It’s one of the most subtle, underlying questions that I hear in various forms nearly every day in my office. Some version of, “Am I going to become like my parents?”, or “Please don’t let me turn into my parents.”
Some people believe that they are doomed to the fate of carrying on their parents worst qualities, while others try their hardest to be as different from their parents and their parents’ values as possible with the hope of drowning out any possible identification with their parents.
Realistically, there are pieces of our primary caretakers in all of us. Parents, siblings, grandparents (if they were consistently in the picture), and any extended family who were closely involved. The people who were most consistently and closely in our lives throughout our upbringing are going to in some ways live through us. Some of these qualities we may be a happy with, some we’ll wish to be rid of, and some we may merely just tolerate.
The question really shouldn’t be, “Am I going to be like my parents?”, it should really be, “Which parts of my parents do I not want to live out through me?”
People generally tend to pay more attention to the qualities that were most burdensome growing up. For example, if your father was very impatient, and would become quick to frustrate, you may now consciously desire to be more patient and go with the flow more easily so you don’t embody this same quality. However, you may find yourself reacting impatiently or frustratedly as a natural unconscious reaction to things.
Or, if your mother tended to be dismissive of other people, you may now consciously desire to give more active attention to others. However, you may find yourself reacting dismissively to people when you’re not conscious of this.
The issue of carrying on negative traits of our parents (and it should be noted that the impact of siblings here is often understated) is when we lack self-awareness. When people are in stable, relaxed states, it’s easier to control who we want to be. But when we become activated in some way, it can be easier to lose track of the desire to act differently than what we’re already used to. For example, if you’re a parent who grew up with a yelling and punishing parent, and your child does something that triggers you, it may be your first reaction to yell and punish, unless you’re able to regulate yourself to consciously change the response.
How Do You Change This?
If you don’t want to repeat the internal or external states of your parents, the key is become aware of the traits you may already be living out.
Once you’re aware of how you don’t want to be like your parents (and what you can tolerate, or are happy with), you can work to change the patterns and dynamics that set up the repetitions. This may take some work in therapy — learning these patterns, dynamics, triggers, and new ways to respond internally and externally. It isn’t always as simple as a behavioral change, as much as it’s learning how to respond in new ways, both internally and externally.
The reason that people have such a hard time changing these patterns at times is because it’s what they know. The world we each grew up in is the world we know. It’s in the unconscious from childhood, and formulates part of who you are. Therefore, the repetitions of our parents’ qualities are familiar and, in some way, comfortable to the point that it becomes our first unconscious response. (And, there’s also the added complexity of our unconscious desires to remain close to our parents, so we retain certain qualities in order to maintain a sense of “home”.).
So are we doomed to becoming our parents?
Yes and no. We can certainly identify and work on the areas that we don’t want to have living through us, while at some point we have to accept that some parts of our parents are going to live through us. If you don’t want to be controlling of your partner, or intrusive to your children, or any other elements of your parents that you may carry forward without awareness — the more we can learn about ourselves and gain awareness, the more we can make adjustments to be who we want to be.