Unconscious Conflicts Between Child, Parent, And Self

Unconscious Conflicts Between Child, Parent, And Self(reprinted from The Right Brain & the Unconscious (Plenum Publications, New York, 1992).

Unconscious Conflicts Between Child, Parent, And Self
Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.


The right half of the brain possesses a number of divergent capacities and properties, not all of which are directly related to emotional functioning. Visual and pictorial imagery, the ability to make inferences, to perform visual closure and to deduce the whole from an abundance of seemingly unrelated parts, geometric analysis of visual space, and even some aspects of dreaming are made possible by the functional integrity of the right brain.

Many capacities and abilities, however, require both halves of the brain in order to to function, such as in reading and dreaming. For example, in respect to dreaming, the right brain provides the visual imagery and emotional coloring whereas the left brain provides the dialogue or narrative. Hence, just as it takes both halves of the brain to make music (the right providing melody, the left rhythm) we also need two brains in order to dream.

Similarly, although the right brain appears to be the more creative aspect of the mind, for example, in the form of artistic expression, creativity is possibly a product of having two brains and two minds. Indeed, the creative process itself is perhaps made possible, at least in part, by the interpretation and guess work that occurs when two different brains and regions of the mind tackle the same problem and then try to communicate with each other.

In this regard it is noteworthy that the first evidence of prolific creative and artistic ability in fact developed at about the same time that fully developed language capabilities (with the exception of reading and writing) appeared on the scene and during a time period when men and women became maximally physically and sexually dissimilar; that is, probably during early Cro-Magnon times. Hence, it appears that when the two brains began to communicate and respond to information in a different fashion, the right social-emotional, visual-spatial, and the left temporal-sequential, grammatical and denotative, that people began leaving evidence of tremendous artistic and creative endeavors in caves and cliffs ranging from South Africa to Russia and possibly to the Americas.

Thus, perhaps the creative spirit is partially made possible due to miscommunication and the need for creative guess work as to what was going on in the other half of the brain. On the other hand, perhaps it was the concentration of non-verbal capabilities that had been pushed out of the left brain and which had been further developed in the right which gave rise to these gifts.

There is, however, another possible contributor to this blossoming of creativity, self expression, and thus even self-consciousness; i.e. the recognition and reflection of one's self in the eyes of a significant other such as a loved one. Although there is no telling if Cro-Magnon man may have confused sex for love, of perhaps, this was the time period in which females first became completley sexually receptive, but in any case, some scholars claim the first paintings were of vaginas. However, I have examined photos of some of these particular paintings and they look like pictures of animal tracks and hoof marks to me (see figure 38).

As noted by many authors and scholars, many creative solutions to problems which they have long labored have suddenly come to them during the course of a dream (and almost never during sex). Others have noted while engaged in activities involving minimal conscious or linguistic effort (e.g. shaving, showering, and so on), or correspondingly, during maximal right brain and unconscious interaction, that similar creative solutions sometimes burst forth in visual and dream-like pictorial images which is then followed by a stream of thought-like explanatory commentary. Indeed, when confronted by certain problems where the solution is not clear, I sometimes try to stop thinking, clear my mind, stand up and walk around, or focus on seemingly unrelated issues and allow my right brain to work out the solution on its own; an approach which often works.

In fact, often the right brain can figure out a problem completely unbeknownst to the left brain and then suddenly present it with the solution. Of course, the left brain also has its creative capabilities and both work together to solve problems.

This is because both halves of the brain and mind are often engaged in analyzing present day experiences and conflicts. However, some of these problems or experiences also come to be reexperienced and analyzed through dream imagery as well. For thousands of years the importance of dreams in this regard has been well understood. Moreover, dreams, are sometimes able to warn individuals of troubles and dangers which lie ahead. As noted by Jung, the unconscious is thus sometimes able to anticipate the future and can examine and draw conclusions based on facts that we are not even conscious of. However, it is not the future, but our fears or hopes regarding the future which are being played out.

It is thus important to emphasize that neither the unconscious mind nor the right brain are ruled by childhood or parental experiences, although they may be heavily influenced by them. Rather, the right brain and unconscious mind are also concerned with every day experience as well as future hopes and desires and are able to analyze ongoing events so as to make predictions and prepare accordingly.

Thus, the right brain should not be considered as synonymous with the Child or Parent. Nor should these ego complexes be considered as synonymous with the unconscious as they are by and large made up of associated images and feelings which are maintained within the unconscious.

Nevertheless, although the domain of the unconscious is widespread and far reaching, present day experience and ongoing social and emotional events remain influenced by the past, particularly the impressions made by our parents when we were children. It is often due to these influences that the solution we come up with, or the behavior we engage in, may not always in our best interests.


Developing simultaneously with the advent of the Unconscious Child is the ego/personality of the Parent. The Parent corresponds to our developmental experiences with authority figures, specifically our parents or their surrogates, and represents an internalization and incorporation of their values, admonishments, behavioral patterns, morals, judgments and related traits, including the manner in which they treated us and made us feel about our selves.

These early experiences, be they the attitudes, opinions, emotions, speech patterns, habits, tone of voice, facial expressions, non-verbal activities or other behaviors expressed by our parents become linked and associated, and are registered in memory and literally etched into the fabric of the developing right brain. When our parents engage in certain behaviors which we then observe, or when they treat us in a certain manner, we learn and possibly model and mimic these modes of interacting. These models of behavior begin to constitute our own internalized Parent which then begins to comment and criticize us within the confines of our own mind. It continues trying to tell us what to do, what we can or can't do, and how to behave long after we have achieved adulthood.

In other words, just as an impression of someone's hand can be left in wet cement, the impressions made by our parents also make an impression in the very malleable psyche of the child. This impression stays with us forever and continues to exert influences similar to those exerted by our parents but now within the privacy of our own thoughts.

As we've seen, if our parents were emotionally abusive and treated us as if we were worthless and unlovable, the unconscious Parent may treat us and others in the same manner. If they treated us with love and respect, the Parent will also possess these capabilities. Our minds were partly molded by our parents and our thoughts are partly molded by the shape of our minds.


Loosely, the Parent is somewhat similar to what Freud referred to as the "Superego" and to what others have called our "conscience," as in "let your conscience be your guide." It is more than a conscience, however, as it also engages in name calling, the criticism of others as well as the often unfair criticism of our Self and unconscious Child.

The Parent may represent an image of fear, hate, love, awe and so on. If a persons actual parent was an unemployed alcoholic who acted like a helpless infant or child, then the unconscious Parent will be helpless and childlike. Moreover, if a child's parents often yelled, argued, and belittled each other and engaged in other inappropriate acts, then rather than representing the moral high ground, the unconscious Parent will urge the person to act likewise or to accept similar treatment. It will say: "It is OK to treat others badly."

On the other hand, some children who grow up without a mother or father or both may form a romanticized ideal of the Parent which then urges them to strive for similar ideals either in themselves or others, or, it may be represented as a rejecting absence.

As noted, however, many major sources of early influence and authority, such as siblings and even television, can also become incorporated into the complex of Parental associations. This is increasingly true insofar as television has become a surrogate parent, particularly in single parent working families. Television provides an unrealistic view of the world to those with minimal educational, financial, or social opportunities. Moreover, television can exert formidable influences on the impressionable mind and brain of a child, and tends to pander to the limbic system, and thus to the lowest common but most arousing stimulant which links us all, an almost all consuming interest in food, violence, and sex. Furthermore, television says it is OK to kill and harm others when you are frustrated, feel low in self-esteem, and have a problem; or, it is good to seek self worth by using others as a sexual object or to engage in indiscriminate sex; or, the only way to be happy is by being completely artificial by wearing the right cosmetics or clothes with the right designer labels. TVs should come with a warning labe.

In any case, the Unconscious Parent is thus not synonymous with the Superego or our conscience and is much more than an internalized emotional representation of the authority figures who ruled our lives during infancy, childhood, and adolescence.

The unconscious Parent, when based on actual authorities figures, is generally restrictive, inhibitory, judgmental and punitive, although positive, loving and accepting traits are also incorporated. Moreover, as noted, the unconscious Parent may also encourage us to behave badly or to even give in to our basest desires, including self destruction.

Initially much of our socializing experience was inhibitory and involved being told "No" and being restricted so that we didn't harm ourselves or damage property. This is how we became "civilized" and learned to control ourselves. When the IDfant says; "I want it now," the Parent says: "You can't have it."

Unfortunately, like some parents, the ego personality of the Parent may not only say "No, you can't have it." But "you're stupid, lazy, ignorant, rotten" etc., and "you don't deserve it."


Although the Parent is an internalized emotional representation, its influences are not restricted to the privacy of our thoughts or just our feelings. As mentioned before, sometimes the Parent not only criticizes us, but criticizes others as well. That is, others may engage in certain behaviors that our unconscious Parent finds objectionable, irritating, and worthy of berating. When this occurs the Parent may be triggered and become extremely critical, rejecting or abusive.

Consider Jerry (the fellow with the speech impediment in the last chapter). Although his parents and were not physically abusive and certainly never behaved in an obviously cruel or callous manner, he felt rejected, hurt, and ridiculed by them. The Parent which came to be formed in his mind was also hurtful and rejecting. Later when he married Donna, she in turn became associated with his unconscious Parent as she was someone from whom he wanted love. However, Donna is taking the role as Parent surrogate Parent in his mind, and his unconscious Child was able to strike back and accuse her or causing all the rejection and pain that he unconsciously believed his real parents, siblings, and class mates had caused him.

Moreover, his own critical Parent was now able to treat her in the very same manner that it was treating him. Whatever she did, he (i.e. his Unconscious Parent) punished and criticized her.

When activated, our thoughts and feelings can come to be controlled by the Parent which then begins to treat others in the way that our own parents treated us. Hence, just as a person may act childishly, he may act in a harsh, critical Parental manner with others as well. Sometimes, in fact, the Unconscious Parent will seek out others who it feels it can abuse or treat poorly just as "we" may have observed or had been treated by our parents.

Most importantly, when we were children our parents told us what to do, how to behave, and what they considered appropriate and acceptable. The Unconscious Parent continues this tradition. It tells us what to do. When this occurs we may feel that we must obey, and when we don't, we may feel guilty or anxiety at the prospect of disproval and punishment. The Parent can thus be a source of tremendous conflict.


When the Parental button has been pushed and it gains control over behavior, one begins to respond in a manner similar to one or both parents. When this occurs an individual may employ similar criticisms, postures, gestures, words, and emotions which had been expressed by his parents. In other words, you are generally in the same state of mind as you perceive one of your parents (or a parental substitute) to be and are now reacting as they would react.

Indeed, even when the Parental ego/personality does not appear to be activated many people begin to notice that they say things their parents said, or act in a manner similar to their parents, and even behave in a manner that they swore they would never mimic. As such, when they look in the mirror they see a face that looks like the face of dear old mom or dad.


Often we received conflicting messages from our parents. They might have yelled and screamed at each other, yelled and screamed at us, but were absolutely frantic about what the "neighbors" might think and behaved only with the most decorous of manners and utmost restraint and tact when interacting with friends, acquaintances, and other such individuals.

Many times they may have admonished us for behaving in a certain manner (e.g. smoking, swearing, drinking) while simultaneously engaging in these very activities. When confronted, they might have have told us in essence: "don't do as we do, do as we say."

Although hypocritical and contradicting these features also left their imprint in the developing psyche such that the internalized Parent in fact encompasses both extremes, contradictions and all. In consequence the Parent, when activated not only acts to model and express the behaviors that we observed our Parents engaging in but also expresses the disproving Parental voice which told us how to behave. The Parent whispers: "It is OK to do this, but if you do I will be upset."

Within the confines of the unconscious this is a "no win" situation, for whatever we do or desire, we may feel confused, anxious, guilty and in conflict. We get yelled at no matter what.

For example, we may have been admonished to be polite and demonstrate good manners when interacting with others. However, at home our parents might have argued, yelled, and screamed at one another. Now incorporated, these two seemingly opposing traits can come to be expressed such that we yell and scream at our spouse or children, and then feel guilty and terrible about it.

On the other hand, sometimes the parent voice will tell us it is OK to behave in a certain manner with a particular group of people, and then will encourage us to act in a completely different manner with others. Thus we may treat our business associates, coworkers and acquaintances with polite respect and then go home and beat or scream at the kids for some minor transaction and feel this is "OK." Our conscience tells us this behavior is acceptable. We can "live with ourselves" and our bad behavior, because this is acceptable to the unconscious and conscious self-image.

In effect we are modeling the contradictory behavior of our parents as we perceived and experienced them interacting with us and with others: the message then becomes: "Do as I do and do as I say." "This is acceptable." The unconscious self image is thus fashioned accordingly.

If it were not acceptable to the unconscious self-image, then both the conscious and unconscious minds would work together to eliminate these tendencies. Such behaviors would become overwhelmingly unacceptable and thus intolerable. We would not put up with this within ourselves or from others.

Not surprisingly these parental messages, be they good or bad can be passed down from generation to generation, conflicts and all.


The unconscious Parent may be experienced as a source of internal punishment, criticism, confusion and emotional pain. Nevertheless, it is not an evil personage altogether, although by and large it may be experienced as such.

The Parent is responsible for teaching us how to survive, how not to hurt ourself and to stay out of harm's way ("Don't run out in the street." "Don't touch that it will burn you.") Of course, the emphasis is on the "Don't" or the "stop that" or the "No," and the concern for our well being is not very obvious from the perspective of a child.

What is perceived and what is obvious is the threat whose source is not the hot stove but our Parent; and the threat is that we will be spanked, yelled at, or in some manner punished. The potential for injury is not perceived as arising from our proposed actions but as stemming from our parents disapproval. The Parent is therefore often experienced as critical and disapproving even when we had good, caring parents. Still, by learning our "don'ts" we in turn learn how to go through life without losing our life in the process.


The unconscious Parent can be a source of confusion and emotional pain. Even so, most people are not conscious of its presence or the influence it exerts on their lives. This is true even though the results or consequences of its influences may be fully experienced at a conscious level. Although the ego/personality of the Parent is largely unconscious, it also transcends conscious/unconscious limits and some aspects of it reside in full view of the conscious mind. We may hear ourselves being critical of others or may experience ourselves saying and doing things our parents said and did, even though we swore we would never be like that.

Rather than seeing the source for our critical or self-limiting comments as originating within ourselves, we (our Parent) often blame others for them "I am criticizing you because you need it and deserve it." However, the real conflict and need is internal: "I am criticizing you because I want to be critical. I want to treat you in the same manner I was treated." Often the people being criticized are merely victims serving as surrogates for our own unconscious Child. We can now treat them as our parents treated us.


It is sometimes very difficult to examine the Parent, not only because it is largely unconscious, but because the memories, inconsistencies, fears, and threats that it consists of are confusing and unpleasant. It is difficult to face and analyze that which can be gut wrenching and confusing. For most of us it is better to avoid having such confrontations much less analyzing them via therapy. This is unfortunate because the Parent can exert tremendous disruptive influences on our lives and can make us and others quite miserable.

To confront the Parent is also to question its authority and this is an act of defiance which triggers the wrath of the Parent. If the Parent then attacks or becomes critical this activates the Unconscious Child which will feel badly, as well as. When this occurs the Parent may begin to scold, berate, threaten, criticize or abuse the Child, which may then cause some miserable aspect of childhood to be reexperienced. In consequence the person feels considerable emotional turmoil and confusion. Hence, most people consciously avoid attempts to scrutinize the Parent (and the Child).


The creation of the Parent occurs during the same time frame as the creation of the Child and both are linked and associated. Together they help constitute the Unconscious Ego and self image. However, as noted, these personality features probably should not be described as a "superego" for rather than serving up an ideal, they often exert negative influences on the self-image and the ability to interact with others in a psychologically healthy manner. In this regard, these unconscious personality features could be called the "Lesser Ego," particularly in that they are often expressed together. However, the Parent not only expresses negative qualities (at least in most cases) since it can have its loving, nurturing side.

When the Parent is activated often the Child is triggered as well. This is the nature of their relationship. The Parent criticizes and the Child is criticized. Or, the Parent praises and affirms, and the Child feels secure and loved. This is how the relationship and these two ego personalities were first formed, and this pattern merely repeats itself.

How much of the positive versus the negative comes to predominate depends on the entire constellation of our early and subsequent experiences. If the negative was habitually experienced, then the unconscious Parent may "beat" upon and criticize the unconscious Child for no other reason than to just do it. It is a habit.

However, sometimes the Parent criticizes the Child (or our Self) because we are about to do something it does not approve of. For example, if your parents frequently scolded you for being "no good," "worthless," "a failure," and you act otherwise by becoming happy, successful, or involved in a promising healthy relationship, it will do its utmost to sabotage you so as to maintain the familiar. It will try to anticipate and shape the future based on past expectations and bad needs.

What is familiar, is comfortable or at least tolerable. What is unfamiliar is uncomfortable and will sometimes be avoided. If what is familiar is to be hurt, used, rejected, neglected, and to feel badly or worthless, experiences which do not conform to these well ingrained expectations will be rejected as well. When success is suddenly within grasp, the unconscious Parent and the Child as well may begin to cry out in their own unique language: "No. you don't deserve it. You will fail. Stop. Go back. Don't do it. This is not familiar..." and you will then begin to feel depressed, irritable, unhappy, and blue, for "no particular reason," or when consciously you know you should be happy.

If you are subject to these unhappy feelings which seem inappropriate or incongruent with how you consciously know you should be feeling, it might be useful to ask: "Why is my Parent yelling at my Child?" "What are my Child and Parent trying to sabotage?"


Derick didn't look like the stereotypical physician. He had piercing dark eyes, was over 6ft tall, thickly muscled and had an air of menace about him. He came in for counseling because he had recently been threatened with the loss of his hospital privileges after he got into a shouting match with the head of his department whom he had threatened with physical violence.

This was not the first time he had been in trouble. By his own admission he had been arrested twice for drunk driving, and had been threatened with expulsion while in medical school for drinking and once for behaving in a threatening and hostile manner with a fellow student whom he had thrown against a wall. In fact, although he denied being an alcoholic, Derick had an obvious drinking problem.

Paradoxically, Derick was also considered brilliant and after completing medical school and his residency had been tentatively offered a teaching position by one of the better known universities in the country. The offer was withdrawn, however, after he became intoxicated at a faculty reception where he had gone to meet with members of the department following a more formal get together earlier in the day. He insulted one of the female instructors by calling her a "lesbian."

Derick: "She's really coming on to me. But I am not at all responding. So she becomes irritated and begins laying all this feminist propaganda on me, as if I had been coming on to her . So what am I supposed to do, just stand there and be insulted? So I said, Honey, I'm not interested in you. I thought you were a lesbian."

Derick had a history of destroying successful possibilities. He had been drinking heavily since high school and had been raised to believe he would be a failure. Both his parents were alcoholics. His mother was a physician and his father was a highly successful attorney who was also extremely verbally abusive.

Derick: My earliest memory of my dad is when I was about two. I guess I was afraid of the toilet as I would usually crap on the floor. Anyway, my father was probably extremely drunk at the time but he must have decided that the way to cure me was to beat me and to rub my own shit in my mouth. It worked. In fact, it is one of my earliest memories.

Usually my fathers solution to any problem was to drink until he was almost senseless. All my early memories are of him storming about the house like Frankenstein on the loose, drunk and angry, and slapping or kicking me for any reason. It wasn't just me he would yell at. My mother was very scared of him and she had her own drinking problem as well. It was my misfortune that when she was mad she usually took it out on me too.

It seems my entire childhood was a blur of being punched, kicked and being called the most horrible of names. Everyday it was "failure," "stupid queer," "good for nothing bastard," "retarded asshole," and on and on.

It was probably also my misfortune to be extremely brilliant. I never had a problem with school. The teachers were always stupid and I could get an "A" simply by reviewing an assignment the night before the test. You would think that would make my parents happy, but it didn't. I learned quickly not to show them my report card. I remember one time after my father was drunk and screaming about me being "a retarded queer," that I responded by proudly producing my report card. That must of been in the 3rd grade, as it was the first time I got letter grades. He took one look and then glared at me like he was going to kill me. He then slapped me across the face, grabbed me by the back of the hair and started crumpling the card into my face and yelling "A is for asshole."

After that, I decided not to tell my parents much about anything I was doing and spent as much time away from home as possible. I also started drinking and hanging around with a pretty rough crowd, but even then I still got all "As" and for two years in a row had played on the varsity football squad. Even that got ruined though.

One day I started drinking early in the morning and then showed up at school completely wasted. I had never done that before, at least not so anyone would notice. I guess I made a spectacle of myself and got into a fight with one of the teachers who I shoved and then I got in a screaming match with my football couch who threw me off the team. Man it has been like that ever since.

Rose was a very beautiful, willowy brunette who had worked briefly as a professional model for almost a year. When she came to see me her career and love life was in shambles. During out first four sessions together she came to admit that she had become almost addicted to cocaine. As her use and dependence increased, she began showing up late or not at all and missed several assignments, or came in so strung out and in disarray that she was sent home. She had not worked in two years.

Like Derick she had come from a home where she had been abused. However, rather than being screamed at or hit, she had been repeatedly sexually molested by her adopted father and was later abandoned by her family. According to Rose her real father had been killed in an auto accident before she was born. Her mother ended up marrying his best friend before Rose was yet a year old and for all intents and purposes he was her father.

Rose: My father had a drinking problem, and my mother, I think, was popping pills. Despite his drinking and her pills it seemed to me that everything was real happy around our house until I reached about 5 years old. My father, who was a police officer liked to wrestle and tickle me and we were always playing; probably more than my mother liked because I can always remember her telling him to not play so rough.

And then everything seemed to change. My mom had left to go shopping and my dad and me were sitting on the couch. I remember him telling me he had a little kitty and asking if I wanted to see it. I did and then he took out his penis. I had never seen one before and it scared me. But then he told me to pet the kitty and I did, and then he told me to kiss the kitty and I did that too. After he got me to lick on it he then told me that the kitty was our little secret and to never tell mommy. I remembered feeling scared the way he said it, the way he looked at me and held onto my arm. For the next several months every time my mother would leave the house he would put his penis in my mouth and make me suck on it until he came. It was awful because I was scared and sometimes I would gag which would make him laugh.

I never said anything, though I knew somehow that what we were doing was bad, and I always felt afraid. But then one day he was sitting on the couch drinking and like many times before had me sit on my knees in front of him and suck. All at once my mother is standing there yelling and screaming and I can hear him yelling back, saying he was passed out drunk and that I was a little whore and a slut. And I'm not even 7 years old.

My whole life changed after that. My mother almost never talked to me and my dad completely ignored me. They didn't let me sit at the table with them and made me stay in my room when they were watching TV. I felt so bad I didn't know what to do. Somehow I felt like everything was my fault and I tried to make up for it by cleaning, and vacuuming, and washing the dishes and setting the table without anyone asking. But nothing ever changed. It was almost like I didn't exist.

Everything continued like that for almost the next 6 years and then one evening, after I had come home from a girlfriends house, where I practically lived, I went to take a bath. All at once my father walks in, he must have picked the lock or something, and I could tell he was drunk. He's smiling like he is mad at the same time and I just froze. He starts accusing me of being on drugs and telling me he is going to have me arrested and put in jail. I'm sitting naked in the tub and I don't know what to do. I'm 13 years old and since he is a captain with the police department I am really scared, so I start to cry, telling him I'm not on drugs. Well he says he knows I have drugs on me and he is going to search me and if he finds any he is going to take me to jail. He then starts feeling between my legs, and then, after he has been doing this for a while he tells me he found some drugs and he is going to arrest me or maybe just shoot me. I am so scared I start pleading with him, telling him I'll do anything he wants. Well, what he wants is the same thing he wanted almost 10 years before and now it starts all over again, sometimes twice a day.

I don't know why I let him do that to me. I felt like the most awful whore. But then it got worse and he started taking pictures of me naked. That's when I decided to tell and that's when all hell broke loose. Nobody believed me. My mother kept saying I was crazy and then she slapped me across the face and they kicked me out. I went to live with my real father's parents who were really, really good people.

By then I was 15 and had started high school. It's weird because everybody thought I was funny and the happiest person around. Nobody would have guessed that I hated myself and was always thinking about suicide. When I turned 16 my grandparents bought me a car. They were really wonderful to me. But by then I had started drinking on the sly and would do really crazy things like drink too much and then speed like crazy almost getting into wrecks.

In my junior year I tried out for the cheerleader squad, mostly to please my grandmother, but also because some of the girls I knew kept telling me to. When I got picked I was so excited I didn't know what to do. So I got really drunk and almost crashed my car. But then everything started going so wonderful for me. Somehow one of the most popular boys at school and a great athlete and everything, became my boyfriend. Everyone seemed to like me, people kept telling me how pretty I was, even the teachers. But deep inside I was still depressed. And then I did something really crazy. Some of the other cheerleaders and I went over to the local college to a fraternity party. I drank way too much and the next thing I knew I was in one of the bedrooms with all these guys and I was so drunk I just let them do what they wanted. It made me feel sick. I hated it. I just don't understand how I could have got so drunk and let them do that to me.

A couple days later it was all over school and I felt like such a total disgusting whore that I just couldn't face anybody. I dropped out and because I was too young to do anything else I went to beauty college. It was there that one of the teachers started telling me I should be a model. She makes these arrangements with this photographer and the next thing I know I start getting these little jobs and then bigger jobs and pretty soon I'm being flown to Los Angeles and San Diego and I'm making way over a thousand dollars a week and I'm just 19 years old. That's when I started getting into cocaine, which I really, really liked. Actually, it was my boyfriend at the time who got me started and pretty soon we're freebasing and then I am so strung out that I'm angry and depressed at the same time and I start screwing up, showing up late and sometimes not at all for my modeling jobs. All at once I have no more assignments, no more money, and my boyfriend, who was living off me, can't support either us. That's when I really hit bottom. I was like addicted to crack and when I couldn't afford it, I began selling some of my clothes and then I just started screwing guys for whatever. Fortunately, my grandparents came to my rescue.

You know, it's almost like I wanted to screw up. It was like I couldn't believe what was happening and I knew it was going to end. It was almost like I was thinking, what the hell, I'll end it since it's going to end anyway.


There are different forms of abuse. A child may be constantly beat, screamed at, belittled, sexually molested, neglected, ridiculed, rejected, or verbally and non-verbally made to feel worthless and no good.

Regardless of how the conscious aspect of the personality comes to view itself, the unconscious self-image comes to be fashioned in response to these parental messages in conjunction with the child's feelings about how one is being treated. If the overarching message is that you are "no good," "a failure," "worthless," you will begin to feel and you will become unconsciously convinced that you are indeed a worthless and bad person who deserves only abuse and misfortune. A person with these feelings may then seek confirmation. Moreover, the unconscious Parent might forever tell you you're a failure and the unconscious Child will respond likewise.

Sometimes people respond to these unconscious failure messages via reaction formation and compensation (see Chapters 15-17). They may become "over achievers," "type A" personalities, and do what they can to overcome their unconscious feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. In some cases they will merely develop a "superiority complex" to mask an "inferiority complex." Others may be driven to succeed at all costs so as to prove the Parent and Child wrong. Some people are just so beautiful, handsome, charming, athletic, brilliant, or talented that they achieve despite themselves.

Individuals who had bad experiences and yet succeed in life may be plagued by unconscious feelings of doom and failure. Their conscious and unconscious self-image will be in conflict, and if the person actually succeeds, the Parent and Child may do whatever they can to sabotage their ability to enjoy or even maintain their success. The Parent and Child will attempt to impose the familiar. If the familiar is being "no good," "a whore," "a failure," then any form of success will feel unfamiliar and thus uncomfortable. Various tensions will arise, coupled with feelings of depression, and before the person knows what happened, they have done something foolish, made the stupid comment, failed to show up for the appointment on time, insulted someone inadvertently, or got drunk, became involved in drugs, formed a relationship with a bad person, such that everything is destroyed or at least constantly put in peril. In conjunction with their drive to succeed will be an equally strong desire to fail, and to destroy everything, even their self.

Norma's mother had been married and divorced twice and had several affairs before she was born. Apparently she had been so promiscuous that she had no idea as to who Norma's real father might have been.

Norma's childhood was a nightmare of neglect, abandonment, and rejection. Her mother did not like being a mother and was very unstable, as was her grandmother who tried to smother little Norma to death when she was about 2 years of age. Her mother also suffered from violent fits of rage and depression and was only able to care for Norma in a less than haphazard fashion, often leaving her baby with friends or relatives for days and weeks at a time. Curiously, although she had a promiscuous past Norma's mother was religiously superstitious and was consumed with fears regarding sins, some of which she claimed little Norma harbored in her soul.

Norma's mother had little or no interest in her daughter. As her mother became more mentally unstable and indifferent she put her little Norma in a foster home so that she would be freed of the burden of having a child around. Then after several months she took her back. Over the next several years this pattern was repeated, Norma being left at various foster homes or placed with various caretakers until by the time she was 15 years old she had been placed in 10 different foster homes, had spent two years in the Los Angeles Orphan's Home, and had lived several years with a guardian whose husband had sexually molested her and where a neighbor raped her causing her to become pregnant. Norma was allowed to bare the baby and then it was taken away from her soon after birth. She never saw her son again.

When she was still only 15 years old her current guardian was planning to move to another state and did not want to bring Norma with her. She presented the little girl with the option of marrying the son of a neighbor who Norma knew only vaguely or going back to the orphanage. She chose marriage. After a few years they divorced.

Over the next several years she worked briefly as a call girl, obtained employment as a model (as she was very beautiful) had numerous simultaneous affairs, usually with older men, became repeatedly pregnant, and although seemingly a vivacious young woman, was frequently overcome with insecurity and severe depression. Indeed, over the course of the next 21 years she underwent over 12 abortions, was in and out of psychiatric treatment, married and divorced several very prominent and not so prominent men, made repeated suicide attempts, abused alcohol and drugs, but managed to forge a career. However, as her fame grew so did her depression and her frequency of suicide attempts. She finally committed suicide (or was possibly killed) at the age of 36. They buried her under the name of Marilyn Monroe.


Children need to feel as if they are loved and protected by their parents. Parents who are rejecting, overly critical, frequently absent, mentally ill, drugged or intoxicated, or who withhold love are in effect punishing their children for having normal needs. The child is taught that he is not worthy of love, and that his needs for love and support may in fact be abnormal as well. Since they are made to feel badly, they begin to suspect that even their desires for love may be yet another indication of badness. They are desiring something they do not deserve. They feel badly and guilty.

Children who are rejected and neglected sometimes become extremely needy, dependent, and/or rejecting, filled with self-doubt and even self-hate. Often these extremely needy individuals develop an unconscious attitude that seems to cry out: "My needs are so deep and so painful, I will do whatever is necessary to meet them. I will accept whatever abuse is dished out so long as love is promised in return."

Of course, there are others who do not cry out. They scream, yell, criticize, and threaten all those who represent the rejecting parent: "I hate you. I hate what you did to me. I hate what you might do to me again!" Consequently they fight with, reject and abuse those who offer the promise of love or anybody who in any manner may represent the rejecting parent; i.e. a teacher, employer, spouse, or even a job or position of responsibility. They relive again and again the painful familiarity of the past and in relationship after relationship reexperience or provoke the same terrible emotions and deprivations, causing themselves to fail or to engage in some act which destroys them.


However, sometimes such people respond to their feelings of inadequacy by driving themselves to overcome any and all deficiencies so as to achieve the love they were always denied, so that they can prove they are in fact worthwhile. They may become great athletes, movie stars, politicians, business leaders, salesmen, or even high priced prostitutes. They seek greatness, superiority, fame, fortune or the acclaim, applause, accolades, admiration or the desires of others in order to overcome their sense of being unworthy, inferior, unwanted, inadequate and unloved.

Fortunately, some people are able to overcome these early handicaps. Others, however, can never convince themselves that they are worthwhile and continue to fear rejection or failure as they are unable to accept themselves. When success does not deliver the love they sought and they continue to feel depressed and insecure, they self-destruct as the Child or Parent takes over. Sometimes the Parent/Child can only threaten destruction such that the person feels overcome with depression or insecurity even as he reaches new heights.

Indeed, sometimes many people with horrible childhoods can live seemingly very successful lives and may even achieve fame and fortune. In some cases, however, their ability to enjoy their success is sabotaged as their unconscious Parent may tell them they do not deserve it and their Child tells them it is undeserved and won't last. Thus, sometimes they feel that the success is illusory and that the real "me," is the person who goes home sad and depressed and who takes drugs or drinks themselves into oblivion, or they are just miserable all the time. They may be plagued by feelings of insecurity, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, emptiness and depression; feelings which seem to correspondingly grow worse as their life supposedly becomes more successful. Regrettably, even when offered love and true acclaim, they may remain miserable as the unloved unconscious Child within them can never get over its terrible hurt and feelings of being unloved and unwanted.


Children who have parents who were always too busy and thus tended to neglect and ignore are in an environment which is just as abusive as those homes where they were screamed at and beat. Worse, since the critical need for social, emotional, and physical interaction and intimacy are inadequate, the child becomes consequently impaired. Many children raised in homes where they are neglected, consequently feel extremely needy, yet have difficulty feeling close to others, giving or receiving love, and feeling worthwhile as a person.


Sometimes parents are neglectful without being aware of it. They may be preoccupied with earning a living so as to maintain a beautiful home for their children, and then be preoccupied with social or other responsibilities, such as PTA, the Girl Scouts, etc., behaviors which in their mind make them good and caring parents.

Sometimes these types of parental behaviors are motivated by unconscious intentions and are designed to ward off closeness which the parent feels uncomfortable with. Thus being at PTA is a convenient excuse for not being home hugging and loving their children.

This can be confusing to children for at an unconscious level they may feel neglected while simultaneously they consciously believe or have been convinced that their parents must be good since they participate in these activities. That is, the left and right brain receive completely different messages. Very young children, however, are in fact presented only with a void, their ability consciously to appreciate the "good" intentions of their parents being poorly developed. Insofar as they are concerned, mom or dad are busy or not home and this does not feel good. Not surprisingly, sometimes they feel not only hurt and rejected, but very angry and vengeful.

Children who express these feelings are sometimes told they are being selfish or that their feelings are totally unjustified. Hence, they not only feel neglected and bad, but guilty as well. This does not stop them, however, from expressing their neediness and anger later in life.

Neglect and feelings of rejection can also occur when the parents are home but busy with other things. They may communicate to their children, on a verbal and non-verbal level, that the child's presence is not desirable due to their need to be left alone. If this happens frequently the child may begin to feel quite terrible. Even if rejection is not intentional and there is no desire to make the child feel unwanted this may be implied by a look, a sigh, grimace, head or body movement, and tone of voice all of which are attended to by the right half of the brain. Thus the child feels badly, guilty, and needy.

Even if the parent is truly, justifiably terribly busy the children may infer that they are unimportant and what they say and feel is of no consequence. These feelings are amplified only further when parents fail to interact with them, fail to answer their questions, ask them to be quiet, or if their parents constantly interrupt them when he or she is trying to share something.

Although unconsciously feeling badly, or "not OK," children of such parents, may not consciously understand that they were neglected or what they are feeling bad about. It is the limbic system and the right half of the brain which thrives on and suffers from a lack of contact comfort. This can give rise to considerable feelings of neediness and unhappiness, the reasons for which are not clear to the left brain and conscious mind. Consciously it is hard for them to realize why they feel badly, for if asked about their childhood, what they remember are the nice clothes, the nice house, the good food, the good opinion others held of their family, etc., as this is the information that the left brain was best able to code verbally and store in memory. For these children what is missing is love and intimacy and it is the right brain and limbic system which recognizes this absence. It is terribly difficult for a child (or even an adult) to consciously recognize an absence, or to realize something is missing when they were never exposed to it in the first place. However, as there is a physical and biological need for love and affection, this absence is fully felt although not understood.

What the child may experience is an internal void coupled with extreme neediness. The limbic system and right brain in their own unique language cry out: "Hold me. Love me." When this is not forthcoming the child will suffer and in consequence fails to develop feelings of importance or self-worth or in the extreme, feel numb and empty as the limbic system and right brain become dysfunctional. They also may become unconsciously convinced that their feelings are not important to others. However, as they unconsciously feel deprived of the love that all children need and require, this sometimes merely motivates them to try all the harder to get that elusive love and attention. Nonetheless if their needs continue to be neglected, they may become extremely needy and hungry for love and affection throughout their life and may in fact inappropriately demand love from or offer it to anyone who shows them even the barest amounts of affection or attention.


The boundaries between the Unconscious Parent and Unconscious Child are somewhat indistinct as both are formed during the same time frame in response to one another. Thus they may have similar desires and similar goals and may be expressed simultaneously.

Depending on how one was raised and treated, both the Parent and Child, in many situations, may act in concert and can either assist in achieving or overwhelm competing desires or more desirable alternative and options such as those being advanced by the conscious Self; for example, by sabotaging success or healthy relationships or engaging in self-destructive behaviors; eating too much, drinking, smoking, etc.. In these instances the conscious mind tends to become overwhelmed and engages in behaviors which meets unconscious needs but which hurt the individual as a whole. In the extreme the person is likely to exclaim: "I can't believe I did that!" "I don't know what came over me. I knew I shouldn't have done (or said) that, but I couldn't help myself."


The unconscious Parent and Child continue to influence the individual even long after adulthood is achieved. Often, the Unconscious Parent and Child act as a force which drives the person to engage in certain behaviors or to seek out certain individuals or situations where familiar experiences from the past may be relived and reenacted. This can be good or this can be bad.

The right brain, like the left, sometimes feels compelled to produce and provide the same familiar solutions to the same problems with the same consequences. Although familiar, and in this sense comfortable, or at least tolerable, the consequences of these unconscious strivings can be unpleasant, painful, and indifferent, or supportive and encouraging, depending on how one was treated and raised.

For example, Christy's mother and father fought bitterly before and after she was born. Throughout her young years she witnessed frequent name calling, yelling, screaming, crying, and threats of physical violence induced by drinking and suspected adulteries. Although her parents never hit one another she was nevertheless frequently terrified and as she grew older she constantly feared they would divorce. For her a week did not go by when she did not feel the threat and anxiety of impending doom, a constant fear that the two people on whom she was most dependent, who made up her world, were about to destroy one another. Moreover, since they were so busy fighting and being unhappy, they seldom expressed any love or tenderness toward her.

Moreover, since Christy was also incorporating the turmoil surrounding her, she also felt considerable guilt and considerable inadequacy. Because she felt badly she felt she had done something bad and this was why her parents fought and were seldom nice or loving with her. She wanted her parents to get along and tried in her own childlike way to make this happen. She became overly good by helping without being asked, and doing whatever she could to make everyone else feel OK, to "fix" her parents. When this didn't happen and the battles continued, within the confines of her emotional right brain, she continued to feel threatened and felt it was in some way her fault; hence the guilt and inadequacy: "I am not OK."

Consequently, she expended enormous energy trying to do better, to be good, to make things work, which, of course, had no effect. Unfortunately, the continued fighting and her father's frequent absences and drinking simply confirmed that she just was "not good enough."

Within the confines or Christy's right brain, not only were her parent's admonishments and punishments stored, but their patterns of interacting, their neglect of her needs, the unloving manner in which she was treated as well as her feelings and reactions to what she was experiencing. Because she was a child when she had these experiences, the reasons for her parents behavior (i.e. his alcoholism and philandering) were not recorded. Nor were they understood.

The unconscious Parent is comprised of emotional experiences not interpretations or explanations of that experience. Christy's internalized Parent is thus a source of anger, rage, rejection, interpersonal hostility, anxiety and serves as a model of how couples and families should interact as well as how she should be treated by the people she loves; that is, badly.

When Christy turned 18 she married a man several years her senior to escape her parents and find the love she always desired. Nonetheless, although seeking security she ended up marrying a guy who was frequently unemployed because, so he had her believe, he had not yet found a job equal to his talents. Eventually she obtained steady employment as a secretary in a law firm and began making a good wage. Hence, she was able to tide them over during periods in which he had no income. She was being very good. She was still trying to fix things. She accepted this because within her unconscious mind she knew she had to go the extra mile in order to get love. Who else would love her or put up with this bad, unlovable little girl?

Because he was ostensibly looking for a good job, he was often gone most of every afternoon and to her chagrin would often stay out late at night with his friends, "relaxing" and having "a drink or two." When he came home drunk several times, she became increasingly upset and they began to argue frequently.

When his drinking and unemployment continued for a particularly long time unabated she one day confronted him. A terrible row ensued. He told her the reason he was staying out and not coming home was because she was "such a bitch," "always complaining about money," "always tearing him down," "always selfishly thinking of her needs. What about his needs?" In other words, it was her fault, and if she didn't lighten up he would get a divorce. He took on the role of the threatening rejecting Parent.

Christy immediately felt terribly guilty (due to activation of her own unconscious Child) and frightened of losing him. She felt responsible because he had taken on the role of her unconscious Parent and managed to activate her own unconscious Parent as well; the same Parent which had always neglected her and made her feel guilty and inadequate.

Unconsciously she believed she not only deserved what was happening, but it was familiar and thus tolerable. She resolved to be more understanding and to be a better wife; i.e. to be good and "fix" things this time for good.

When his behavior deteriorated and he failed to even come home on several occasions she again became extremely upset. One night a woman called and asked for him and then laughed and hung up when Christy asked who she was. She became terribly angry and again confronted him.

Sticking to his previous mode of interacting (which had proven successful) he again blamed Christy for his behavior. He also taunted her with the possibility that he was indeed seeing another woman. He told her if that were the case, it was because she was such a lousy wife and a lousy lover.

Christy again backed down, primarily because his accusations rang familiar bells. However, the bells were from the past and what was familiar was only the fact that she had had similar experiences and feelings when a child Besides, husbands and wives are not supposed to get along; misery and turmoil is "normal." Husbands are supposed to drink and fool around. This is the way she had been brought up.

Rather than realizing that she had married a man like her father (who was also an alcoholic and who engaged in extra-marital affairs) and that this man was making her feel the same feelings she had as a child, she instead reactivated her Child ego/personality and accepted the blame and again tried to be good so that this man would love her. She was condemned to repeat her early experiences again and again so as not only to feel and be treated badly, but to someday fix what had originally gone wrong so that she could get that love she was always denied.

Why did she put up with this? She in effect was being given, or so she unconsciously believed, a second chance to win the love she was never able to attain and to hold onto a marriage that seemed ready to fall apart. Besides, she knew at an unconscious level that she did not deserve to be treated with love or respect. This was familiar and normal and thus tolerable. That is, it was tolerable to her unconscious Self-image. If her conscious and unconscious self-image responded in a similar manner to this mistreatment and rejected it as unfamiliar and undeserved, she would have walked away from this abuse. Nevertheless, although consciously undesirable, unconsciously it rang familiar bells.

For Christy, as for the child, what is observed during childhood is registered as normal. Fighting, rejection, drinking, having affairs, is the way things are and not having other models for comparison, they are accepted as the only form of reality and the only manner of interacting. Although painful and frightening, they seemed normal and were accepted as such because the masters of the universe, the source of all our security, the people who hold the power of life and death over her and whom she desperately wished to please taught her this.

These experiences form the core of our being and the foundations upon which we build our life and identity. We cannot destroy the foundation or core of our being no more than we can rip out our own heart and lungs and expect to live. Consequently it is available for replay throughout our life. Fortunately, this internal tape recording can be modified and maybe even replaced with a new tape. Although one cannot erase the recording it is possible to dampen its amplitude, redirect it, change the meaning that one applies, cease to take personal and feel responsible for treatment that more than likely had absolutely nothing to do with one, as any child born in another child's place would have been treated exactly the same, and thus fight it appropriately. It can be controlled and through the application of the above, a new tape may be inserted in it's place.


Although the Parent and Child are often a source of confusion and emotional pain, most people are not aware of their presence or the unconscious influence exerted on their lives. This is true even though the consequences of their influences are fully experienced at a conscious level.

Indeed, when questioned many people will erroneously state that their childhood was good and that they had good parents; even when their parents were warped and beat or yelled at them quite frequently and without reason. It is often quite difficult for adults to acknowledge that their parents may have treated them badly or that their parents were in fact bad or "screwed up" people. This not only seems disloyal but is more deeply a reflection on one's self worth. This is why when we were children it bothered us so much for someone to say that "My dad is better/stronger/smarter than your dad," for what this implies is that your dad is worthless, and you are worthless because he is your dad.

It is even more difficult to confront these unconscious elements because many people are frightened by the intensity of their feelings toward their parents. They are also fearful to allow feelings, hurts, resentments, that have been bottled up for years to emerge, for sometimes these emotions are extremely destructive and violent.


Although some children may at an early age begin to sense that perhaps their parents are also "not OK," this is frequently a function of resentment and frustration due to irritation at being punished and thwarted in one's desires. In this regard the parent is viewed as an obstacle. In fact, parents may be viewed as an obstacle even when they spoil their children, for once they refuse to indulge the child's whims, the child is forced to confront an uncommon source of restraint and they may resent it, and later in life even feel unconsciously cheated for not being completely catered to.

Of course, some unfortunates have truly horrible parents. As these children grow older they may not only realize that their parents (or foster parents) were "not OK" but they may begin to hate them. When this occurs the Parent is not extinguished. Rather, it, and all associated authority figures (e.g. teachers, employers, the police, one's spouse) come to be hated and resented and the person finds himself in constant difficulties or turmoil as he confronts each substitute parent in turn.

The battles between the unconscious Child and Parent may rage on and on, even within the minds of those with good parents. The battles only become horrible wars if the childhood experiences were horrible or in some manner terribly limiting and depreciatory.

However, for those who had truly "not OK" parents, the struggle goes on consciously as well as unconsciously as they may feel forever compelled to destroy the "evil parent" wherever he resides. The battle never ends because the war is never won. The enemy resides in the shadows and confines of their own unconscious as well as outside their own head (in the form of external authorities) and this is why they are forever striking out.

For most individuals who suffered at the hands of a verbally, emotionally or physically abusive or harshly critical or unloving parent, the ability to recognize that perhaps mom or day "are not OK" does not arise until later in childhood (if at all) when linguistic processing begins to dominate conscious psychic functioning (beginning about age 6). As such, these impressions influence the left brain and conscious mind as well as the unconscious due to the availability of linguistic processing. Nevertheless, the influence of these later conscious experiences on the establishment and maintenance of the unconscious Parent are minimal as that image has already been formed and stored away in the non-linguistic portions of the nervous system. Besides, as discussed, the left brain is socially quite dense.

When we attain adulthood and are able to analyze and confront the manner in which our parents raised us, this too may have little effect on the Parent. This is because the Parent is not synonymous with our actual parents and our unconscious perceptions do not always correspond with what is experienced consciously. The Parent is a generalized emotional composite which includes unconscious feelings, perceptions, fears, and even misperceptions based on possibly a variety of authority figures, such as an older brother or sister, our grandparents, relatives, teachers, other children, the police and even government agencies.

Nevertheless, although the Parent cannot be completely erased, once one confronts its existence and influences, he can proclaim that it is wrong if it tries to treat them badly. He can proclaim that he is a "good," "worth while" individual who like every other human has limitations and weaknesses but who nevertheless deserves happiness and success. Once someone can confront and begin to control these influences, even if he has difficulty accepting or feeling good about himself, he will increasingly discover self acceptance until finally one day with conviction he can proclaim: "I am OK."

Copyright: 2006, 2000, 2010, 2018 - Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.