As peaceful as this walk on an autumn day may look, are we sure we want to be like these people? Photo via Flickr user matryosha
Aside from saying, “I’m cutting you off financially to teach you the value of money,” the greatest weapon in your parents’ tool kit is the fear-inducing “You’re going to be just like me someday” line. Of course, this seems insane at first. Your parents haven’t listened to new music since they were 25, seem perpetually stressed, have no idea how to work a Snapchat filter, and barely speak to each other.
But then the further you get into “adulthood,” the more you notice that cliché prophecy coming true.
Moving away for college made me realize that I was a lot more like my parents than I wanted to be. I worried if my roommates didn’t come home from a night out, I freaked out about technology when I couldn’t figure out how to setup the WiFi, and I was always nagging everyone when it was their turn to take out the garbage.
My parents are great people (I’m required to say this), but of course, there are some (maybe many) things about them that I don’t want to inherit. Naturally, I’ve been trying to avoid turning into them. But all I’ve accomplished so far is not worrying too much if my roommate was up at 4 AM throwing hash browns at people and stealing their cigarettes.
Now that I’m back home with my fam for the summer, and hopefully not much longer than that, I’m even more aware of their habits that have been passed on to me. So I asked some experts if there were any strategies for people to avoid turning into their parents.
Victoria Donahue has a masters degree in counseling psychology, and she is a psychotherapist and coach. Dr. Daniel Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and postgraduate education from UCLA. Dr. Siegel has written many books, including The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are and Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Catherine Lee, PhD, is a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa and her teaching includes family psychology.
How do your clients react after becoming aware of the fact that they’re ending up like their parents?
Victoria Donahue: They’re shocked. They say, “I vowed to never be like this, and this is what I’ve become. I’m continuing the pattern.” I see this the most when I’m working with people who have just become parents themselves. That’s when they’re like, “Holy shit, I’m becoming like my parents.” It’s scary.
It invokes fear in people because this is something that they didn’t want to reenact, and now they are. And they’re like, Holy shit.
Do you see a lot of people who have struggled with who they’ve become because of their parents?
Actually a lot of people come in for things not to do with their parents—they’ll talk about work or their relationships—but they don’t even realize that there is a connection to their parents. Almost all the of the time it goes back to their attachments with their own parents that they reenact in their relationships, especially their intimate relationships.
What do you mean by the attachment with parents?
There are different types of attachment styles. You could be safe in an attachment style, or you could be insecure. So let’s say that your parents weren’t always available—your mother was depressed while you were growing up, so she wasn’t there for you emotionally—that creates an insecure attachment where you don’t feel safe in the relationship. So those patterns will be re-triggered.
So is it very easy to turn into our parents, especially if they’ve been a negative influence?
Yes, it’s very easy, especially for those who are not aware or conscious of it. The reason it is so common is because between eighty to ninety percent of our life, we’re actually operating on the unconscious level. Most of our interactions are unconscious. For the most part, people start acting like their parents and start inheriting attributes from our parents when we’re infants and toddlers. Their brains are actually programmed by our caregivers to act and behave in the world. So it actually starts much younger.
What sort of things could someone do to not turn into their parents?
Awareness is one hundred percent the first step to not turning into a parent. Let’s say you’re really stressed, and you’re with your partner, and you’re all worked up. And when your parent was angry and stressed, he or she would snap at people. Well, when you’re stressed, it’s even harder to realize that you’re reenacting these patterns. So you have to work on reducing your stress level and at the same time, realizing you don’t have to snap and be nasty to other people like your parent did. Doing things differently than our parents have done, and by repeating that again and again, we’re creating new pathways. So that’s how we change from becoming like our parents.
Could you explain more about these pathways?
Neuropathways and neuroscience, for the past ten to twenty years, have really shed light on how we become like our parents and how our brains form. When we’re stressed and can’t think properly, we go to those neuropathways that have always been formed from when we were infants. It’s like if you were walking in a forest, and there’s no path, and you have to create one. The more you walk on that path, the clearer it becomes. You do the same thing in your brain, and when you create and use that new pathway—who you want to be and how you want to react—rather than going to that old path that you learned from your parents. That’s how you create new habits and new ways of behaving around other people.
Related: Watch our Weediquette documentary, ‘Stoned Moms‘