I wrote the following post for the Jung Society of Utah blog.

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
– C.G. Jung

My dad has always existed for me in the space between “here” and “gone.” He was always around, but only rarely has he been truly present in my life. In recent months this has been literalized as his health has taken a turn for the worst. He’s now in a nursing care facility, spending his most of his days apparently drifting in and out, only occasionally conscious or coherent, no longer who he was.

He graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, then worked for the State of Utah for 30 years. It was always clear how much he hated his job. He was miserable and bored, and my mom, my sister, and I seemed to exist only in the shadows of his suffering. When he retired, his health started deteriorating steadily. I feel it has to do with the shadows of unlived potential manifesting as illness.

“The participation mystique, or primitive identity, causes the child to feel the conflicts of the parents and to suffer from them as if they were its own.” – C.G. Jung

I don’t know what my dad wanted to do with his psychology degree, but it occurred to me recently that he could have been an effective therapist. Seven years ago I was on a flight from Cairo to New York City that hit very bad weather. After circling the JFK airport for a tense and miserable hour, the flight was diverted to Dulles. In the midst of a panic attack (though I didn’t realize it at the time), I called my parents’ house and my dad answered. He listened to my story about the hellish flight, being trapped on the plane at Dulles for two hours before being allowed to leave and go through customs, and my fear of having to spend the night alone in the airport. He then told me to breathe, assured me that the airline was required by law to find me a flight back to Salt Lake City, and addressed my other concerns enough that I could function and get through the night. To this day, I’m still grateful for that.

“Nothing influences children more than the silent facts in the background.” – C.G. Jung

All of this played on my mind as I interviewed for the Counseling Psychology program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. On the plane back to Salt Lake City, I read the following in Robert A. Johnson’s book, Owning Your Own Shadow:

“My own father took refuge in invalidism and lived very little of his potential. As a result of this, I feel I have two lives to cope with—my own and the unlived life of my father. This is a severe burden, but it can have creative dimensions if I take on this task consciously. Such things are possible only when we are old and mature enough to know what we are doing—though we do not usually have this kind of wisdom until we reach middle age” (p.35-36).

While I don’t qualify as middle-aged quite yet, my dad is 66, still relatively young in a time and place where people can live to their 90s and beyond. I wonder now what he could still do if circumstances were different. What might he have done earlier in life that would have brought him more joy and meaning? And through my career change, am I indeed taking on my dad’s unlived potential? Does it truly matter?

I don’t have any answers, and at this point, all I can do is focus on finding joy and meaning in my own life. In doing so, I intend to fulfill my own promise and honor myself by living my life to the fullest expression of my authenticity and potential. I want to ensure that no one, especially not me, ever ends up abandoned in my shadows.

“Parental influence only becomes a moral problem in face of conditions which might have been changed by the parents, but were not.” – C.G. Jung

Regardless of whether we have children, perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves and those around us is to seek that which truly helps us feel happy, fulfilled and whole, bravely walking the path that leads us to the highest expression of our true selves.

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3 thoughts on “Individuation and the Unlived Life of the Parents

  1. This is a subject I have never read up on but as far as my own journey goes, I noticed a long time ago that my mother’s “stuff” is incredibly relevant to my “stuff”, bearing in mind that both our lives were “different” not only to everybody else’s but to each other’s.

    Everybody I have ever known who is consciously pursuing their Path has at least one parent who “bailed”. I think this is the Universe’s way of creating a catapult effect, in other words the fact that they bailed should not be viewed as a failure on their part but their contribution to a much more collective process – in which they ultimately still get all the benefits – by proxy. I hope this makes sense.

    1. Thank you for sharing. It does make sense and I concur with your viewpoint. Even though I feel like my dad “bailed” on his Path, I hope he will benefit somehow from me following my Path, particularly since he has now passed.

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