How you hold your parents matters. When you judge, disrespect, or reject one or both of them, you are doing the same to yourself. Since you are literally of them and from them, it’s vital to your well-being and inner peace to accept them as they are, even if only in your heart.

This truth was highlighted for me recently by my teacher, Mark Wolynn. He cited a Harvard Medical School study that showed surprising correlations between the quality of one’s parental relationships and the quality of one’s health later in life.

In the 1950s, researchers asked 21-year-old students to describe their relationship with their parents using the scale: “very close,” “warm and friendly,” “tolerant,” or “strained and cold.” Thirty-five years later, those same students, now 56 years-old, were asked about their health.

  • 91% of participants who stated that their relationship with their mother was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a significant health issue such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, alcoholism, etc.
  • 45% of participants who reported that their relationship with their mother was “warm and friendly” or “very close” had been diagnosed with a serious health challenge.
  • 82% of participants who stated that their relationship with their father was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a significant health issue.
  • 50% of participants who stated that their relationship with their father was “warm and friendly” or “very close” had been diagnosed with a serious health challenge.
  • 100% of participants who stated that their relationship with both parents was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” had been diagnosed with a significant health issue.

We all know from personal experience that our family relationships have a big impact on our childhood development. These statistics point to the fact that that impact actually lasts a lifetime. Implicit, as well, is the life enhancing value of compassionate completion with our parents at any age.

When I say compassionate completion, I mean that you realize that whatever you blame them for was not personal. You are able to see your parents as flawed, traumatized humans, like yourself, who did the best they could with what they received from their parents and life events. You accept that they cannot give what they didn’t get and that you got enough. You don’t try to change what was, you simply decide to change how you hold it. Your parents aren’t going to be any different, but when you change how you hold them, your relationship with them will too.

Maybe they are available and healthy enough for you, in person, to let them off the hook, thank them for all they did do for you, and enjoy a transformed relationship. Maybe they are passed, or mentally ill, or unsafe to be near physically and you can, in your own mind and heart, complete with them by understanding what they went through and why they behaved as they did. Changing your inner image of them, shifts how you hold them. Having compassion for what happened to them and caring about what they went through will enable you to acknowledge that what they did wasn’t about you, it was about them. When you no longer take what happened personally, you can leave their suffering with them and free yourself from perpetuating unhealthy and unloving dynamics.

I used to hold my mother as selfish and uncaring. Growing up, I could feel she was not seeing me. I took it personally and, as a result, judged and rejected her. We had a polite, superficial relationship at best. Then, through the Family Constellation work, I came to a new understanding of what was behind her behavior. Now, I see her as the one who cared the most. We share a sweet, warm, fun bond that feels like a miracle in my life.

My mother had an older sister who died the same day she was born. The death of their first child, after a seemingly normal, healthy pregnancy, was so painful for my grandparents that they never talked about nor told their later children of their older sibling. Because they couldn’t bear to be with the trauma of her passing, they also couldn’t look at and include her as part of the family. So, my mother looked instead, which is why she couldn’t see me. Understanding that my mother was unconsciously identified with her excluded sibling made so much of what I went through with her suddenly make sense. (Learn more about systemic dynamics and exclusion)

In changing how I hold my mother, I dramatically changed how I feel inside my own life. Opening to the bigger picture allowed me to open my heart to her. With that came a floodgate of love, growth, and healing for me in all my relationships.

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