Even before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life around our world, doubts about psychiatry’s future exposed its professional identity crisis, which was apparently self-inflicted by its “troubling search for a biology of mental illness.” Other research shows that adverse childhood experiences (emotional-mental, physical, sexual, and financial abuse by a child’s parents or caregivers) cause long-term negative physical and psychological outcomes in adulthood. These non-medical causes of our distress support the views of trauma-recovery psychiatrists like John Briere, Ph.D., who is said to have remarked,
“If Complex PTSD were ever given its due—that is, if the role of dysfunctional parenting in adult psychological disorders was ever fully recognized, the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by all mental health professionals) would shrink to the size of a thin pamphlet.”
During the present pandemic, many who are in hospital, who have lost loved ones and jobs, or who are locked down at home as others quarantine in hotels, will be grieving an enormous sense of loss. Though some might try to replace their loss with on-line shopping, or with marathon mainstream and social media consumption, others are embracing this sudden worldwide disruption as an opportunity to join online book clubs and prayer or meditation groups. Many more are admitting that life was already precariously painful well before this pandemic which is forcing us to change.
In this regard, two excellent self-help books written by U.S. clinical psychologist Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D. are essential reading at this time. Gibson’s books might also help to further shrink the DSM and end the business of mental disorder marketing, by addressing the root cause of why so many people have succumbed to biomedical DSM psychiatry in the first place. These books are: Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How To Heal From Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents (which I’ll refer to as Book 1) and Recovering From Emotionally Immature Parents: Practical Tools To Establish Boundaries and Reclaim Your Emotional Autonomy (Book 2).
Although there are already many self-help oriented pop-psychology books on toxic parents, physical disease caused by childhood trauma, “inner child” theory, and the latest trend, “narcissism,” by and large, they do not address our current existential crisis of “self” and “identity.” Whilst academic psychiatry and psychology debate their definitions of “narcissism,” Gibson’s books seem to address the whole “narcissistic abuse” phenomenon without using hackneyed phrases like “the narcissist” or the questionable DSM-5 definition of “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” (NPD). Instead, Gibson employs her notion of emotional immaturity, which she prefers as it is “broader than a clinical diagnosis … more useful and less pathologizing” as emotional immaturity can underlie many psychological problems, including narcissism.
Existential Loneliness (Before Social Distancing)—The Cause of An “Identity Crisis”?
In Book 1, Gibson begins by clarifying that even though adults experience emotional loneliness, such loneliness can also start in childhood when we might have felt (and I would submit, actually were) unseen emotionally by self-preoccupied parents. Gibson observes that the most outwardly successful adult parents can lack any capacity for emotional intimacy, which provokes profound emotional loneliness in their children.
Without implying that all children are “ego-centric,” as other psychologists might do (which effectively blames children for “misinterpreting” their parents’ immature behavior), Gibson’s books spotlight parental dysfunction without defending, rationalizing or excusing parents. Such parents “may look and act perfectly normal, caring for their child’s physical health and providing meals and safety,” she writes. “However, if they don’t make a solid emotional connection with their child, the child will have a gaping hole where true security might have been.”
As Gibson also points out, children’s existential loneliness due to feeling unseen by their parents (rendering them alone in the world) is as painful as a physical injury. Gibson’s insights thus do perhaps lend support to valid criticism of censorious parenting trends such as “helicopter parenting” and “safetyism,” “paranoid parenting” or “narcissistic parenting,” as she says that real emotional intimacy is about feeling safe enough to open up to another person about all of our feelings. Whether by words, an exchange of looks, or just being present together quietly in a state of connection (rather than doing constant activities or ingratiatingly “affirming” whatever children say), Gibson says that emotional intimacy between parent and child provides “a sense of being seen for who you really are … which can only exist when the other person seeks to know you, not judge you.”
Gibson’s definition of “who you really are” does not invoke identity concepts derived from role-performance, but rather refers to our core, primal feeling and emotional experiences of our world and the people who are supposed to love and care for us. Emotionally immature (EI) parents, however, do label their children according to pre-conceived roles—according to a child’s actions, accomplishments and choices. EI parents do this because they are so self-absorbed, insecure, dominating, and controlling, that they are unaware of their children’s inner experiences. Gibson further describes EI parents as nervous, angry and punishing, rather than comforting to their children. This shuts down children’s instinctive healthy urge to reach out to their parents when they are afraid and distressed.
Gibson then explains that our sense of “self” and feeling secure in the world, begins in our childhood relationship with our caretakers—our parents. If our parents are emotionally mature and engaged, they will allow us to feel confident that we always have someone secure to turn to. But those of us who were raised by EI parents had no way to know that the hollow, empty and insecure feeling inside us was a normal reaction to our parents’ emotional immaturity. This lonely feeling is said to be a universal human response to a lack of adequate human companionship (for which some governments now appoint “Ministers for Loneliness”). Gibson however, does not psychiatrically medicalize loneliness, instead assuring her readers that it is the predictable result of growing up (and perhaps still living) without receiving sufficient empathy.
Recognizing the Emotionally Immature Relationship System and Emotionally Immature Parents (or People)
Book 1 introduces Gibson’s notion of an “emotionally immature relationship system” (EIR system) and how and why EI parents put their own needs first, ahead of and at the expense of their own children. Gibson describes EI parents’ tactics in an EIR system, such as role coercion, which is forcing someone else to live out a pseudo-self or role-self (which I’ll refer to collectively as a “pseudo role-self identity”) and act in a certain way according to it, because they want them to.
Emotional contagion is another EI parent (or any other EI person) tactic by which they get other people to feel what they are feeling, by spreading their upset feelings to others, so everyone reacts without understanding why. EI parents use role coercion and emotional contagion to routinely violate their children’s personal boundaries. EI parents also seem to effectively make their children parent them (referred to by other psy literature as “parentification”), by expecting children to soothe their feelings and emotions. In this way, children are forced to fulfill their parents’ responsibility for “emotional work.” Gibson’s practical explanation of emotional contagion by EI parents and EI people complements public self-help information about such parents that is already widely available. Gibson also explains the nature and origin of inner shame and guilt in adults as early childhood emotional distress responses to EI parents.
Book 1 describes the tell-tale behavior of EI parents, which helps readers to discern for themselves, whether they grew up under EI parenting. Readers can then self-assess whether now as adults, they are still attracting and attracted to what Gibson calls “EI people,” who are similar to their EI parents. Gibson’s books may therefore help readers to identify and handle EI people in all areas of life, such as: at work, in marriages and friendships, and in society at large.
EI parents’ other tactics include role-entitlement, such as by demanding certain treatment simply because they are in the role of “parent.” There are also tactics of role-coercion and role-compliance, by which EI parents force their children to act out designated “roles.” Role-coercion tactics can range from shaming, guilt, threats, physical or other forms of abuse, and excessive over-intellectualization, to playing favourites between siblings, emotional enmeshment (parents’ emotional dependency on, or idealization of a child), and shunning or outright rejection of children.
Gibson says that such harmful behavior occurs because EI parents “relate on the basis of roles, not individuality.” Consequently, young children (and adult children of EI parents) learn to respond to their EI parents by becoming internalizers or externalizers.
Internalizers develop a coping habit of solving problems from the inside out, by being self-reflective, trying to learn from their mistakes and enjoying becoming more competent. Similar to pop-culture terms like “people pleaser” and “empath” to “victim of narcissistic abuse” or even “co-dependent,” Gibson describes internalizers as those who believe they can make things better (for everyone) by trying harder and instinctively taking responsibility for solving problems (including presumably, others’ problems) on their own.
Interestingly, Gibson says that internalizers don’t see abuse for what it is, and their main source of anxiety and guilt is “feeling guilty when they displease others and the fear of being exposed as imposters. Their biggest relationship downfall is being overly self-sacrificing and then becoming resentful of how much they do for others.”
Gibson’s contrasting notion of “externalizers” sounds similar to circulating pop-culture memes on “the narcissist” which are the subject of countless self-help books, internet blogs, mainstream media articles, public discourse, and scores of YouTube videos. Gibson defines externalizers as those who are reactive, act before they think, tend not to self-reflect and do things impulsively to blow off anxiety quickly. Externalizers blame other people and circumstances, rather than their own actions, and experience life as a trial and error but rarely learn from their mistakes. Akin to popular self-help concepts like “narcissistic supply,” Gibson says externalizers are attached firmly to the notion that things need to change in the outside world in order for them to be happy, “believing that if only other people would give them what they want, their problems would be solved.”
Importantly, Gibson further describes externalizers as having a self-defeating and disruptive coping style, such that others have to repair the damage caused by their impulsive actions. They may have a sense of inflated superiority (which sounds like the grandiosity trait in the DSM-5 definition of narcissism). Gibson also masterfully draws attention to the fact that externalizing people depend on external forms of soothing, which makes them susceptible to many forms of immediate gratification and addiction (such as, arguably, addictive relationships and substance abuse, or as others might suggest, even addictions to psychiatry and psychotherapy).
People who become internalizers or externalizers are thus not, it would seem, necessarily genetically born this way. Yet Gibson’s books do make some questionable comments about biology, by saying for example, that “some children’s genetics and neurology propel them into impulsive reactivity instead of constructive action.”
Gibson notably observes how living our lives through a pseudo role-self identity is an unconscious survival coping response to EI parents. However, this pseudo role-self (which renowned spiritual writers like Eckhart Tolle call “ego”) replaces our original true self, which Gibson says “has no interest in whatever desperate ideas you came up with in childhood regarding a healing fantasy or role-self.”
As adults, we may still continue playing whatever false, pseudo role self-identity we adopted in childhood “in the hopes that someone will pay attention to us the way we wished our parents had as pretending to be what their parents want, children think they’ve found a way to win their parents’ love.” Gibson’s profound insight here raises other important questions for readers to consider that are beyond the scope of this review, such as whether child psychology needs to re-examine if and how early childhood identity formation is influenced by parents (as some research has found).
The rest of Book 1 explains how to break free of pseudo role-self identities adopted in childhood to survive EI parents, and to grieve the impossibility of what Gibson calls “parent healing fantasies.” Healing fantasies are those which have us clinging to a hopeful story about what will make us happy one day, such as dreaming that our parents can change, will finally love us, make up for the emotional loneliness they caused in us, and become the loving parent we never had but needed and deserved when we were children. Book 1 also describes what it feels like to grieve the death of parent healing fantasies, live a life free of pseudo role self-identities, and learn to find emotionally mature people with whom to now connect as adults.
Citing John Bowlby’s seminal Attachment Theory, Gibson explains why being raised by EI parents causes us to gravitate repeatedly to familiar situations and EI people who share our parents’ emotional immaturity. We do this because “by denying the painful truth about our parents, we aren’t able to recognize similarly hurtful people in future relationships. Denial makes us repeat the situation over and over because we never see it coming the next time.”
Parent healing fantasies and denial about being raised by EI parents (or medically camouflaging the lonely distress that EI parents cause as a “mental health issue”), can have dangerous implications. As Gibson writes: “Our vulnerability to self-centered authority starts in childhood when EI parents teach us that our thoughts are not as worthwhile as their thoughts and [we] … accept whatever our parent tells us. It’s easy to see how EI parenting could turn out children who later fall prey to extremism, exploitation or even cults.” Gibson’s insights here seem pertinent for the: #MeToo movement, de-radicalisation programs, consent laws and investigations into sexual abuse, all of which might need to ask whether EI Parenting itself constitutes “victim grooming”?
Book 1 explains beautifully how to awaken our “true self,” which Gibson says is a concept that goes back to ancient times when the idea of having a soul first arose. Again, it’s worth noting that when talking about our “true self,” Gibson does not seem to invoke role-performance identity concepts. Gibson says, for example, that “this self is the source of our unique individuality … the consciousness that speaks the truth at the center of a person’s being.” This clear and inclusive explanation of “self” is what arguably sets Gibson’s books apart from other psychology discourse that seldom mentions soul (even though the “soul” was part of the original meaning of the term psyche from the Greek language). However, Gibson also says that “whatever our true self is, it is based in our biology as human beings” which is a point that needs more clarification.
Change and Recovery (Without DSM-5 Diagnoses and Psychiatric Drugs)
Book 2 is in two parts and expands on the themes in Book 1 by offering new skills with which we can identify and resist emotionally coercive takeovers by EI parents (and EI people at large). In Book 2 Chapter 4, Gibson discusses the tactic of emotional takeovers, by which the EI parent creates situations to project their emotional contagion onto others. Gibson explains our psychological survival response of “dissociation” which is when “you feel psychologically separate from yourself … freeze up or shrivel inside … you feel like you’re detached from your body.”
Gibson says dissociation is where we feel we have exited our bodies, which can occur when facing severe threats and abuse, and then becomes an unconscious habitual response to all emotionally coercive takeovers. As Gibson also says, contrary to dramatic stories about “multiple personalities,” dissociation is a “natural defense … a primitive type of emotional escape … a common psychological defense against threat or danger, especially for children in an unsafe environment.” Gibson explains that such separation from our inner self-connection makes us passive so we are sucked into EI parents’ emotional takeovers.
Book 2 Chapter 7 invites adult readers to effectively re-parent themselves by learning to understand, value, and be responsible for respecting and comforting their own emotions. Gibson here expands on the true self notion she mentions in Book 1, by offering the idea of an inner self which she refers to as our “soul, spirit, heart, the you of you … the internal witness—the nucleus of our being—that takes in all of life but is unchanged by life … your unique individuality, underneath your personality, family role, and social identity.”
Book 2 Chapter 8 then helps us to clear our minds of the incessant, negative critical voices in our heads, which are echoes of our parents’ opinions about us. Using diagrams, Gibson’s book depicts how to silence the intrusion of our parents’ thoughts and criticisms by showing us how to differentiate inner critical thoughts inherited from our parents from those thoughts which emanate from our inner self or conscience. Whilst many self-help social media, pop-psychology, or spiritual writers talk about listening to our “intuition,” Gibson’s advice on this is practical and clear. She says to mistrust any thoughts that give you a sinking feeling, as legitimate conscience guides us, whereas harsh self-judgments are mockeries that echo the rigid thinking of our EI parents when we were children.
Book 2 Chapter 9 invites readers to establish their own authority and sense of self-worth. Gibson’s approach for doing this seems different from Cognitive Behavioural Therapies because here, rejecting and correcting negative critical voices in the head seems to effectively involve disidentifying from the voices (rather than just rationally countering them cognitively), by realizing they are echoes of EI parents’ distorted opinions about us.
Interestingly, Gibson further explains that depressive thinking is promoted by making children feel guilty or ashamed in childhood, through past emotional coercions by EI parents. This chapter is especially intriguing because Gibson cites and adapts Dr. Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle Theory to demonstrate how EI parents place everyone (including themselves) into distorted, unconscious pseudo role-self identities. These roles are namely: Aggressor/Villain (which some pop-psychology might call “The Narcissist”), Victim/Innocent, and Rescuer/Hero. EI parents thus “see every situation as a story populated by victims, aggressors, or rescuers … and jump to conclusions about who’s bad, who’s innocent, and who should step in to save them.” Consequently, Gibson’s book potentially goes further than almost any other book in this genre, by showing readers how to be alert to and break free from every relationship or situation that is actually a Drama Triangle trap.
Letting Forgiveness Happen Naturally (Without Religion or Psychotherapy)
There is a deep presence, warmth, and wisdom in Gibson’s Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents books. Although she is a parent herself, Gibson’s writing contains little to no hint of parental defensiveness or excuse-making. Her books’ compassionate narrator voice gives readers permission to recount honestly their own parents’ emotionally immature behavior, whilst understanding the inter-generational cycle by which EI parents socially inherited their dysfunction from their EI parents. Consequently, Gibson’s books do not seem to mention nor advocate “forgiveness” specifically. Instead, her approach seems to be about allowing forgiveness to happen naturally and inevitably. At the beginning of Book 2 for example, Gibson writes:
“Your parents gave you life and love, but only of the sort they knew. You can honour them for that but cease to give them unwarranted power over your emotional well-being.…”
This sounds similar to the non-sectarian spiritual teachings of Eckhart Tolle, who counsels against trying to let go of grievances because “trying to forgive” does not work. Tolle says that forgiveness happens naturally when you see that grievances have no purpose other than to strengthen a false sense of self. Indeed, akin to Gibson’s books, Tolle himself recognizes that childhood is often a source of pain in adulthood, saying in A New Earth that “Most psychotherapists have met patients who claimed initially to have had a totally happy childhood, and later the opposite turned out to be the case.”
Final Thoughts on Why Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents Is Essential Reading
There are some potential problems in Gibson’s books worth mentioning, such as her brief suggestions of mindfulness and meditation practices as ways to heal emotions. Nothing seems to be said, for example, about the ethical void that might be left by using secular, spiritually stripped, psychologized capitalist forms of “McMindfulness” meditation.
Otherwise, Gibson’s Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents books are stunning because they show how EI parents in dysfunctional family systems are replicated in adult EI relationship systems, which psychohistory might say reappears as dysfunctional political-economic, social and legal systems that cause needless suffering. The genuine respect Gibson shows her readers and clients, viewing them as fellow human beings, rather than as medically sick mental-health patients, is reflected in her warm and wise narrator voice which she enriches with sensitive anecdotes from real cases.
I suggest that Gibson’s books have the potential to help readers end transgenerational cycles of family abuse and resolve lifelong emotional distress, so they are no longer vulnerable to accepting or seeking DSM-5 mental disorder diagnoses and the emotion numbing drug prescriptions that can go with them. Gibson does suggest that some readers might need the support of a psychotherapist when reading her books. However, as some warn of a risk that psychotherapy may cause further harm, if some forms of therapy are unsuitable for childhood trauma from EI parenting, readers may need to seek out only those therapists, counsellors or social workers who specialise in childhood trauma from emotionally immature (narcissistic) parents and dysfunctional family systems (and who have perhaps faced and resolved their own EI parent attachment trauma). Otherwise, readers may find support from other well-informed sources (such as the Crappy Childhood Fairy YouTube series and coaching programs).
Gibson’s books are a delight to read (and re-read) and I cannot recommend them highly enough, especially at the present time. The quiet success of Gibson’s Emotionally Immature Parents books (they are Amazon bestsellers) seems to have even turned the phrase “emotionally immature parents” into a meme spread by pop-psychotherapists and life coaches on YouTube. This might be because Gibson assures anyone who feels lost, alone, and distressed that their feelings and emotions are normal, rational responses to childhood experiences (and, I would add, to the frightened and confused world in which we live right now). By showing us how painful emotions can be experienced, understood, witnessed and calmed (without numbing them with psychiatric drugs, addictive relationships or mindless consumerism), Gibson’s books light a path home to the loving and true inner voice of the conscience in our heart—our soul.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.