I decided pretty early in life that I was going to be very different from my parents. It seemed easy at the time to just watch their mistakes and avoid them. So why have I spent so much time over the years hating things about myself that seem to have come straight from them?
Some psychologists would argue that it’s because I learned their habits as I was growing up, so it’s all about the environment. Others might argue that the ways in which I’m like them are simply in my genes (and thus hard to overcome), so it’s all about nature.
I think it’s some of both, as I suspect most people believe today. I think most of us would like to believe we were born as blank slates and that whatever we have is just an accumulation of the “programming” that we got from our parents and whoever else raised us, but I don’t think that’s the case. Economist Bryan Caplan looked at all the studies he could find on the subject and concluded the opposite.
In his recent book, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think,” he argues that most of what kids are going to become is encoded in their genes. He says that the studies he looked at prove that most of the things parents do to change their kids have little effect. (Here’s an EconTalk podcast in which Caplan discusses the research and his conclusions. I highly recommend it.)
But whatever it is, why have I so often in the past heard things coming out of my mouth — or seen myself acting in certain ways — that seemed to be the ghost of my (still living) father within me?
I’m not a psychologist, so I have no formal credentials to answer that question, but I do have some thoughts about why most of us do it. (I’d argue that we all “channel” bits and pieces of our families, but since some people don’t notice it in themselves, I don’t want to get hung up on that point.)
I believe most of us take the path of least resistance — and that path leads to us becoming our parents, in whole or in part. Everyone makes a few decisions along the way that are different from the ones our parents made, so we’re not carbon copies, but I believe the less introspection and insight people have into themselves and human nature, the more they’re going to automatically morph into their parents as they age. If you don’t understand yourself well enough, you’re going to be shocked as you realize that you’ve become one of your parents at some point. It can be a painful realization.
My own conclusion is that we’re not destined to become what our parents are. We’re not doomed to repeat their mistakes. We’re not doomed to be like the things we hated in our family of origin or in our ancestors. But if you take the path of least resistance, those things are going to happen for you. And if that happens to you — and then you ever wake up to realize what you’ve done in allowing yourself to live this way — you’re going to hate yourself. And you’re going to hate your life.
You have two ways out of that, as far as I can see. You can either remain oblivious to what’s happening — as is the case with the vast majority — or you can look inward, get to know yourself, think deeply about what you learn and then take actions to make yourself an emotionally healthy person. It’s easy to say, but hard to really do. Half-measures won’t be good enough. If you just become somewhat aware of what’s going on, you’re simply going to hate the process as you see it taking place — as you slowly become aware of your transformation into your mother or your father.
In the last few years, I’ve had to change a lot of things in my life — and it started with a realization of what issues of my father’s had influenced me. It was difficult work, both emotionally and intellectually, and I didn’t get truly motivated to reach the root issues until I’d lost what I wanted most in my life (despite the fact that I’d already spent years thinking and reading about psychological issues).
Every now and then, I still feel hints of the old ways. But something that might once have made me raging and angry can now cause me to reflect and stop before reacting. Something that might once have made me feel under attack can now trigger the conscious thought that the thing I’m hearing from someone else probably isn’t an attack and doesn’t matter if it is. I’m able to walk away from things that caused me to engage in the past. And more than anything else, I’m able to be honestly vulnerable with others I care about.
Those things I just described learning to do are things that emotionally healthy people learn early in life. It took me longer than most for some of them, because I absorbed my early programming in my dysfunctional family of origin. It’s tough to get yourself honest enough with yourself that you can change in those ways, but I can say that it’s worth it, based on my own experience.
If you were fortunate enough to be raised in the last emotionally healthy family around, count yourself lucky. If you’ve read this far, though, and have the uneasy feeling that it somehow feels familiar, be honest with yourself. Get professional help if you need it. (You probably do.) Get really honest with yourself. Work really hard to learn and to discover who you really are. And then keep working to make your life what you want it to be.
It’s a lot of work, but the alternative is to slide down the path of becoming one of your own parents — whichever of them was the dominant influence for you. For most of us, that’s a terrifying and unhealthy thing. Change is hard, but it’s worth it.