Q.  I have heard you say that “Each brain only has its own opinion. That sounds to me like you think my brain's opinion is inaccurate. I know my mother rejected me—she gave me up for adoption, for heaven’s sake! What do you have to say to that?

A. I am so glad you asked the question. That is a very adult thing to do, when you are unclear about what another person actually meant. Identifying your brain’s perception is a good thing. Identifying whether or not your brain’s perception is completely accurate is quite another. I have no idea the reason your mother gave you up for adoption—that doesn’t mean she “rejected you,” it may simply mean that she saw no way to take care of you. And if she did consciously reject you, it is undeniably traumatic and painful. However, your brain also decides how long you want to hang onto that pain and allow it to continue hurting you in negative ways.

Research at the University of Connecticut, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, showed that regardless of race, culture, or gender, most people (children as well as adults) tended to have a similar response when they perceived rejection from their parents or caregivers. Rejection by either parent is traumatic for children. However, since fathers tend to be viewed as having more power or higher prestige, rejection by a father can be harder on you and can cause more long-lasting emotional damage than being rejected by your mother. As a result, such children tend to become more anxious and insecure and may also become more hostile and aggressive towards others. The emotional pain generated from the rejection registers in the same part of the brain as physical pain and can remain into adulthood, preventing the individual from developing strong, trusting relationships with other adults. This can negatively impact their own life in a myriad of differing ways unless the individual chooses to actively recover and heal.

How can you recover from parental rejection? The steps are much like those used in other instances of emotional pain. First, identify what you believed happened and describe it to yourself. If possible, tell your parent(s) you felt rejected as a child and ask what was going on with them because you “might have misinterpreted something.” If they are willing to talk, just listen, then thank them for sharing with you and being honest. Now just think about what they said or if you cannot ask them, ask an aunt or uncle; and if that is not possible, move into your mind’s eye and ask your brain what might have been going on with them. You cannot undo the past. You can create a healthier future by resolving the emotional angst and letting it go. Sometimes the best you can do is acknowledge that it was their baggage and not yours. If you hang onto “why” and “if only,” you are allowing the rejection to continue to taint your life. If you have the opportunity and choose to ask the question, sometimes there are amazing results. If not, you at least can validate that your perceptions were accurate and move on.

For example: while waiting in line recently, the woman next to me began to chat about recently reconnecting with her parents 40+ years after she had left Asia as a small girl with her older brother—whom she was very close to. During all those years she had wondered “why my parents rejected me.” Her parents said that she had begged to go to American with her brother but they had refused and locked her in her bedroom. Somehow she had climbed out of her bedroom window, caught up with her brother, and he had taken her with him to America. As they talked together, the woman began to get glimpses in her mind’s eye of running down the street after her brother, crying, and calling to him to take her with him. The woman said “I’m so glad I finally got up the courage to ask them why they had rejected me. Turns out they hadn’t!” Admittedly, things don’t always turn out like this—but unless you try, all you are left with are your own perceptions. There are always two sides to the same story and your brain only has your side—until and unless it is willing to look at the other side. If you cannot do that with actual people because they no longer are alive, you can do that by imagining what the other side of the story might have been. In that process, you just might recall a tidbit or two that may be very helpful.

And finally, if you did not receive the quality of parenting you wanted, one of your developmental tasks and personal growth can be to re-parent yourself. That means, taking care of yourself in the way you would have liked your parent(s) to take care of you.