Learning to Live Again: Becoming Free of Your Parents & Social Conditioning

“When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


Although it may sound like the title of an article from Cosmo Girl magazine, except for the last part perhaps, issues having to do with our parents are not limited to the lives of children and adolescents only. Even if you are in your 50s, 60s, or even 90 years old, the fundamental beliefs you have about yourself and the world can probably be traced back to what you were taught to believe as a child.

Growing up, our whole picture of the world is limited to our immediate environment, and so the way in which a child perceives the world is heavily dependent on the outlook of its parents, siblings, and relatives.

As we learn the names for different things and how to go about operating as human beings in society, we are told what is good and what is bad, what is to be desired and what is to be avoided, and what it means to be in the world in general. Most of this is perfectly innocent and practical, but our parents’ various judgments of themselves and the world will creep in whether they are aware of it or not.

In simplified terms, some people have a positive outlook on life while others have a negative outlook, and whether our parents believe they live in a world that is threatening and negative, or one that is helpful and positive, will have a deep impact on our psyche.

In some cases these negative beliefs are extreme and thus fairly obvious, as in the case of completely dysfunctional families with severe problems of domestic violence, substance abuse, and so on. But whether you grew up in a predominantly positive household or a negative one, hardly anyone will be completely free of unconscious social conditioning. And whatever unconscious beliefs and thought patterns are there, we will almost inevitably adopt them as part of our fundamental view of the world.

Most people are aware of this on a surface level — we know that our parents have an influence on us when growing up — but few people stop to take a closer look at the deeper-seated beliefs and ideas that we inherit from our parents’ view of the world. Mostly it is because these beliefs are instilled in us from a very early age, and so we simply don’t realize that there’s another way of seeing things. Our perception is limited to what we think is reality, and only as it begins to crack or wobble are we prompted to question its validity.

Even if you had a loving childhood, and even if you have a wonderful relationship with your parents today, you will probably find it nonetheless beneficial to have a look at these beliefs. If you are not fully at peace within yourself, and very few people are, chances are you will find it liberating to investigate your relationship with your parents, however supportive they were during your childhood.

Hardly anyone in the world is completely free of social conditioning, and being aware of these primordial unconscious beliefs about ourselves and the world is important. Unconscious negative beliefs vary greatly in intensity, and the more subtle ones are usually the most difficult to become aware of because their manifestations in our lives will be so far removed from the underlying belief.

For those of you who grew up without parents, the early influence of those you grew up with and the cultural surroundings are just as important. This has to do with looking at the world as it was presented to you as a child, whoever it was that conducted the presentation. 

What we are really speaking of here is social conditioning in general, focusing mainly on the deepest levels of it and what we were conditioned to believe before we were mature enough to be able to question it. The part of our social conditioning that serves as a foundation for further conditioning and issues as we get older.

Commonly Inherited Beliefs

If our parents live in the illusion that money is scarce, politicians are evil, marriage is hell, and work is tedious, then that becomes part of our own outlook as well. Some of these negative beliefs are so deeply ingrained in our society that we don’t even notice them, and they then become stuck in our subconscious while our context and perspective are still relatively limited.

Most of the unconscious negative beliefs we inherit have to do with survival and the fear of death. We may not see them as having anything to do with the fear of death, but most, if not all of them, ultimately do. For example, there is the belief that in order to be happy you need to ‘become somebody,’ and that quality of life is dependent upon status in society.

Again, we may be aware of this on a surface level; the common parental pressure to go into a certain line of work (become a doctor, lawyer, etc.) and to follow a safe and predictable path in life, but these seemingly trivial things are often like icebergs, where 90% of it is obscured beneath the surface. Our parents’ desire for us to ‘make it and their fear that we don’t make it is echoed within ourselves, because we share their fearful conditioning. 

As they were taught by their parents and society, they teach us that you need to be ‘somebody’ in order to be at ease and satisfied. Happiness is correlated with external factors such as possessions, social connections, accolades, and so on, and this particular bundle of beliefs is fundamental to common conditioning.

This fear of not having an identity (i.e. being a ‘nobody’) is at the core level of what we call ego, and stripped of the specifics it eventually comes down to the fear of death. When we see this, all of our fears and complications ultimately have to do with the fear of death; at the core of all our wants and desires is always the search for security and comfort, of finding ‘a home in the world.’ Of arriving someplace in our lives where we have complete security so that we can finally relax and start living, having cheated death and found permanence in form.

Probably the two most common manifestations of this fear are around money and social approval. These are closely related even on the surface, and on a deeper level they are one and the same, just different versions of the fear of death.

The phenomenon of children inheriting their parents’ financial beliefs is a widely known cause of social immobility, where the fear of economic scarcity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and there may be many other ways in which your parents’ financial philosophy affects your life.

You may have been taught, overtly or subconsciously, that money is a finite resource (a zero sum mentality) and that wealthy people are greedy and bad; that you need lots of money to be happy, and that the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of money; that you should feel guilty about what you have because there are people starving somewhere in the world; that greed is good, or that money is evil, and on and on — myriad beliefs about money that may be affecting your perception of the world in ways you couldn’t even have begun to imagine before investigating them. Some can be very subtle, so it is necessary to be very honest with yourself when you look for them.

Your parents’ relationships with other people and even between themselves is also an area worthy of exploration. Our relationship with our parents is the primordial human relationship in our lives, and so it will be reflected to some degree in all consequent relationships, whether professional, romantic, or casual friendship.

One particular thing to look at here is the value ascribed to other people’s approval and recognition. This is an inevitable part of our conditioning, and so if your parents were highly dependent on outside approval then chances are you will experience the same thing. And just the same, if your parents displayed contempt towards other people, chances are this will manifest in your life somehow.

As we’ve already talked about, the way in which your parents’ conditioning surfaces in your life may not be obvious. Sometimes, if the parents are extreme enough in their unconscious behavior, overtly rude or violent perhaps, their children will grow up to be the opposite — peaceful and compassionate — because they came to recognize their parents’ behavior as insane and learned to consciously avoid it, in themselves and others.

But even if you don’t inherit their values or behavior, you may still have certain beliefs about other people that are colored by negative experiences from your childhood, and which may affect you in some subtle and indirect way.

To sum up all these beliefs and unconscious judgments that are inherent in social conditioning, it can be said that you ‘inherit your parents’ level of consciousness’. Or, at the very least, are deeply affected by it, even if you don’t adopt it fully. If your parents are fearful, you grow up in a world where there is potential catastrophe around every corner and everything is always going to hell; if your parents are angry, you grow up in a world full of people who are only out there to make your life difficult and miserable; if your parents are prideful, you grow up in a world where it is more important to appear happy than to actually be happy, and so on.

And even if your parents are ‘enlightened’, loving and peaceful, you still grow up in a world where the mainstream mind-set is that of fear, anger, pride, and all of these expressions of the lower levels of consciousness. So, whatever your conditions when growing up, inquiry will probably reveal something you will want to be without.

The Unnecessary Baggage of Guilt & Resentment

Whether you’re 15 years old or 50, your parents will believe they know what’s best for you. It’s almost inevitable that they will try to control you, however enlightened or open minded they are. They have an image in their minds of the ideal path for you to take, and will try to steer you in that direction employing a variety of manipulative methods.

And when I use words like ‘manipulative,’ be sure to note that I am not condemning them for doing this. It is simply the ego in them, and the ego will use whatever methods it has to in order to have its way. So the degree to which your parents will try to control you depends on how active the ego is in them.

The ego’s favorite tool for manipulation is guilt, often via the polarity of approval and disapproval. And you know exactly how this works, because chances are you yourself have used these methods: when your parents want you to change in some way, they may withhold praise and attention, and even go out of their way to display rejection and disapproval. This is common if they don’t approve of your lifestyle or career choices, for example, and is the method they resort to when you are not willing to take their advice.

So after years of growing up under the tyranny of ego, as expressed by your parents, the media, or society at large, you may have accumulated a heavy baggage of guilt and resentment. Through relentless Pavlovianesque conditioning, you may have come to associate shame or punishment with all sorts of things, in some cases up to a point of neurosis where the fear of failure or rejection is so closely associated with annihilation that people don’t even dare to go out of the house.

And it doesn’t stop there, because even when out and about in the world as an adult, you will meet the same attempts at control and manipulation through guilt in corporations, marriages, friendships, the media, and basically everywhere there is human communication. 

The most effective way of becoming free of that is by taking a look at your own conditioning as instilled in you from birth; your spouse and your boss may want different things from you than your parents did, but ultimately all of it is based on the same fundamental issue, and so to look to your relationship with your parents is the best way to get to the bottom of it.

What your parents believe is best for you is usually a pretty clear reflection of their social conditioning, which in turn is the basis of your own social conditioning, and so your resistance to their advice is fertile ground for introspection. In fact, whatever suppressed grievances or resentment there may be in you towards them can hold the key to your freedom from suffering.

Changing Places

While your parents will try to manipulate you with guilt and other ego devices, know that they only do this because they care about you and don’t know any better. Meeting your parents’ attempts to control you with resentment and defensiveness will only result in the continuation of the conditioning, and thus the continuation of suffering. The only way of breaking it and becoming free is by meeting it with unconditional love and forgiveness, whether it surfaces in your parents or yourself.

You can more easily see how it is not really their fault when you see the same attempts at manipulation in yourself. When you think that your parents should not try to control you, are you not attempting to control them just the same? If you write down a list of statements beginning with “my parents should” and “my parents shouldn’t,” you will see all the ways in which you want to control what your parents do or how they think.

For this exercise I recommend using The Work, Byron Katie’s incredibly effective method of investigating unconscious thoughts and beliefs. Part of her process is to turn the ‘should’ statements around, and so discover how the source of every problem you think is being caused by someone or something on the outside is actually within yourself. And so the statement “my parents should not try to control me with guilt” becomes “I should not try to control them with guilt,” which is probably what you have been doing without noticing.

When you resent your parents attempts at control and respond with a display of anger, rebellion, contempt, and a withdrawal of affection, you are playing out the exact same conditioning they are.

Another way of turning the statement “my parents should not try to control me with guilt” is to say “I should not try to control myself with guilt.” And this is very important to realize, because ultimately the freedom from conditioning lies entirely within yourself. If you go beyond the conditioning in yourself, you will be invulnerable to the manifestations of conditioning in others. Attempts at manipulation by guilt simply go right through you when there is nothing within you to reflect them, and you will find that you are much less likely to attract these attempts to begin with.

Living on Your Own Terms

People often find themselves living on their parents’ terms, even long after their parents die, because of deeply embedded fears and complications they inherited as children. You may be in a job that you dislike but are afraid of quitting because you fear that your parents, your friends, your spouse, or society in general, may punish you in one way or the other. You may fear that they will be ashamed of you, reject you, withdraw their support, etc. And this may even affect many seemingly trivial parts of your life, such as the car you drive, the clothes you wear, how you behave in public, what music you listen to, and how you live your life in general.

When this is your reality, you are living your life in the service of ego and in the service of social conditioning. And no one else has to change one bit for you to become free of it: this is all within you. If you are living on your parents’ terms, you are doing them a great disservice.

And in fact, if you are living on anyone’s terms but your own, you are not fulfilling your primary purpose as a human being, which is to be of service to the heightening of consciousness. When you make decisions based on what you think other people want from you or for you, life becomes devoid of beauty and spontaneity. Your purpose is to live from truth, and to allow every single decision you make to come from creativity and intuition.

Free of conditioning, you will cease to live your life according to what you want to avoid, and begin to see opportunities reveal themselves everywhere you look. And the best part is that through your own freedom, you will enable others to find relief from social conditioning; yes, even your parents.

Source: the now defunct Everyday Wonderland, a “weblog on the subject of spiritual awakening, creativity, enthusiasm, inspiration, and generally everything having to do with the higher levels of human consciousness”, as expressed there by an anonymous author. It has been preserved here for your pleasure.