Psychoanalyst Carl Jung once said, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” This concept of the unlived life is one the most salient and orienting principles of psychology. Jung goes on to describe the unlived life as “that part of [the parents’] lives which might have been lived had not certain threadbare excuses prevented [them] from ever doing so.”
Many Jungians read the phrase “threadbare excuses'' as acts of willful choice, fear, or social conformity. If Jung were alive today, he’d likely have also included the impact that trauma can have on our early childhood experiences, intergenerational inheritance, and epigenetics.
As a certified Gestalt psychoanalyst, Imago Relationship therapist, and Somatic Experiencing practitioner, I’ve been an avid student of psychoanalytic theory for over 15 years.
Jung’s quote is a call to all of us to bring more mindful attention to our behavior. When we do, when we attend to what’s causing us suffering in the present, we can heal what’s unfinished and embark upon life free from the anxiety of the past. When we find ourselves stuck in negative behavior patterns or caught between who we are and who we want to be, paying mindful attention can be an awakening of sorts. As Frtiz Perls once said, "Awareness in itself is healing."
To understand how the unlived lives of our parents can unconsciously act upon us, it’s important to understand Jung’s concept of the imago. According to psychoanalysis, we all carry an imago—an image of our parents inside of us. This image contains both the positive and negative aspects of our parents, but it is often the negative, traumatic, or unconscious aspects that end up directing our behavior.
In “The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious”, Jung wrote
The simple soul is of course quite unaware of the fact that his nearest relations, who exercise immediate influence over him, create in him an image which is only partly a replica of themselves, while its other part is compounded of elements derived from himself. The imago is built up of parental influence plus the specific reactions of the child; it is therefore an image that reflects the object with very considerable qualifications.
The image of our parents lives inside us, and if we don’t heed the occasional call to attend to it, it can negatively impact our wellbeing in myriad ways.
When Andrea came to see me to help treat her social anxiety, she’d already spent five years in therapy. In many ways, she was a model client. With a background in dance, she had access to bodily awareness, and thanks to her previous therapists, she also possessed a strong capacity for self-reflection, and had worked to create a cohesive narrative of her childhood.
In our first session, she told me how her relationship with her critical, avoidant mother had led her to pursue a career in dancing.
“It’s so obvious that I feel embarrassed to admit it,” she said, “but dance became the exciting and rejecting object.”
She blushed, aware that she’d just used psychoanalytic terminology with a psychoanalyst.
“I’ve been chasing choreographers’ acceptance and audience applause the same way I used to follow my mother around the house,” she continued, tears beginning to roll down her cheeks. “I was just desperate to be looked at with some semblance of warmth and love.”
While Andrea spoke with conviction about her mother, I noticed how infrequently she spoke about her father, and when she did, she often used admiring language and granted him a lot of leeway. Andrea’s father had been financially dependent on her mother and, although a talented and intelligent person, he’d struggled professionally. He’d also left Andrea and her mother on several occasions: first when Andrea was 11, again when she was 17, and finally when she was 22. She also shared that on several occasions, he’d been aggressive and hurtful toward her. I was curious how much Andrea’s father might have been responsible for Andrea’s current struggles.
Over our next couple sessions, I periodically brought up how she’d speak often about her mother but seemed less willing to reflect on her father.
“I notice you often regard your father as the savior from your mother’s coldness,” I said in one session. “While I know that must have been true, I wonder about your attention to the negative impact your father may have had on you, too. He left you and your mother several times throughout your life. What was that like for you to always have this threat of him leaving your family? What was it like to witness your father unable to support himself?”
“My mother was always emotionally unavailable,” Andrea responded. “I get why he wanted to leave.”
I had a flash of confusion, followed by frustration. Then, I remembered something: as therapists, we often see what our clients cannot. It’s become somewhat of a mantra for me when I grow impatient with a client, allowing me to trust in the unfolding nature of self-discovery.
As Andrea and I continued working together, we began focusing on helping her develop more confidence and agency, both of which she felt she lacked. We spoke at length about her experience with gatekeepers in the dance industry and how these encounters in which she was kept from what she most desired felt familiar to those with her mother. In both instances, she’d been craving warmth and validation to no avail. One day, she looked up at me and said, “After spending so much time unpacking my relationship with dance and coming to terms with how unsatisfying and unresponsive this industry is, I think I’ve finally realized there isn’t much actual affection or desire here.”
Soon afterward, Andrea decided to change careers and get her real estate license. She’d always loved design and architecture, and enjoyed the relational aspect of working with prospective buyers. She quickly gained the attention of leadership at the firm she was working with, and was excited by how satisfying and lucrative this new professional home was becoming.
She’d also started a relationship with a wonderful woman—“the first healthy relationship of my life,” as she put it. In our following sessions, she talked about her happiness and satisfaction at being responded to with care, and also made note of—and kept in check—self-sabotaging impulses to flee or reject the relationship.
“While I know your mother was emotionally unavailable to you, she was there day in and day out,” I told her in a later session. “She supported you to the best of her ability, even continuing to support you financially when you went back to school. Do you think these self-sabotaging impulses you keep noticing might be how your father continues to live in you?”
“I really don’t think this is about him,” she replied. “My father was very affectionate with me, very attentive.” I could sense Andrea’s desire to keep me away from the topic of her father.
“It seems like you don’t want to talk about your father,” I said. “Could you say that to me directly? Could you say to me, ‘I don’t want to talk about my father’?
Andrea’s face hardened. “I just think you’re off the mark.”
“You have an accessible and integrated view of your mother’s impact on you,” I continued, “but when it comes to reflecting on your father, you push me away. I’m inviting you to notice when you push. Do you know what you’re keeping me away from? What are you trying to preserve with him?”
Andrea hesitated briefly as something flickered inside her.
“I’m not sure, yet,” she said.
A few sessions later, Andrea entered my office looking distressed. She sat down and took a deep breath. “They want to promote me to general manager,” she said.
“I’m so sorry, Andrea,” I said playfully. “That’s terrible news.”
“I know! I can’t believe it. I don’t understand this success. It’s so much more money and I’ve been wanting this position, but I keep hearing this voice inside me saying You have to turn this down and It’s not going to work out.”
I sensed we were both up against the powerful energy of her paternal imago.
“Does that confuse you?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said shakily. “I am confused.”
“Look at me, and tell me again what the voices are saying.”
Andrea took a few breaths, then looked into my eyes.
“’You have to turn this down,’” she said, even shakier than before. “’It’s not going to work out.’”
“What are you noticing right now?”
“I feel very young.”
“Good,” I offered. “Let’s say hello to that young part. Can you see her there next to you?”
Andrea closed her eyes, and her breathing deepened.
“She looks scared,” she said.
“Yes. What is she scared of?”
She made a deep, visceral sound, as if something was being dislodged from deep inside her: “UGH.”
“What are you sensing in your body, Andrea?”
“I feel nauseous,” she replied. Then, she paused, and for a fraction of a second, she looked up and to the right, as though something was towering over her.
“What did you see?” I asked.
She took a moment to orient herself.
“My dad,” she said. “She’s afraid of him…or I am. I guess we both are.”
“Let’s see about making a little more space. Can you place him at a further distance? Maybe put him across the street, or shrink him down in size a bit?”
Andrea smiled slightly. “Oh, I like him small.”
“Great. What might you say to the little one that can help her understand what’s happening? What might offer her some comfort?”
Andrea looked down to her right and her eyes filled with tears as she spoke to her projected younger self.
“You give up on yourself because you're afraid if you don’t he’ll get angry,” she said. “His anger has nothing to do with you. You are so precious. You are capable of so much more than he could ever possibly see.”
Andrea’s body relaxed as tears rolled down her face.
I offered some gentle guidance to encourage the change in her body. “Push into the floor with your feet, Andrea. Sense the boundaries of your body. Feel how much space there is for breath inside of you. That breath is the support you need to keep expanding into as big as a life you want. You’re safe to do that now.”
Then, she looked up to the right. “I’m done making myself small for you,” she said in a full voice. She sliced the air with her hand. “Done!’’
“Do that gesture again,” I advised. “Go as slowly as you need to feel your sense of self. Feel who you are as you make that gesture.”
She sliced the air again. “Done.”
“Seems you just cut the cord between you and your father,” I offered.
“Yes,” she said, looking peaceful and contemplative. “I didn’t realize I was still attached. I guess attachment isn’t a single umbilical cord. It’s more like a spiderweb.”
As we sat in the fullness of silence together, the reverberation of what had been said filled the air. And Andrea looked vibrant.
After several moments of quiet, her eyes widened and she leaned back in her chair.
“Wow. Wow, wow, wow,” she said. “I cannot believe how many times I’ve sabotaged myself. I’m just astonished. I’m having an image of a broken pearl necklace on the floor with a dangling string in my hand, but now it’s like someone hit rewind and now it’s back together again. What seemed disconnected is now coming back together.”
One of my favorite quotes about the therapy process is from David J. Wallin’s book Attachment in Psychotherapy. “Childhood memories,” he writes, “need revision in light of adult understanding.” Over the following weeks, Andrea revisited memories of her father, only this time she was able to allow herself to examine what she’d experienced as a child with her adult self present to organize, protect, and integrate those experiences.
When Andrea and I terminated therapy, she’d just gotten married to her partner, and was continuing to enjoy professional success. She’d even set new boundaries with her father, which demonstrated the continued actualization of her commitment to protecting herself and attending to her emotional well-being.
Our parents may die, but the imago of them never dies. While our actual parents may pass on, the image of them that we carry inside us remains, and we must attend to the ways in which these projections can affect our lives. It’s why Jung urged people to pay attention and wise up to the inner forces at work. Without conscious attention, parental imagos can exert negative influence on our family relationships, romantic relationships, friendships, work lives, and much, much more.
Throughout my own personal therapy and my training as a psychoanalyst, I’ve journeyed through layers upon layers of the spiderwebs of attachment. It seems that with each thread I snip, I recover more of myself. I realize now that early in life, every choice I made was driven by some underlying imago dynamic. The gift of awareness is that we unlock ourselves from the cages of the past, and in the freedom of the present, real choice emerges.
In my work, I’ve come to learn that the gift of therapy is possessing an embodied understanding of how the past continues to drive the present, and developing the necessary skills to experience enough felt safety to move through our challenges. When I witness moments of transformation in clients like Andrea, I realize that it’s given me a gift, too.
Image © iStock/retrorocket