In my sessions the thing I hear from many clients is “I don’t want to turn out like my father”, or “I am not going to treat my son like my mother treated me”.
It’s common for people who had difficult relationships with their parents to hold such views. The challenge for many people is that “not being like one’s parents” can be a difficult task to achieve.
What makes us similar to our parents?
There are many influences to the development and forming of an adult personality and genetics aside, much of this influence comes from those who raise us. In family and systems therapies, there is a term called “Multi Generational Transmission process”; this is a term that describes the process of how a developing person takes on attributes and qualities from their family of origin and makes these qualities and attributes their own. Most often the qualities of a parent, which they are not aware of, are the qualities the parent tends to project onto their child. For example, a mother, who is not aware of how they may manipulate their spouse, could begin to see these same learnt manipulative qualities in their child and then come to the conclusion they have a manipulative offspring. The offspring, being told over and over not to be so manipulative ends up swallowing the fact that they must be the manipulative one in the family and they begin to view themselves in the same light as the mother does. Typically this locks into place a dynamic where the mother and child only see the child to be the manipulative one and in this, the mother’s own manipulative traits stay out of her awareness.
The shadow of the unseen parent
When we vow never to be like our parents in some way we deny the fact that we hold the same capacity to do the same things that they did. Often this stifles much more of the person than only the parts they are trying to avoid. For example, a man who grew up with a father who was very angry may vow never to be angry for they know how damaging this can be to a child. Over time, this person loses their sense of power, as power cannot be developed in a person without the correct use of their natural anger. In negotiations they are more likely to back down whenever things get tense, for fear of being angry, and in doing so they set up a pattern of not getting what they need. The tail end of this is that the longer they go without getting what they need, the angrier they are likely to become. And eventually the person will explode, allowing their anger to rise. After this they typically feel remorseful for the way they showed their anger in negotiating their needs and they vow never to be angry again, which leaves the anger once again building and building and thus the cycle continues.
Unfortunately, denying these aspects of oneself is like shaking a bottle of Pepsi and leaving the lid on. The pressure builds and when the lid is twisted just a little bit, half the can fizzes out and it makes a real mess, just as we do with blocked anger, fear, grief and other disowned feelings and aspects of ourselves.
The real tell tale sign this is happening is when I hear somebody say “ that wasn’t like me at all to get so upset/scared/angry about this” . This statement reveals that the parts of the person that “fizz over”, to use the pepsi analogy, have not been recognised as part of who this person is.
How can one move on from unliked and unwanted family traits?
As I mentioned, the aspects of oneself that are resisted and denied become interrupted in their organic development and are misunderstood and lost to their owners. Many people think that by accepting those traits similar to our parents will mean defeat, giving in, or it will be a cop out to just accept being like them.
What is often misunderstood in these situations is that by accepting those parts, we don’t end the journey we actually begin the journey.
When we meet those parts that are like our parent, without trying to change or judge them, we then have the opportunity to move and grow as a person, which often means those traits actually change over time as the person, and those aspects within them, develop.
So the paradox is that if one wants to truly change the parts of them selves that are like their parents, the first step is to accept the ways in which they are like their parents.
When we deny these parental traits, it’s like trying to travel somewhere by reading a road map while not knowing where we are starting from. It becomes impossible to take the first step. And the first step, as it is in many forms of personal development and healing, is to accept it.
Its only when the disowned parts of oneself are acknowledged and accepted that there is then room for these parent-created pasts to move and change. Once the denied aspect is allowed a voice and a place in oneself, the true needs and requirements of that aspect typically emerges.
For example if it’s the parental anger which has been finally owned and accepted by the off spring as their own, what typically occurs is an understanding of what the person was really trying to achieve through the anger. Once this is realised the anger changes form and the person becomes different with their anger in themselves and behaves differently with their anger in relationship with others. Ultimately, the more we resist those parts of ourselves that behave similar to our parents, the more we actually stay like them. And the more we can accept these parts as our own the more likely we can grow and evolve them.