“The beautiful thing about life is that you always change, grow, and get better. You aren’t defined by your past. You aren’t your mistakes.” ~Unknown
When I was an angsty fourteen-year-old, I remember screaming at my parents that I never (ever!) wanted to become like either of them. And I meant it.
My dad was a workaholic who was never at home. When he was at home, he was emotionally unavailable, arguing with my mother, or he’d escape the stress of our house by going to the betting shop to gamble.
My mother had erratic mood swings, did not allow me to have age-appropriate boundaries, and would talk to me about the lack of intimacy between her and my father. These were, unfortunately, not role models that inspired me.
As I entered my twenties and experienced adult life for the first time, I continued to carry the ideation that my life would be different. I was determined not to become my parents. And for many years, I naively lived life proudly thinking I had not turned into them.
Then, one day, I opened my mouth and heard my mother’s voice come out. I can’t even remember what I said, but I recall the feeling of utter despair. Despite all my thinking and wishing over the years, I had become my parents. This prompted me to reflect on my life so far, and I realized that I had repeated many of my parents’ patterns.
I had become a workaholic to avoid feeling my emotions, was in an abusive relationship but didn’t realize this until well after it had ended, and I struggled to know how to develop healthy friendships due to difficulties setting boundaries.
Shit. Damn. Bugger it.
I’d accidentally become my parents! Why was all my thinking and wishing over the years not enough to stop this from happening? I thought that I had more control over my life than this.
During my own self-discovery journey, I found that there are many reasons why we repeat the same family patterns. I also learned that we can change them.
Humans learn from watching and copying other people’s behavior, and children are sponges that soak up everything in their environment.
For example, when I was a child, I remember my dad ordering a meal at a restaurant, and the vegetables on his plate were stone cold. Instead of sending the meal back and asking for hot veggies, he complained about how terrible the restaurant was and ate the cold meal. When I became an adult, I struggled to assert myself in similar situations, which led to a lot of anger and resentment.
Learned behavior is not just a one-time thing. It is passed down from generation to generation.
For instance, my paternal grandparents lived through the Great Depression in the 1930s, before my dad was born.
They taught my dad that food was a scarce resource, so he carried this belief with him into his adulthood, and subsequently passed this down to me through not being able to model assertive behaviors.
This is called intergenerational trauma because the unhealthy family dynamics continue throughout new generations. Generally, intergenerational trauma is defined by events that affect people profoundly, such as child abuse, parental incarceration, poverty, war, natural disasters, etc.
Sometimes, we aren’t even aware that our family dynamics are unhealthy, or we might be aware but are too scared to change. This is usually because humans have a strong desire to be accepted and belong. In fact, this is very important for our survival.
For some people, repeating those family dynamics means that they continue to be a part of the family unit.
From a young age, I was often labelled as the ‘black sheep’ of the family, because I voiced the unspoken, toxic family rules. It became easier for me to distance myself from my family rather than remain enmeshed in a family environment that was detrimental to my mental health and well-being.
The good news is we can change our patterns so that we don’t become (or continue to be) our parents.
The first step is to be aware of the unhelpful patterns that you’re carrying with you. Without awareness, we cannot change.
I started by asking myself what emotions I experienced frequently and whether they ever seemed like they were out of context or disproportionate to the situation.
One emotion I often struggled with was jealousy. Whenever a friend would share something positive about their life—if they got a new car, got a promotion at work, or won a competition—my go-to emotion was jealousy.
This impacted my friendships, as I was constantly comparing my life to theirs and driving them away by trying to find ways to make sure my life was more successful. This led to perfectionism in everything that I did, and let me tell you, it was exhausting! I couldn’t maintain this lifestyle, and I felt like I was drowning.
When I hit a low point after my relationship ended, I sought therapy. Through therapy, I learned that the reason I compared myself to other people so frequently was due to the beliefs I held about myself. I didn’t feel like I was good enough as I was. This made a lot of sense when we explored the relationship I had with my parents.
They regularly compared me to other kids and were only proud of me when I performed better than anyone else. It made sense that, as an adult, I would experience strong feelings of jealousy toward other people. Jealousy meant that I was constantly trying to prove my worth to other people rather than living life on my own terms.
I then looked at my beliefs about this situation/emotion and thought about where and when those beliefs developed. Identifying the patterns behind my behavior was a positive first step in my inner healing journey, because you can’t heal what you don’t know.
Because I wasn’t taught what emotions were or how to understand my emotions as a kid, I needed to learn how to do this as an adult.
My therapist helped me to better understand the motivations behind our emotions and develop new strategies to cope with these.
For example, with my jealousy, I learned that this was a response from fear and insecurity. I was able to learn to identify my thoughts, and when I realized that I wasn’t actually unworthy but rather that was the story I had learned from my parents, I was able to choose different behaviors instead of continuing to follow the same old patterns as before.
I recognized that perfectionism meant I worked too much, so I learnt how to slow down through mindfulness and yoga. Once I was able to recognize my emotions for what they were, rather than reacting to them without awareness, I was able to make better choices about how I wanted to respond to that emotion.
Having that space to understand my emotions meant that I could move out of the comparing myself to other people situation, and I was able to step into the entrepreneurial space and create a business that I love. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t done the inner work to change and not become my parents.
I learned this was why my wishful thinking didn’t work. I knew I didn’t want to be like my parents, but without additional support from a therapist, I didn’t know what to do instead! Therapy helped me learn how to deal with old patterns in new ways.
From there, it was all about practice. These habits and patterns existed for many, many years. I knew they would not change overnight. However, with perseverance and practice, I was able to make meaningful changes in my life. I found it helpful to keep a journal to record my progress so that I didn’t forget how far I’d come.
Finally, it was important for me to remember that my parents are human too. In addition to recognizing the unhelpful habits they taught me, I found it useful to remember some of the positive traits or experiences I’ve gained.
Even though my dad was a workaholic, he instilled a strong work ethic in me, which has helped me when creating my own business. My mother loved to travel, and she has definitely passed that love to me as well.
Reminding myself of these things allows me to acknowledge my parents’ humanness, especially in moments where I find it hard to offer them grace. For me, reminding myself of the positives is a way to honor my need to have compassion for myself.