Blame Freud

By Gwen Sellers

I once saw a decorative pillow that said "If it's not one thing, it's your mother." Of course I laughed out loud. Unfortunately, though, some of us latch on a bit too tightly to the sentiment behind that statement. Psychoanalytic theory, fathered by Sigmund Freud, may have something to do with that. Freud held a deterministic view of humans, posing that we are ruled by irrational, instinctual, unconscious drives and that most of our personality is developed by the age of six, in large part based on interactions with our parents. Freud is associated with pop-psychology ideas like the id, ego, and superego; libido; the Oedipus and Electra Complexes; ego-defense mechanisms (such as projection, introjection, rationalization, regression, etc.); free association; and dream analysis. Classic psychoanalysis is the stereotypical patient on a couch being analyzed by a psychologist who finds it all "very interesting." As with most psychological theories, others stepped in to challenge or expand Freud's thoughts. As opposed to Freud's psychosexual stages of development, Eric Erikson developed psychosocial stages of development. Parenting still holds high influence, but Erikson's theory allowed for social influences and placed more significance on development throughout one's lifetime. Though Alfred Adler and Freud did not get along, Adlerian therapy is considered to be a psychodynamic approach to therapy. Adler recognized the importance of early-childhood influences, but did not view them as determining factors for one's life. Instead, he emphasized responsibility, choice, and striving for perfection. One's general "style of life" may be in place by age six, but Adler believed events in later life could still significantly impact a person's way of being. He focused on how people interpreted certain events more so than on the events themselves. Rather than being a product of one's past, Adler believed people were authors of their lives and directed their behaviors toward certain desired goals. Feelings of inferiority, he said, were common to human experience. Instead of bemoaning such inferiority feelings, Adler viewed them as a springboard for creativity and motivation to succeed. Adler was interested in sibling birth order, particularly how children viewed their place in the family. He also emphasized social interest and community feeling, a sense of belonging to a community and contributing to the wellbeing of others.

Despite the fact that contemporary psychodynamic approaches to counseling are less deterministic and less focused on past occurrence, the urge to blame our parents for our current problems still remains. And Adler may have contributed to this notion. Based on Freud's concept that adult psychological issues are the result of unresolved childhoods, Adler opened child guidance clinics. The idea was to provide children with a healthy environment in which to grow and thus to prevent problems later in life. He also provided families and teachers with counseling. Child guidance clinics are still around today and serve a helpful purpose. Unfortunately, when such clinics first started springing up, the tendency was to blame the parents for children's problems. David Levy blamed overprotective mothers. Frieda-Fromm Reichmann spoke about "schizophrenogenic mothers," aggressive and dominant women who she thought caused their children to develop schizophrenia. The field of family therapy is not proud to say that these two opened new doors, but their focus on the relationship between parents and children did get people thinking.

Are parents really to blame for the way their children act? Can an adult point to his early childhood as a valid excuse to remain stuck in a dysfunctional way of life? Are our lives determined by the people in them or the things that happen to us, or do we have some responsibility in the matter?

Experience tells us that our pasts do shape us to some extent. Parents or primary caregivers are important in our development. The events of childhood often form our beliefs about life. We've all heard about "attachment issues" based on infant relationships to primary caregivers. Family genograms reveal dysfunctional patterns in families. Many medical and psychological diseases have heritable components. Likely most of us are familiar with the way traumatic experiences affect the body—bad memories triggered by a smell or sound, recurring nightmares, digestive issues, or other somatic responses to emotional stress. You may be familiar with new therapies like Francine Shapiro's EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) or neurofeedback (which uses a specific form of biofeedback, reading brain waves, to retrain the brain) or other types of therapy that involve the body. Some studies have now linked childhood trauma to later life issues on a molecular level. It is known that things like nutrition or chemicals can affect a person's epigenetics, or how a certain gene is expressed. But experiences with no direct biological link, for instance traumas like childhood neglect or war or surviving a natural disaster, can also affect epigenetics in the brain. This idea is now being studied in the field of behavioral epigenetics. Perhaps most intriguing, even the trauma our parents experienced may have a genetic effect on us. While there are not yet conclusive studies, it could be that these epigenetic modifications are directly passed down to the next generation. So it may not just be that your mother's childhood trauma affected her and the behavioral changes in her now affect the way she parents you. It could be that her trauma affected her biological makeup, which now affects your biological makeup regardless of her parenting style. You can read more about this idea here. Even biblically speaking, God says, "… I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Exodus 20:5b-6; see also Exodus 34:6-7 and Numbers 14:18).

Obviously we have little to no control over the events of our pasts or the ways in which they have now affected our bodies. But can we really hold others, biology, or even "chance occurrence," responsible for all of our problems? Are we simply victims of the things that have influenced us, or are we responsible for living our lives? The Bible argues that we are not to blame, but to live (Romans 6; John 10:10). [Please note, for this blog I will be focusing most on behavioral patterns and not addressing concerns such as chemical imbalances, psychotropic medications, or ways to help the body metabolize trauma.]

While the realities of our personal histories—including the people who have played significant roles in those histories and the ways in which our bodies have physically reacted to those histories—certainly affect us, they do not determine who we are. It may be that we have issues around trust because we had neglectful parents. We might be more fearful than others because our parents were overprotective. Perhaps we've learned that violence is the only way to resolve conflict because that's how it was in our homes growing up. Maybe our genetic makeup predisposes us to addiction. But these influences do not lock us in to prescribed ways of being. Though it may at first seem freeing to blame someone else for our problems, it is actually quite disempowering. When we live in constant blame, we are subjecting ourselves to someone else's control. Instead, understanding the ways in which people have affected us and the ways in which our biology interacts with our lives is freeing. We are not absolved from having to deal with whatever problems these may have contributed to. If our sin was goaded on by something in our past, it is still us who sinned. If our body is struggling because of something in our past, it is still us who must call the doctor, undergo the testing, take the medication or see the counselor. Blaming leaves us sitting with the problem and a pointed finger. Owning up to whatever ways we may have contributed to the problem and accepting responsibility to move through it gives us the ability to actually move through it. We see the problem, maybe take a look around to understand where it came from, and then bring it to God to see how He wants to remove the weight so we can keep moving forward.

Playing the blame game is not only impractical if health is the desired goal, it is unbiblical. In fact, the blame game didn't really start with Freud or Adler or Reichmann. It started with Adam, who, when questioned about his sin, blamed Eve, who promptly blamed the serpent (Genesis 3). God gets even more specific about the whole blaming thing, especially in terms of the role parents play. Ezekiel 18 is in many ways God's discourse on how our parents affect us and how we are still responsible for our own actions. Verses 30-32 say, "Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live." God gives allowance for negative influences impacting us, but He also gives great freedom in turning away from those influences and toward Him.

In the New Testament, this theme is made even clearer. It is not merely that some of us have negative past influences. No, each of us is born a sinner. We do have a sin nature and are, in fact, slaves to it. Because of this, we are each born spiritually dead and each destined to remain in that death (Romans 6:23). But Jesus steps in and offers freedom (Romans 6:23). Romans 1:18-20 says, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." We inherently know about right and wrong. It is obvious that God exists and that He has a moral standard. But it is also obvious that there is something loving about this God. Humans have an inner desire to be reconciled with Him. And in Jesus we can be! Second Corinthians 5:21 says, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Jesus frees us from our slavery to sin. Yes, we might still be drawn to it, but we are now able not to live in it. Immediately after bemoaning his continual struggle against sin, Paul writes, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1-2). This really removes all need for blame and for shame. The Bible makes it pretty obvious that Christians are going to sin, but it also makes it very clear that sin does not control us (1 John 1:8-10). It no longer carries with it a permanent death sentence. The consequences of sin remind us what death is and deepen our longing for true life in Christ (John 10:10; John 15:1-11). Sin's temptation gives us the opportunity to be victorious in Christ. The reality that we were once sinners gives us the opportunity to see Christ made strong in our weakness. "For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (Romans 8:15-17).

The Bible is also clear that we live in a fallen world and it is going to hurt us sometimes. Jesus told His followers, "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Many people have been victimized in their past, sadly often by parents or people in the position of trust. This should not be. But neither do these people need to remain victims. Jesus has overcome! He provides healing for the hurts of our pasts (Luke 4:18-21). It is important to grieve the effects someone else's sin has had on us. But it is also important to do this with God's redemptive power in mind. It is important to grieve the effects our own sins have had in our lives, and to do so with God's forgiving nature in mind. We do need to be aware of those things that have entangled us before and may seek to trip us up in the present. But we call all of this to attention not to shift responsibility or to live as slaves, but in order to bring light to the darkness. We speak truth that we might live in freedom (John 8:32). In Isaiah 42:16, God says, "And I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them." Rather than using our pasts as an excuse, we can give them to God. We can allow His light to shine so that we may walk on new paths and experience new life. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Usually when we talk about past influences and psychology, we think about the negative things that have happened to us or that we've learned along the way. But don't forget the positive influences! Our parents may have contributed to some things that are now problematic for us, but did they also contribute to some things that are helpful to us?

Image credit: Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt, 1922; Public domain

TagsChristian-Life  |  Family-Life  |  Personal-Relationships

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Published on 2-11-14