To introduce the concept of "real" parents and "introjected" parents, I usually tell two anecdotes that have happened to me over the years as a psychotherapist:

  • The first case is that of a fifty-year old woman, manager and owner of a chain of successful shops; a "woman manager" ready and able in managing her stores, for which she made the purchases, hired and managed the employees, made sales and did the administration and taxes and prepared the paychecks: a person who, even through her voice, transmitted a feeling of security and maturity. One day, this woman, as she was leaving my office, had just turned on the phone when it rang - it was her father, who I knew was about eighty years old and had some health problems. As this woman answered, her voice suddenly became high pitched and weak, while she stuttered "oh daddy" in a childish tone which she kept up for the entire phone call. When she finished speaking with her father, she turned to me to say goodbye, with her usual low and self-assured voice.
  • The second case is that of a forty-five year-old man, an expert in a difficult technical field, who spoke three languages perfectly as well as Italian, the owner of a small successful business, and for which he went on long car trips all over Europe to face and often successfully complete complicated commercial deals. One day, while we were having a session, this man appeared very nervous, and, when I asked him why he was so nervous, he answered that that evening he had to go see his father and he was afraid that he would be criticized because he had bought a new car, a luxury car which cost over fifty thousand euro.

The money he used to buy the car was profit from his company, money he had earned. Yet...yet this man was nervous because he was afraid of his father, an old-fashioned type, with a closed mind, a money saver if not a bit stingy, he was afraid he would criticize him for having bought that expensive car.

In both stories there is a difference between the person's reactions in front of the working world and that of the parents. Both protagonists of the two stories demonstrated security and ability in facing the complex problems of their daily working lives. While, in front of elderly and apparently "inoffensive" parents, all of their self-assuredness collapsed and they once again became those children they had been, full of fear and submission in front of their "mommy" and "daddy".

What had happened? What happened was that while a large part of their personality had become adult and mature, some nuclei of their selves, marked and influenced by their parents' behavior had not grown along with the rest of them, but had remained children, ready to come out as soon as mommy and daddy called.

It is like as if a chef, who prepared a cream for dessert didn't mix all the ingredients together properly and so at the end the cream has lumps which did not dissolve and did not become part of the cream but remained what they had been in the beginning - lumps of raw flour.

The same goes with our personality. Certain psychological pathologies can be compared to "lumps of flour", something in our minds, which has not grown and does not harmonize with the rest of our personality.

This explained the difference in the behavior of our protagonists; but this also explains many other cases of personalities which have not grown in a uniform manner; it helps us, for example, understand the origin of the fear that some fifty year-olds express in front of the fact that, by law of nature, their eighty year old parents will die before they do.

"I can imagine that moment like as if my life were to end "; "I really don't know how I will face the death of my parents "; these sentences and others like them show the fear that these adults-remained-children have in front of their parents.

At this point it might be easier to explain the concept of "real" parents and "introjected" parents.

"Real" parents are our parents, as they are in this moment; for a fifty-year-old, therefore his/her parents are probably a couple around the age of eighty, who have been retired for years, who lead a more or less active life, depending on their health.

In many cases, unfortunately, elderly parents also means sick parents, who need assistance and medical attention; many still live in their homes alone or assisted, others live with relatives, others are in long term hospital care, still others are in retirement homes. In most cases, therefore, we can confirm that we are talking about people who are physically weak, and who seem harmless.

And the children, who have seen their parents' physical decay from close-up, should not be afraid of them; actually the knowledge that their parents are now elderly should help the children, now accomplished adults, feel protective and willing to assist them.

But this does not always happen; sometimes the children, even those adults who are married and have children of their own, cannot reach this knowledge of themselves as mature people who are independent from their parents.

This happens for many male children, the only woman who really counts in their lives is the mother, while the other women are only adventures. The stereotype of the Italian man, of the Latin Lover or playboy often hides an immature mamma's boy.

In this same way, many daughters (who have even been married for years) continue to lean on their fathers, and not their husbands, when they have to make important decisions.

It still happens that when immature children get married, they go live in the same building as their parents, maybe even wall to wall, on the same floor. The fact is that when these children think about something to do with their parents, in their minds they do not see their parents as they are in that moment, but see them as they were in the past, without the updated or "real" version.

"Introjected" parents are people who no longer exist, but once did, when we were children under the age of ten, and they were adults, probably around the age of thirty, at the peak of their vital energy. Even us children were full of life energy; maybe we even had more than our parents, but we were missing, being children, the completeness of our selves and a formed personalities, physical strength and the refinement of our movements, intellectual maturity, the capacity to mediate between ourselves and the world, life experience and the education that helps us evaluate things.

It was therefore not an equal comparison.

What's more, in making the position of the child more vulnerable, we cannot forget the things that happen to us in our childhood, and remain fixed in our memories, with a strength that other subsequent events, even if they are more serious, will not be able to have. This happens because, in the first few years of life, our self is not well formed or defended, it is much more exposed to contact with the world; moreover, the "magic" environment in which children so often live since they are more in touch with their subconscious, makes it so that certain facts acquire extremely strong emotional and sentimental value.

Let's also consider, that for a child, his/her parents represent the most important people in the world; as well as the fact that children lack the capacity to stand back and reflect on things which would help them evaluate their parents for what they truly are and do.

This explains why, for example, certain episodes that parents tend to underestimate, or even consciously "forget", were able to become an indelible part of their children's personality, creating a traumatic memory (a "lump of flour" as in the example), which seems like it cannot be erased and which hurts every time it comes to mind.

Certain ways that the parents act, sarcastic or ironic comments on their children's actions, certain "funny" remarks aimed at their children about topics that embarrass them and make them uncomfortable, certain moments of coldness, and lack of affection, especially when the child needed it the most, not to mention violence, sad and terrifying environments which occur in certain families, physical punishment, molesting and sexual abuse on behalf of the parents, all of this remain profoundly impressed in the mind of the child and, if it is not cured, will continue to damage him/her for the rest of his/her life.

Equally serious damage is made by apparently opposite actions: excessive affection and protection, which takes security away from the child and stops him/her from growing up. Or those parents who, in order to compensate their lack of affection and security for their children, establish morbidly strong connections with them that, in certain cases, make it almost impossible for them to grow and become independent, in other cases they compromise the ability to think things out autonomously.

There are also situations where parents "pretend" for years that they get along and do not have the will to separate; in these conditions, living under the same roof, can lead to high levels of tension; tension that is always let loose on the weaker elements: the children who are not loved and respected for who they are, but are punished for things they are not responsible for, and with whom morbid alliances are established against the other partner.

In the personal history of most of the people who turn to psychotherapy, we find childhood experiences similar to those described above. We can find, for example that while many ideas have changed and evolved in the mind of the person, certain episodes, which happened in childhood continue to "survive" and are not integrated into the mind of the adult; continuing to produce emotions and pain, or unvented anger, sadness and pessimism.

All of these changes, in certain sectors, change the normal functioning of the psyche, producing suffering and thoughts of death and feeding psychological pathologies that emerge in very different ways.

Going back to the theme of this essay (real and introjected parents), we can therefore highlight how, in the growth of a psychologically healthy person, the relationship with his/her parents is based on his/her real parents, what they are in that moment; while the introjected parents, the ghost or the god of childhood, has slowly been absorbed into the psyche of the adult, who has not registered the change in his/her mind and can see the past with maturity.

For many people who have had fairly healthy parents, and have not been overly tried by life, this maturity happens in its own right while they are growing. Others instead live this unresolved conflict suffering from neurosis.

Psychological illness, in this context, represents a desperate signal that our subconscious produces to invite us to take care of ourselves.

Psychotherapy, together with, when necessary, pharmacotherapy, helps in these cases, make sense of our personal history while helping our psychological growth and the development of our independence.