“If I accept that I can never have a real relationship with my father, it feels like I don’t have a father. If I accept that, am I still a son?”
Jack is a 45-year-old architect, recently married for the first time. He came to therapy to deal with long-standing feelings of depression. His wife, ten years younger than Jack, wanted to start a family. Jack had spent years keeping a cool and cordial distance from his critical father. Now, as his wife pressed him to become a father himself, he felt flooded by sadness and insecurity. Could he be a good father? What if he messed it up?
Having done much reading, Jack came into therapy with the understanding that his father had many characteristics of a narcissistic personality disorder. Even as an adult, Jack could no right. Jack’s father constantly criticized his life choices, even his thoughts and feelings. Only his father’s way of seeing things was right.
Although Jack learned to expect that his father would react to perceived slights with complete rage, this behavior never became easier for him to bear. Still, part of him continued to hope that things would change. He hoped that some day he could have a “real” relationship with his father that would help him feel better about himself.
How to Feel Better
Jack gradually learned ideas that helped him cope with his painful feelings about his relationship with his father. He also learned that he could have these feelings and move forward in his life.
The following ideas helped him and they can help you, too. They are based on concepts from Buddhist meditation practices and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). The good news is you don’t have to a Buddhist, expert meditator, or be in DBT to greatly benefit from these ideas.
1. DIALECTICAL: means two ideas can be true at the same time. Life is full of opposites that exist together.
We can can feel better when we acknowledge what is AND that change can still occur. We can learn to cope with two opposite ideas.
2. ACCEPTANCE: means that we suffer when we hold onto things we can’t change.
We can accept things, without approving of them, and find new ways to live. When we accept painful realities, we can begin to problem solve.
Here is an especially important point:
Acceptance is more than than today’s ubiquitous phrase: “It is what it is.” This seems to imply: “Whatever. Just deal with it.”
Acceptance does not mean approving of, condoning, or forgiving a situation.
For Jack, this meant that accepting that a father with a narcissistic personality will not change. This is very painful; he will never have the kind of father-son relationship he craves and deserves. At the same time, Jack can move forward in his life. He can learn ways to deal with these painful feelings and have the life he wants (marriage, fatherhood, feeling good).
3. MINDFULNESS: helps us notice our feelings, but not be overwhelmed by them.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. For example, when Jack felt hit by feelings of grief or fear, it helped him to imagine these feelings flowing out of him like waves roll out of the ocean.
After Jack learned about dialectics, acceptance, and mindfulness, he continued to have negative thoughts about himself and his future. This is normal. Our minds are like Gorilla Glue — they do not want to let go. Jack practiced noticing his self-critical, pessimistic thoughts and letting them go, without beating himself up for it. Sometimes he had to do this many times throughout day. It helped to remind himself that acceptance does not equal liking or even forgiving. It just meant that he was learning to cope and change.
The more Jack practiced Acceptance and Change, the more optimistic he felt. He began to feel that his sense of worth was separate from his relationship with his father. He could make his own choices.