Like many of you, I had a weird childhood.
And even though I may not be able to relate to the specifics of your weird childhood, my deepest desire is that, by peering into the widow of my weird childhood, you get the sense that I see you and that you’re not the only one trying to catch your balance after starting off on a weird foot.
The weirdest part of growing up for me is something psychologists call, “emotional incest.” It’s easier to explain over the back drop of a quick story.
Saving Dad from Driving off a Bridge
My brother and I were in the car with my dad en route to our mom’s house after a scheduled weekend together. You know how everything can be going along fine and dandy and then suddenly the mood shifts? This happened a lot with my Dad. Near the end of the trip, my brother and I could feel his mood change for the worse and braced ourselves. Even in elementary school we were suspicious of his “serious” moods.
“I need to tell you guys something,” my dad began. He sighed dramatically, then continued, “Whenever I drop you off at your mom’s and start driving home, I always look for places to crash my car so it would kill me.”
“I have come so close to going full speed into a wall or off a bridge because I can’t stand to be without you. But you know why I don’t?”
After another long pause I offered a hesitant, “Why not?”
“Because of you two. I think about the next time I’ll see you and how much fun we’ll have,” his voice got more intense, “You and Cade are the only thing keeping me from driving off a bridge. The only thing. And I thought you should know that.”
In true emotionally incestuous fashion, I remember my first thought being, ‘Wow, he must really love us.’ I felt privileged to be “let in” on his adult feelings and was eager to rise to the challenge of supporting him and making him feel better.
By this time, I was already accustomed to taking on my dad’s emotional demons. I was fully enmeshed in the only role he allowed me to play; that of his spouse. Not in a sexual way, but in a companionship, counseling, and emotional need meeting way. (Starting to get the gist of emotional incest?)
Back then, I couldn’t see the manipulation, lack of boundaries, narcissism, and his dependence on his elementary school kids to be his counselors. But now that I see it clearly, him sharing his suicidal thoughts in this moment was really only about one thing: his insecurity about his children preferring his ex-wife’s house.
He didn’t have the emotional tools to manage his insecurity in a healthy way and instead, resorted to manipulating the situation to make perfectly sure that we:
- weren’t going to be having much fun without him and;
- will still be thinking of him while he’s away.
Because of his manipulation, I wasn’t able to be the little girl arriving at her mom’s house just wondering what’s for dinner. Instead, I was the little girl sulking into her mom’s house, hoping she was good enough for her daddy not to kill himself on his way home.
And I thought that was normal.
Even though this story is memorable, it wasn’t an isolated incident. Caring for my father’s turbulent emotional needs as a spouse would set the stage for my entire childhood. From when I was brainwashed into violently hating my mother in elementary school, all the way to high school when he told me my self harm wounds were only surface cuts and that I should come back to him later when I had a real problem.
This type of parent-child relationship is extremely unhealthy. And unfortunately, it happens to way too many of us.
Let’s call it by its name.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert in this field. I can only speak of what I’ve learned through personal experience and the interwebs.
Emotional incest, also known as covert incest, is one of the many names given to unhealthy parent-child relationships. It is an emotionally abusive parenting style where the parent relies on their child to support them emotionally in the same way a spouse would. Parents in these relationships often aren’t aware they are seriously damaging their children’s development and children also aren’t usually aware that it is an abnormal relationship until they are older. If ever.
In healthy parent-child relationships, the focus is on the child’s emotions. The parent acts as a “mirror” to their children to help them develop tools to handle all the strange things going on inside them. Makes sense, right? Kids are feeling all of these emotions and dealing with new experiences for the first time ever. They need someone to point to these new emotions, name them, and talk them through.
However, parents practicing emotional incest twist the relationship in the opposite direction. Their kids are holding the mirror and must reflect back exactly what the parent wants to see in themselves.
But instead of just affirming their parent’s emotions, these children must also protect their parents from the pain of their own insecurities. If the child fails to do either of these tasks (I call it “holding the mirror”), they are gaslighted with manipulation, reprimanded with name calling or passive-aggressive comments, or are totally dismissed and abandoned.
So when my dad felt threatened by my mom’s amazing-ness, he brainwashed me into hating her. That way, when he peered down at his little mirror holder (me) he would see affirmation that he is the better parent after all. There was no thought to how brainwashing a child would affect her development or well being. I was only a mirror holder, and mirror holders don’t develop, they only reflect.
While I have come a long way, I am still in the process of untangling my insides which are knotted and gnarled from holding my father’s mirror for way too long.
If you think you may be intertwined with a parent that requires you to put your own emotional needs aside and provide them with emotional support more often than you are comfortable with, I would strongly consider creating more emotional boundaries in that relationship, even if you are afraid.
Don’t waste any more of your life holding a mirror for someone else. Go out an experience your own emotions, live your own life, and heal.
You may feel like you are betraying your parent, as I still do now (honestly, I do) but it is time you stop tailoring your actions around other people.
It is time for you to finally be able to feel what you feel without fear of judgement.
Even if you had a different kind of weird in your childhood but you know someone who may have suffered from the weirdness of an emotionally incestuous relationship, please share this story so they can see they are not untangling their insides alone.