Between Childrens’ and Parents’ Needs: the Generational Anxiety Sandwich
For many of us in the present day world, a powerful struggle goes on in our middle years. There are greater and greater demands on our personal reserves of compassion, empathy, time, energy and money. These resources are streaming out in two directions, both towards our children, and also towards our parents, and possibly other aging relatives, who are living to a greater age than ever they have in the past.
As many people in their middle years try to meet the needs of the younger and older generations, they find themselves nearly impossibly stretched.
In such a climate, it can feel almost impossible to meet the needs of others. In addition, many people end up feeling like callous ingrates if they give any consideration to their own needs as people. “How can I consider myself?” one often hears people in this position say, “My parents gave me so much. I owe them so much–everything!”
The really difficult thing is when the inner complex gives such guilting messages to an adult child, when the parents have actually not been kind or supportive to their children. I experience this as a very frequent occurrence in my practice. Many times, people who have been seriously emotionally or physically neglected by their parents — or worse — are the very people who respond in the most dutiful and self sacrificing manner.
And then again, it is often those same people, dutiful to their parents, who turn around and are completely self-sacrificing to their children. And sometimes those children can be every bit as demanding unreasonable and narcissistic toward their parents as their grandparents are toward them. And often that same mass of guilt and obligation that whips these people into unreasonably self-denying behaviour toward their parents will do the same when it comes to their children.
The particular psychological forces that bring this about are as individual as the people involved in the situation. Very often, in dealing with these situations, healthy ordinary people need therapy to get to the root of the problem, and to free themselves from the crushing guilt. Guilt can be an extremely powerful emotion and motivator, and it is often necessary to confront it in the safe environment of therapy to be able to remove its power.
The other hugely difficult component of these intergenerational binds is that they often lead to enormous amounts of anxiety. This can prove as difficult, if not more so, than the guilt. However, what I am going to say next about that guilt may prove surprising, even shocking!
Which is, that it may actually be quite a good thing that the individual is experiencing the guilt! “Wow, Brian” you might be thinking, “what a horrible thing to say! …Speaking of callous!… How can you possibly wish anxiety on already-burdened people?”
Now, I don’t wish anyone unnecessary pain, and, all other things being equal, I would wish that no one would have to deal with excessive anxiety. But in a situation like this, I believe that it is often the case that the anxiety has a psychological purpose. Simply put, the intense anxiety makes us aware that there is a conflict, and that the status quo is simply untenable for the individual.
It may be that the guilt is intense for such a person, but the anxiety shows us that there is tension, that the needs of the self are not willing to just continue being put on the shelf and denied. The complex of guilt and obligation within us may spur us on to utterly altruistic self-destruction…but that complex is not all that there is to us. There is the part of us that recognizes that the purpose of human life is to become the person who is latent within us, that that is why we are here in this life. That part will allow us to make some compromises, but it will not allow us to completely sell ourselves out — not without our paying a very dire, wrenching psychological price.
It’s easy for many people to feel a strong impetus to self-sacrifice, but, psychologically speaking, it’s important to realize that there may be very real limits to the degree to which we can put our own needs on one side to care for and meet the needs of others.
This awareness might lead us to face an even more fundamental questions like, “How do I begin to live my own real life?” and “What is meaningful to me?” These questions takes us to the very heart of Jungian analysis, and true /a-midlife-transition.
I’d gratefully welcome comments from readers on these issues, which affect very many of us. How have you experienced the “generational sandwich”?.
My very best wishes to you on your individual journey to wholeness,
© 2010 Brian Collinson