Q I saw a counselor last year when I was stressed by work and family issues. My therapist focused heavily on my relationship with my mother. It felt like she wanted me to find all the negative things about her and make her the primary culprit of my current issues. Although I did see how my mother was intrusive and even mean at times, I felt very uncomfortable with this focus. Coming from India, I find it disrespectful to view parents in this negative way. Is this common in therapy?
A I can see how your therapist’s focus on your mother could turn you off. This gets more difficult if you are raised traditionally where parents are to be respected and often revered, even when they treat their children in hurtful ways.
Certain therapy styles focus more on the effects of parents upon their children. Parents are very strong forces in shaping children’s perceptions of themselves, ways of relating to others, and responding to stress and life circumstances. Cultures put different levels of emphasis on parent-child relations. In the United States the nuclear family is the primary family unit that a child grows up in. Friction between parent and child is more active and verbally expressed. A child feels more autonomy and power in North American families and wants to be a separate individual from teenage onwards. Parents are often seen as obstacles to independence.
In India, there is a familial and cultural expectation that the children will support and care for their parents and grandparents into old age. Thus, maintaining a calmer, less conflicting bond by deference and focus on harmony takes priority over individual differences and more egalitarian modes of relating. It will be interesting to see where, in this spectrum, you best fit.
Every parent-child relationship has some tensions and misunderstandings. At some point in therapy, this needs to be talked about. For South Asians, this is more difficult because it can bring up feelings of betrayal, guilt, and not appreciating all that parents have done for them. However, for adults to grow, they need objectivity and space to explore what worked and didn’t work in their childhood upbringing. This can be done in a balanced and respectful way. We recognize that our parents did the best they could and we try to understand how their parental failings affected us.
Some types of therapies focus on how we are relating and living in the present. This keeps the issues more immediate, without trying to analyze details of the past. Gestalt therapy focuses upon the individual’s experience in the present moment, and the social and environmental contexts of a person’s life. Perhaps this is the right kind of therapy for you.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com