Let’s Talk: About unfinished business


A young man once told me about the time his father was facing a terminal illness. He had gathered his sons together before his last days to apologize for having been neglectful and abusive. At the time, the adult son felt relieved to finally hear his father take responsibility for the way he had treated his children.

Sadly, he also realized that his father had carried this regret for most of both of their lifetimes; that this regret had caused his father to be withdrawn and disconnected from the family in later years.

After his father passed away, the young man was struggling with his anger, realizing that he had grown up believing that he deserved to be treated harshly, that he was not a good son, person, child. He believed that his all-knowing father knew that the slaps and name-calling was something the child had brought on himself. He told me that he had spent his lifetime confirming that he unconsciously deserved to be mistreated, that at his core, he was, somehow, deeply flawed.

Of course, back then, name calling and occasional slaps were not considered “abuse” per se, but research over the years has shown that negative parental attitudes of disapproval, shaming, and unrelenting criticism does have long-term consequences in the development of the child’s sense of self-worth. There can be nothing more damning than growing up in a home where a child is repeatedly told that s/he is worthless, not good enough.

Abusive parenting can be a manifestation of mental illness and substance abuse, as well as the person’s own experience of being abused as a child. But often, in our Japanese American community, conditions such as alcoholism and depression are masked with minimizing words describing the person as a “heavy drinker” or a “grouchy person.”

In our historic need to prove ourselves as 110 percent good citizens and being influenced by Japanese traditions and values, we are unlikely to label family dysfunction as…well… “family dysfunction.” These words would bring shame to the family. As a result, too often Japanese Americans do not seek help for such private family problems.

Repairing and healing intergenerational abuse, however, doesn’t always require family therapy, but it does require courage and consciousness. Often the one adult child who speaks up about past abusive treatment in the family will be the “nail” that needs to be hammered into silence. So being mindful about how you bring it up, and doing it in a way that doesn’t threaten others, can lead to healing conversations about what happened and why. Not an easy task, but Daruma Psychology encourages positive persistence. Naming what happened and how you felt about it, may not change other people’s minds, but it will give you the opportunity to express what may have been locked inside of you. Depression is often a sign that something is being “depressed.”

Keep in mind, I am not encouraging an emotional free-for-all, but rather, an opportunity to create an opening, if only for yourself, to name the truth of your experience and let go of mistaken or distorted beliefs about yourself that were internalized as a child. Talk to a trusted friend to help you keep things in perspective. Speak to your minister or sensei.

If needed, seek out a therapist who can provide you with support and guidance.

Seven times down, eight times up!  It’s the New Year — time to clean house and pay off your debts. A good time to take care of unfinished business.

Satsuki Ina, Ph.D. is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in intergenerational trauma. She can be reached at satsukina44@gmail.com. She is also a filmmaker (“Children of the Camps” — www.children-of-the-camps.org and “From a Silk Cocoon: A Japanese American Renunciation Story” — www.fromasilkcocoon.com). Views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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