Back in the 1950s, researchers at Harvard Medical School asked 21-year-old students a seemingly simple, multiple-choice question. They were asked to describe their relationship with their parents using the following scale: “very close,” “warm and friendly,” “tolerant,” or “strained and cold.”
Thirty-five years later, the results were tallied. What the researchers discovered was astounding.
Ninety-one percent of participants who stated that their relationship with their mother was “tolerant” or “strained and cold” were diagnosed with a significant health issue such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, alcoholism, etc. compared with 45 percent of participants—less than half—who reported that their relationship with their mother was “warm and friendly” or “very close.” Similar numbers were reported for participants who described their relationship with their father: 82 percent versus 50 percent. If participants had a strained or cold relationship with both parents, the results were startling: 100 percent had significant health issues.
These statistics are revealing, and suggest that our connection, or lack of connection, to our parents can influence our health as we age. Yet, no matter how unhappy we perceive our relationship with our parents to be, one thing remains certain; these relationships can heal.
That doesn’t mean we throw ourselves in front of a moving train. If we don’t feel safe, or it isn’t possible to connect with our parents in real time, neuroscience research tells us that we can heal these relationships through visualization. Our brain often can’t tell the difference. Just by visualizing a warmer relationship with a parent, many of the same neurons and regions of the brain can activate as though we’re actually experiencing the warm feelings in real life.
In fact, you might want to try this practice tonight. Tape of photo of your parent over your pillow and say these words inside before you fall asleep. “Mom (or Dad), please meet me in sleep and help repair the bond that broke between us. Teach me how to trust your love, and how to let it in.” When you wake, look up at the photo and say “Thank you,” knowing that this restorative process has already begun to take effect. Do this for several weeks and notice what begins to change for you.
It’s important to realize that behind our parents’ hurtful actions is often a trauma that blocked the love they could give. Realizing that, it’s important to ask: What happened before we were conceived? What happened when our parents were small? What was the quality of love they received from their parents? What happened when we were small that may have blocked our ability to trust or take in their love? Just considering these questions, can open a doorway to deeper understanding.
Not only can your relationship with your parents affect your health, it can mirror the quality of the relationship you have with your partner, your boss, your friend, and even the relationship you have with yourself.
Let’s unpack that. What we don’t like in our parents—their anger, their coldness, their criticalness—we can disown in ourselves. These rejected behaviors can then express in us unconsciously in such a way that we’re unable to see when we behave similarly.
We can also project these behaviors onto our partner, believing that he or she will treat us the way our parent treated us. We can either pull in a partner who treats us similarly, or pull in someone who doesn’t, but because of our distrust, we can bring about a similar unhappiness, turning an emotionally available person into a cold and distant partner.
We can even treat ourselves the same way we feel we were treated. If we feel a parent ignored us, we can unconsciously ignore the young, fragmented, child part inside us. If we perceived a parent as being critical or aggressive, we can become self-critical or inwardly aggressive.
Healing our relationship with our parents can happen even if they’ve passed away, sit in jail, or tread in a sea of pain. By visualizing a warm inner image, we can begin to change our outer relationship with them. We can’t change what was, but we can certainly change what is. The key is not expecting our parents to be any different than who they are. The change happens in us.
Change, as we know, isn’t always easy. It often pushes the very edges of who we are so that we can step beyond our limits and become more of the person we want to be. In this very moment, if you were only one step away from having a more expansive life, what step would you take?