Our parents are the great gods of our childhood. What we believe about God usually comes from them. It is not just what they told us about religion, it is what they demonstrated about relationships with entities more powerful than ourselves. In other words, parents are often the prototype for our future relationship with God, and with our own inner spirituality.
So, are your feelings about God trusting or ambivalent?
In your childhood, were powerful grown-ups trusted to treat you fairly, or did they use their power selfishly? If they were emotionally immature, it is a safe bet that their own needs often overrode their ability to give you a secure emotional connection. Because emotionally immature parents have so many unmet security needs, any relationship will tend to be all about them. They are like emotionally arrested children who rarely consider that other people have feelings and needs too. Their existential security depends on their children looking up to them and obeying them no matter what.
Emotionally immature parents feel safest when they have all the control, enforced by guilt and shame. Their parent-child attachment is more about dominance and subjugation than affection, security, and guidance. The child of emotionally immature parents is there to serve the needs of the parent, not the other way around. It is clear to children that they are literally good or bad on the basis of how well they have pleased such a parent.
Emotionally immature parents are like the thin-skinned gods of rigid religions where bad behavior is punishable by loss, death, or banishment. With this sort of god – as with emotionally immature parents – you must avoid displeasing the all-powerful being who can strike you down with vengeance or abandonment you when you are weakest.
Fortunately, many sensitive, perceptive children who are self-aware and yearn for deep emotional connections sense the possibility of a very different sort of relationship with God. Rather than God behaving like a self-involved, narcissistic parent, these children sense the loving unconditional acceptance of a Being who adores them back, a Being who is within them and never rejecting or abandoning. They know a god who is intellectually and creatively complex, one whose attachment and intimacy is unshakable. Like a mature parent, this kind of God is not preoccupied with the judgment of goodness or sin, but stays close in emotional connection.
But when emotionally immature parents teach their children about God, they often describe a deity who is like them: rigid, simplistic in thinking, black-and-white in judgment, and passionate about catching you in a mistake. These parents portray a god who is unapproachable, distant, wrathful, emotionally neglectful, and expecting more from you than you can ever do. The more passive emotionally immature parent may simply give you the impression that God is like them: essentially good-natured and benign, but never stepping in to help you.
If emotionally immature parents were your original models for God and spirituality, it may feel like you can never be good enough to get God’s approval, or worse, that God can never get His fill of your sacrifices. It’s no wonder that many children of emotionally immature parents shudder at the thought of turning themselves over to such an unpredictable Higher Power.
Emotionally immature parents are like jealous gods, reacting with over-control whenever their child begins to individuate from them. Instead of being proud of their child’s emerging independence, these parents feel anxiety and anger when they are no longer the center of their child’s emotional attention.
As a result, many children of emotionally immature parents have an uneasy feeling about God and organized religion. It can seem that God – like the childhood parent – wants all your attention while giving little back. With emotionally immature parents, you might fear that your individuality is something to be given up, rather than something to be enhanced through spiritual development.
On the other hand, having emotionally immature parents may have spurred you to seek a much more fulfilling relationship with God or the Universe than you might have had otherwise. The frustrations of emotionally immature parents can push a person to look within for their spirituality rather than outside through authority figures. The good news is that once you separate your spirituality from the relationship with your parents, you are free to find what feeds your soul in a way that will sustain you for the rest of your life.