. It doesn’t, in the end, matter who screwed up. The child raised by a malicious parent will still need to make changes in herself as an adult despite her problems being the result of the parents’ harmful caretaking. It will not matter one whit that her problems were not of her own making. Nor will it help to admit she screwed up. Blame does not lead to change. The decision to change does.

      • Shelly, I think you are tilting towards defending the parents. Of course, some parents enhance the psychological growth of their children, but it is not fair to say that this is a given of parenting. Fostering psychological growth is a challenge, both in general, and with specific children. There is also an issue of fit, meaning how well a particular child fits with the ideals of the parent. I agree that most parents consciously try to do the best they can, but unconsciously speaking this may mean that they are not tuning in to the psychological needs of their child. In this case, a sensitive child is left to sorting out bad feelings as either internal or external, and most of the time, a child defaults to assuming the problem is internal. This default assumption is the point of this post.

        • Shelly said

          From what I gather, then, all parents need therapy and parental guidance into fostering a supportive and positive environment for their children. Because no parent is perfect and low self-esteem issues with the child will always stem from the parents. Always. This is Freud’s (or is it Jung?) theory, is it not?

    • Yes, Ashana I understand your comments, and for the most part, I agree. Thanks.

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