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As a first-year grad student, I was stunned when Sophie Freud, granddaughter of Sigmund and one of my social work professors, boldly proclaimed that "We never finish emotionally separating from our parents." Decades later, I understand how we spend our lives sifting through parental messages to crystallize what we really think and feel.
Separation is a life-long process filled with plateaus, milestones and, mostly, itsy bitsy baby steps. We’re taking part in separation or emotional disengagement even when we don’t realize it—as pre-teens by not making our beds or sneaking a peek at our folks’ personal items though we’ve been forbidden to do so, as adolescents by staying out beyond curfew or hanging with friends our parents dislike, as young adults by moving to another city for college or work, and as more mature adults by raising our children differently than we were raised. Each of these acts increases emotional separation.
Imagine us as human boxes. Born with some genetic pre-programming, our parents start to load other stuff into us—their ideas and opinions—til we're full up. Around adolescence or maybe even before, it feels as if there’s too much inside for us to carry around, so we start sorting out what we want from what we don't. And that arduous filtering process continues throughout life whether our parents are alive or deceased.
Remember, physical separation does not equal emotional separation. When you’re actively pursuing the latter, it pays to be thoughtful and fully conscious—proactive rather than reactive. You don't want to toss out or keep an idea merely because it belongs to your parents, so you have to put a good deal of energy into every decision about what goes and what stays. You might start with three piles: keepers, throw outs, and not sure. You’ll know right off that some values aren’t for you—blaming others for your mistakes, say—and that some are deeply held—being honest and ethical, for example. But you’ll have to think long and hard about other beliefs—whether to buy into our material society, how to be a good citizen, whether you believe in God, how to balance work and play or family and self.
To return to my box analogy, the goal is to create a box that is completely filled with your authentic beliefs and values. Some of your parents beliefs and values will be included and you can be glad you have them. Alternately, some parental beliefs and values are toxic, and the sooner you get rid of them, the better. Keep sorting and at some point, the box will be more you than not you. And that’s as good as it gets.
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