One of the essential spokes of the growth and healing wheel is being willing to see our parents clearly. As children, we almost have no choice but to see our parents as infallible heroes and gods, and many people continue to carry these fantasies into adulthood. But if we’re to know ourselves, which is essential to healing ourselves, we need to know where we come from. We need to be able to trace at least some of the lines of our negative patterns back to their origin.
This origin doesn’t always lie with our parents, of course. We are social beings and subject to many other sources of influence; siblings, peers, religion, and education all play a fundamental role in our development (as does temperament, personality type, and learning style). In fact, I’m often surprised and disheartened by how little attention these other factors – like sibling relationships – have received in terms of understanding our development of self. Likewise, we psychologically and culturally minimize the impact that a first breakup can have on our ability and willingness to love. From my work with clients I’ve learned that sometimes a seemingly minor event or interaction can cause the greatest pain. The sources of our wounds are many.
But the impact that not only our relationship with each individual parent but also our parents’ relationship with each other has on our belief system, sense of self-worth, and messages about intimate relationships cannot be denied. If we are to awaken from beneath the multi-layered blankets of slumber called fantasy, denial, and collusion that are necessary by-products of childhood (we often needed these defense mechanisms in order to retain any sense of self during our growing up years), we need to peel the protective layer off of the story we’ve told ourselves about our parents and our family and be willing to see the truth.
For just as there’s no perfect partner and no perfect job and no perfect city or house, there’s also no perfect childhood. Perfection simply doesn’t exist on this human realm. When I have a client who says, “I had a fantastic childhood. My parents were so loving and they have a great marriage and they were so good to us,” my ears prick up. It’s not that I don’t believe that all of those things were and are true. But it’s not the whole picture. Parents are human, and every human on this planet has places of pain that, when unrecognized, are passed down to their kids in some way.
This isn’t about vilifying or blaming your parents; they were only passing down what was passed down to them. It’s simply about recognizing that for all the positive ways that they parented you, there were beliefs and messages that weren’t positive. As much as they may have learned to attend to their own pain and cognitive distortions that were handed down from their parents, there were inevitable blind-spots that rendered them incapable of seeing you fully or supporting your emotional life more compassionately. The truth is that most parents have no idea how to attend to their own or their kids’ “negative” emotions and instead pass down an emotional and psychological coat of arms that says something like, “I can’t handle your big feelings. Get over it. You will be loved if you’re good, which means successful and obedient and you don’t make too many waves.” Your awakening depends on identifying the values embedded your family’s coat of arms and deconstructing the story.
As we’re deconstructing the family story and we begin to see the intergenerational patterns, my clients will often ask, “How do I avoid passing on these patterns to my kids? I want to do it differently. How will I know when I’ve dealt with enough of my ‘stuff’ that I’m ready to have kids?”
My first response is, “It’s never enough,” by which I mean that we’re always learning, always growing, always shedding negative patterns and beliefs and stepping more fully into our wholeness. If we waited until we were fully healed we would never have kids. At forty-five, I have infinitely more wisdom about my own trigger-points and negative habits than I did at thirty-two when my first son was born. I’m healthier, our marriage is healthier, and I have no doubt that if we had our son today he would be healthier as well. But we had our son when we were meant to have him, and I trust that whatever negative traits, beliefs, and behaviors we’ve passed down him will be part of his own soul-path of healing and growing. I also trust that as I awaken and attend to deeper and deeper layers of my own defense mechanisms, my inner work and healing naturally ripples down to my kids. As I heal, they heal.
My second response is, “Just by asking that question, you’re psychologically ahead of most people who have kids.” In other words, when you set the intention of not repeating painful and unhealthy family patterns, you’ve already done a significant piece of the work. Awareness is the first step toward change.
My third response is to encourage my clients to keep doing their inner work and, if they haven’t done so already, to be willing to crack the polished veneer on the family story. There needs to be a willingness to shine a light into the dark spots, which are the places that your parents don’t want you to see or can’t see themselves. This takes courage, of course. But if you can’t see the patterns you can’t break the patterns, and every family has toxic intergenerational patterns that need to be illuminated and then healed in order to serve the next generation.
There are many common themes I see in my work with clients, particularly around the connection between family legacy and relationship anxiety. For example, if you come from a family who places a high premium on being extroverted, including social fluency and humor, and your partner is the quieter, more awkward type, it’s likely that your anxiety will hang its hat on that hook. The covert message that may have never been explicitly communicated is that those who are funny, socially comfortable, and the life of the party are respected more than those who tend toward the more introverted end of the spectrum. When an adult-child is still hooked into receiving their parents’ approval, their anxiety-stories gravitate toward their partner’s traits that don’t fall in line with the family value code.
Another common example: Many of my clients were raised by parents who had a clear expectation that their kids would be “successful” in terms of achievements and accolades. These are generally parents who pushed their kids not only to do well in school but filled their after-school hours with sports and activities. The message may never have been explicitly spoken, but it didn’t have to be; children of these well-meaning but misguided parents grow up believing that their self-worth is dependent on external success. This, of course, leads to a watery sense of self, which then leads to difficulty making decisions and self-doubt.
There are countless other examples I could give of how the family coat of arms is passed down, but what’s essential is that you start to become curious about your own family’s patterns. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you’re deconstructing the family story:
- How did my parents handle my pain?
- How did my parents handle their own pain?
- What was the message I learned about my lovability and worth? Fill the following: In order to be loved, I had to _______________________.
- What were the overt messages I received about myself from my parents?
- What were the covert messages I received about myself from my parents?
- What did I learn about love from my parents’ relationship with each other?
- What temperament and personality traits did/do my parents value? (extroversion or introversion; social or homebody; serious or funny, etc)
We are entrained in invisible ways, following in footsteps, handprints, and heart memories we cannot see. When we shine the light of curiosity on these hidden maps, our inner world opens and the calcified patterns begin to soften. Then we start a new story, perhaps one based more on connection than separation, more on love than fear. We do this not only for ourselves and future generations, but also for the world.