A mistake I made: I used to feel responsible for my son's feelings, thoughts, choices

The Swimmer, Yoshitomo Nara, 1992. Oil on canvas.
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I listened to a parent tell me about his son. The son needs to borrow money. 

“Tell me more,” I ask. 

I listen as he tells what he sees: a job loss, irresponsibility, a pattern of borrowing and not paying the money back. A big red flag rises when he says, “A family member caught him stealing medications from the kitchen cabinet.” I ask, “Do you think he might have a drug problem?” He pauses and says, “I don’t know. He’s such a good kid. He just needs a little help. I gave him $20 so he could get dinner.”

This story is familiar to my past. I remember mistakes I made with my son. I remember my inability, unwillingness, and lack of readiness to see reality when he was alive.

A parent is supposed to love, protect, and support a child. But what does that mean? 

Like this parent telling me about his son, I didn’t know what love, protection, or support looked like. For example, I used to think and feel responsible for my son’s feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, well-being, lack of well-being, and ultimate destiny. I felt compelled to help solve his problems.

That thought was a huge mistake.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett says, “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them—especially not from yourself.”  I like the notion of a good mistake. That means I can learn something. “So when you make a mistake…learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. It’s not easy.”

Dennett’s right. It’s not easy. Feelings come up when I “ruthlessly reflect.” Ruthless reflection takes courage. Taking Dennett’s suggestion to examine mistakes, here’s what I've personally uncovered related to that parent's share about his son:

I gave money to my addicted son whenever he asked. 
I kept an open checkbook with him. I intuited it was the wrong choice, yet I struggled to say no. It was not a new struggle. I had a poor record of saying no since he was a toddler. Even though I knew subconsciously that my son would use the money to buy drugs, I gave it to him. “He has to eat,” I told myself.

When my son asked for money, his request was often spun within a context of hardship, money for food, gas, to pay a bill or for something direly needed. I didn’t know how to say no to him or others. I was unaware of how helpful the practice of saying no could be for my son and myself.

I was unable to feel or see my life or the asking-for-money situation from a neutral view—you know, someone who could look and listen as if reporting for National Geographic. That would have brought some clarity. I call this inability to see reality denial. 

Occasionally I saw reality, yet I often pretended something else. 

I didn’t know that denial is a way I protect, even rescue, myself from discomfort. Denial caused a long delay in closing the Bank of Susan and telling the truth, if at the very least, to myself.

Instead of seeing reality, I blamed the system or another (the drug supplier, his friends' influences). 

That didn't help. 

Blame fuels confusion in a relating dynamic. I now believe blame is injecting my discomfort or pain into the one I’m blaming, which is an escape, distraction, and one way to numb the pain. I’d blame then feel bad and rescue him and then feel bad for rescuing him, which led to woeful me-ish, victim feelings.

I had not examined my beliefs. When I did, I noticed that I acted from an old belief that my kids are an extension of me. A chip off the old block! I thought if my kids did well, I looked good. If my child messed up, I failed or was a failure as a parent. My new belief is more in line with what Gibran says, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you…You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts…”.

Then I discovered something that did work: I looked at myself—my own beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. It takes courage to look at myself and take responsibility for my choices. It takes courage to feel, express, share and release old beliefs, thoughts, and feelings in order to make room for new ways of relating, seeing, and being.

I began to understand that if I change, my relationships and situations change. I began to pay attention to what I thought and did. I gave up owning my son's problems. He wasn't the only one I tried fixing, rescuing, and managing. I transformed owning others' problems into having compassion for them.

I take Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s words into my heart when it comes to addiction and negative behavior: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself.” (The Brothers Karamazov)I tell myself the truth. I need that truthfulness to work on wakefulness.

So, when this parent asked if I had any experience with this. I told him. Perhaps he saw himself in me.