Today’s post is a little different: it’s an interview with author Daniel Mackler about his new book “Breaking From Your Parents“.
I wanted to share this interview with Daniel as he is tackling a subject that, in my opinion, is one of the last real taboos of our society: choosing to disengage from family relationships. This is a topic that is meaningful to me because it’s something I’ve dealt with myself (in 2007, I made the decision to break from my own parents). I’m aware this isn’t something that is widely acceptable to talk about in our culture (or many others), so I welcome respectful discussion in the comments.
Hi Daniel! Would you mind telling us a little about yourself and your background?
Hmm, about me… Well, right now I best identify myself as a world traveler, though I make my living as a filmmaker—mental health documentaries about recovery from psychosis without medication. Before this I was a therapist in New York for ten years.
What else? I’m 42 years old. I was born in New York City and still use that as my home base, though I haven’t had an apartment there in 4 years. But in my heart I’m a country kid. I was raised in the countryside—hunting, fishing, camping, collecting fossils, riding my bike, playing tons of sports outside. I only moved back to the city as an adult. And about me now…well…I just published this new book—on a subject near and dear to my heart.
Your new book is called “Breaking from Your Parents: Setting a New Precedent for Your Life and Our Species”. Can you explain what led you to write the book and how it felt to write so openly about your family experiences?
So first question first. I was led to write the book because I have broken from my own parents and have come to realize what an incredibly powerful and taboo thing that is to do. It’s basically not cool in our society—not cool often under even super-extreme circumstances, like in families where there was historical sexual abuse by a parent. Society pretty much sides with the parents in most cases. So what motivated me to write the book was my realization that what I’ve learned could really be very useful to others. I know a lot of people who are either breaking from their parents or are considering it, and what I’ve seen is there’s not much good writing out there on the subject. Yes, there are some books that talk about extreme cases in which it might be appropriate to break from one’s parents, but basically nothing out there talks about regular people wanting to break from their parents—and really start a new life. It’s taboo. Regular people are supposed to love their parents and stay close to them, be there for them, respect them, honor them—all that stuff. I felt the opposite in my life—and have lived this way for a long time. And having heard the stories of so many who in one way or another were like me, I decided to compile my thoughts into a book—both a theoretical and a practical one.
Now the second question: about how it felt to write so openly about my parents. Well: it felt horrible!! It was not fun. Scary. But actually that’s not the whole story. Simultaneously it felt liberating to write about my relationship with them: to not be afraid of them and to be able to speak openly about what they did to me, about the ways in which they failed me, and about why I have put so much energy into breaking from them. Breaking these age-old family secrets and casting off the taboos has been liberating.
But hand-in-hand with this liberation was my awareness that there would be consequences that went along with it. The consequences were the horrible part: the judgments I knew I would be facing from people who side with parents against their children, the judgment I would receive from my family system, even the criticism I would get in my mental health work—because so many, if not most, in the mental health field, therapists and clients alike, are not so healthy. They side reflexively with the parents, because they haven’t done enough inner work yet to mature to the point of being able to more deeply side with the self of their own child within.
And this brings me to the final part of why it was so hard to write about my own personal experiences: that there are still terrified and wounded parts of me, living in my psyche. I am not fully healed yet. I’ve come a long way—a really long way—but I still am hurt. I still, in some unconscious sides of myself, am looking for rescue from parental-like figures. And writing openly about breaking from my parents terrifies those wounded parts of me. And those wounded parts freak out because they’re afraid they will die because of what I’ve written. And…incidentally…in a way they are much more likely to die because of what I’ve written. It’s “game over” for them. But it’s not exactly that they’ll die: it’s that they’ll transform. Into something more mature. They have to face reality, and that is terrifying. And the reality is that they don’t need parental rescue, and regardless, ultimately parental rescue is never coming. The only way to find real satisfaction is to heal the ancient wounds of childhood and learn to meet one’s own deeper needs. This is the point of my book. It’s not just about breaking from our parents. It’s about learning to parent ourselves. It’s about growing up—in a way we were never taught to do. It’s about growing up in a way that broke the rules of the family system…because it was too healthy.
So writing this book, and especially writing so personally about my own life, kicked up all these dynamics within me. Scary—but ultimately something that I am confident is contributing to my personal liberation.
Something I struggled with when working through my own relationship with my parents was where to draw the line—in other words, when to set a boundary and stop trying to fix something that wasn’t fixable (or my responsibility to fix). Where is that line for you?
I tried for years to fix my parents. To help them become healthier so that they could be more proper, mature parents for me. I tried to do that since I was a little kid. And I became much more conscious of and focused about it when I was a teenager. I tried so hard—to help my mother get sober, to help my dad become more respectful and loving toward me, and more insightful too. It all failed. I wish I could say I gave up on them at that point and become independent, but I didn’t. Instead I vacillated between taking a lot of distance from them and then going back and trying to rectify the relationships. But healing those relationships was not meant to be. It wasn’t possible. My parents were too broken and stuck and I was too hell-bent on getting healthy and being more true to myself. Had I given up my struggle to be free—to become a full, healthy, integrated person—I could have stayed close, or closer, to them. That’s what most people do in their relationships with their parents. That’s the norm. But I couldn’t do it. So basically life chose my path for me: I had to get away. The failure of our relationship was not for my lack of trying. I think I tried far too hard. For way too many years.
But at the same time I think I needed to try. I needed to give it my all: in order to find out who they really were and what their limitations were. By not having such clear boundaries I allowed a lot of intimate contact with them, on and off right up through my mid-30s, and learned just how sick and stuck they were. So when I finally broke away in a much more permanent way (which is where I’ve been for the last several years) I knew what I was doing. I did not feel emotionally called to return to them.
But I had to test that boundary for years. That’s how I learned where to draw the line for myself in relation to them. I think everyone needs to test that for himself or herself. It’s not something that an outside person can tell someone. It’s something we all have to feel for ourselves, individually.
I hear from a lot of people who are very unhappy in toxic or abusive family relationships, yet don’t feel like they have the option to distance themselves or break away from these relationships, because “they’re family”. Do you have any suggestions or words of wisdom for these people?
Hmm…my experience tells me that the idea that we have to stick with our parents because “they’re family” is an idea created by the parent. By the family system itself. It’s an idea created by the family to keep the family together — to defend itself and its own denial. And I think that idea, the idea that we have to stay close to our parents, no matter what, resonates strongly with children — and the wounded childlike parts in us that have not yet healed — because children, no matter what, need their parents. Especially young children. They need parents to take care of them. If parents (or parental-like figures) don’t take care of them they will die. So children learn very early to accept a certain amount of misery and inappropriate behavior and failure from their parents. Their survival depends on it. And it’s normal that that attitude sticks around in people long after they’ve chronologically become adults. But the more people heal their wounded child within, the more that attitude of “they’re family and thus I can’t reject them” fades away. The less we need our parents the more free we are to become independent—and take care of ourselves. That is, by healing our ancient childhood wounds we place ourselves in a position to parent ourselves—and now to do it properly.
One of the things I’ve found most challenging about breaking from my parents is the social isolation it can cause, so I was grateful to see that you’ve included a chapter on friendships and support. What, in your experience, has been the best way to approach this topic with friends? And how have you dealt with friends who aren’t so supportive of your decision?
Hmm…how to broach this topic with friends? Well, my closest friends have broken from their parents, or have largely done so, so it’s not a hard topic to broach with them. These friends are my allies, much as I hope this book will be for others. My allies support me and I support them. They know why I’ve done what I’ve done with my parents and they respect it. And I feel the same for them. But I do have friends who have not broken from their parents—or have done so only minimally. It’s hard for me to be deep friends with them, and for a few reasons. One reason is that I often find what they’re doing to be troubling. It’s hard for me to see people in confused, essentially self-harming relationships with the very people who set them on a confused path. I don’t find it easy to witness this in my friends. It’s painful. It’s not so different to watching a friend go through an unpleasant addiction, such as to a drug or to sex. I can still love some parts of the person, but not all the behavior.
But on a more personal level, my friends who have not broken much from their parents are generally not so supportive of me. They don’t really understand why I’m doing what I’ve done—in having broken from my parents—and sometimes they even criticize me for it. They ask me questions like, “Doesn’t that hurt your parents?” or “Can’t you work toward forgiving them?” Yuck!
Or sometimes they do a different thing that’s equally troubling to me: they say, “Oh, it makes sense why you’re doing what you’re doing because you had such a bad childhood with such troubled parents.” That to me is a cop-out. First, from what I’ve seen, my childhood was not really so much worse than most people’s—and in fact probably was much better than most people’s—and second, my childhood generally seems to have been better than that of the very people pressuring me to get back together with my parents. So basically it’s hard to be friends with someone who is in denial about something that I’m not in denial about. I know that sounds harsh, but that’s how I see it.
And as this relates to my new book, Hannah, I actually didn’t tell a lot of my less supportive friends—especially those who were parents themselves—that I was even writing it, much less publishing it. I needed the free mental space to be able to create the work without their intrusions. Arguing with people in denial, friends or otherwise, was not going to help me get the book out there. And just to be clear, it’s not that I’ve spent my life avoiding argument or discussion with people who hold a different viewpoint than I do. I haven’t. I have spent years—decades, actually—discussing these points with people who hold different points of view than that which I hold. And, interestingly, I used to hold viewpoints that were much closer to theirs. I used to believe in things like forgiveness of parents. That’s how I was raised. I have since evolved.
Daniel Mackler is a former psychotherapist and presently a world wanderer, filmmaker, international lecturer, and musician. Born in New York City and raised in the wilds of Western New York State, he now lives all over the world, city and countryside alike. He is most widely known for his film series on recovery from schizophrenia without psychiatric medication, a subject on which he has also published two peer-reviewed books, but his deepest passion is the subject of healing childhood trauma. This, he believes, is the root of our individual salvation—and our collective salvation as a species.
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