When I first met Greg, he wasn’t eager to delve into his family history.
In our first few meetings he glossed over it, in fact. He said his father was a hard worker. His mother tended to the household. They had a good marriage. Then he moved on to discussing the problems he was currently facing.
Greg couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t getting more out of his work and relationship. Life was okay, but he felt a great deal of dissatisfaction and lack of fulfillment. He was a few years out of grad school and stuck in a mid-level marketing position. He was moving up, but wasn’t moving as quickly as he would like– In fact, he’d recently been passed over for a promotion; one he’d really thought he was qualified for.
When it came to his relationship, Greg said he couldn’t help but feel like his girlfriend wanted more from him, emotionally. When it came to connecting with her, he felt mostly indifferent. He reported that they got along fine and rarely fought. He loved her and didn’t want to break up, but he felt they were stagnant. He couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t someone else out there he’d be happier with. He feared he was settling. He resented her for not making him happy or being able to “fix” his ennui.
Greg’s wheel-spinning and lack of fulfillment aren’t uncommon. Many of the people I work with report very similar situations and feelings. We are deeply shaped by our parents.
When we began to delve into Greg’s family history, certain revelations – and even some unresolved issues with his parents – started to come to light. His father had worked for years in the steel industry. He’d worked long hours and hard labor. He had a strong work ethic; Greg never heard him complain. He rarely took a day off, however, and even when he had a heart attack in his 50’s he went right back to work the moment he recovered. His father had just passed away a few years prior to our meeting.
His mother, on the other hand, was the eternal optimist who constantly tried to paint everything as “okay” even when it wasn’t. Greg admitted there were times when he felt her optimism came across as phony, as though she was in denial. Yet, he often relied on his mother to build him up and boost his ego. At the same time, the family avoided confrontation and rarely, if ever, discussed feelings or frustrations. They went through their routine.
“I see myself becoming like my father,” Greg reported, “working myself to the bone, but never getting anywhere. Living a life that’s only status quo.”
To get to the core of Greg’s feelings, we had to explore his upbringing. We had to get to the patterns he was repeating, the relationships he was seeking, and the unresolved issues he was avoiding because of Mom and Dad.
Becoming Our Parents
The majority of your attachments, beliefs, and ideals were formed by the time you were six. Many well before that. You were either taught as a baby, “The world is safe, I can express my emotions. I’m comforted and cared for,” or you were taught, “I need to look out for myself. I can’t trust the world around me.”
There’s a strain of each of these beliefs threaded into all of us. None of us had a perfect childhood or perfect parents (and if you think you did, you’re in denial)!
The good news is, whether you had an idyllic childhood or not, you can break free from any family pattern you desire. Because your parents lived out a passionless marriage, worried about money, never fought, always fought or worked themselves to the bone, doesn’t mean you are fated to do the same.
The first step is identifying these patterns and beliefs. How did your parents feel about work? Their friendships? Each other? Reflecting on the patterns we saw with our parents helps us quickly identify similarities in our own lives.
Here’s the deal: many people rebel or overcompensate because of a fear of being like their parents. They try so hard to prove they aren’t like Mom and Dad, they engage in the opposite, and sometimes even destructive behaviors: Mom and Dad were devout church-goers, so you shun anything to do with religion, denying yourself any positive spirituality or higher connections in your life. Mom and Dad were tight with money, so you spend yourself into deep debt to prove how open with money you are.
Instead of rebelling against or following our parents, we can identify the positive behaviors and strengths we wish to model in our own lives. We can identify the unresolved issues, weaknesses, and areas we wish to change, and move forward forging our own path.
As an adult, you are not beholden to the beliefs, lifestyle or structure set by your parents.
But first you must identify and admit where the cracks and limitations are, so you can move forward and repair them. This is a true challenge. Some don’t want to “blame” their parents and refuse to take them off their pedestal (parents are human, too) or accept that they exert any influence on their behavior at all. Others refuse to find the congruences in their own behavior believing they’ve already forged their own path.
Many people, like Greg, are haunted by the sense they may be falling into patterns set by their parents, and although they don’t want to make the same mistakes, they aren’t sure how to break free.
Using the Common Argument for Self-Exploration
What happens when someone tells us we’re like our parent? It pisses us off, right? In fact, when couples fight, what’s one of the most common insults?
“You’re just like your mother!”
It’s rarely, if ever, thrown around as a compliment. The truth? Most of us are, at least somewhat, similar to our parents. You may change the surface, get tattoos, dress differently, join a different church or political party… but deep down, there’s no escaping it: our fundamental behaviors and our relationships are often patterned after our parents.
This is why it cuts us to the core when our significant other points out what we’re trying so hard to push against.
This often-explosive argument generally cuts to the quick, especially when you have long dreaded being like your mother or father. Your partner plays on this, which is why these are fighting words. But if the argument is only a debate about who’s right or whether you really are like that parent, then it will go nowhere. If you’re fighting about a specific behavior or attitude you exhibit that is similar to that parent, though, then you can use it to burrow down to a richer, more productive conflict. Maybe you fear that your relationship will be just like that of your parents. Maybe you are exhibiting a parental behavior that you know is destructive, but you’re trying to communicate a more profound message to your partner about what’s missing in your lives.
Use the mother-father debate as a powerful lens into your past to see its impact on your present relationship—how your upbringing and your relationship with your parents affects you individually and as a couple—and what you can do to change it. Questions that lead to a deeper understanding include:
- What about the behavior that is like your mother or father is problematic for you?
- What feelings does it evoke?
- What would you like in its place?
- What is the desired behavior and outcome you want?
You will be dealing with the roots of your pain or anger, and you’ll be free to see and love your partner for who he or she is—not just as a projection of your parent or your past.
–The Heart of the Fight
In the case of Greg, and many others, the moment we were able to identify the core beliefs and behaviors set up by his parents, the faster he was able to overcome them.
He could see how he was expecting his girlfriend to swoop in and fix problems, like his mother had always done. He could see how he avoided confrontation and conflict; using work as a soft-addiction and insulation from intimacy, like his father. He started to address his feelings and discovered his girlfriend had underlying frustrations of her own. Once the cards were laid on the table they started battling towards bliss.
Greg pinpointed his fears of remaining in a mid-level position and how he viewed himself as a cog in the corporate machine, rather than an active contributor. He decided to seek out a more fulfilling position with a smaller company where his efforts received more recognition and he could play an active role in growth.
By examining our upbringing, we get to our core beliefs – and our underlying unresolved issues with parents from our upbringing. We understand what we need to work through and deal with. We get out of the destructive patterns set up by our parents and move into a life of more fulfillment, greater intimacy and stronger personal growth.
For more on strengthening your relationships, identifying and overcoming your unresolved issues, and finding new inspiration, please visit the Wright Foundation. We offer several workshops to help you address your familial relationships, get more from your connections and live the life you’ve always dreamed about.
The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.