Why You Might End Up Just Like Your Parents Even When You Really Don't Want to
And a therapist's exercise to find your own path
“Ugh, I hate how my mum always rambles on and on about stuff and never asks any questions,” I complained to my boyfriend. “It’s like she doesn’t even know what dialogue is.”
An hour later, I went on a rather passionate tangent about how annoying the topic of the university essay I was writing on was. No questions, no interaction, just a long fiery monologue — as was kind of typical of me.
I didn’t even ask him if he had the time to listen. I just started talking.
He gave me a pointed stare.
“Remember what you said about your mum?”
The Parent: Our DNA Schemer
Growing up, there was a thought circling at the back of my head 90% of the time when I saw my parents act in a certain way.
“I will never be like you.”
It’s happened to many of us. You see your parents sitting over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, not saying anything to each other, and you think, “This is what a dead relationship looks like.”
You witness them having an anger tantrum at the supermarket, and you turn away in embarrassment.
You feel like they’re always distant, never present, never able to actually listen to you — and you promise to yourself you’ll always, always pay attention when your future child speaks, no matter how tired you are.
Depending on your relationship with your parents, becoming like them can be a frightening idea. Yet I’ve seen it happen over and over again — even though we suffer as a consequence of our parents’ actions, we often end up doing the exact same thing in our intimate relationships and families.
It’s like we’re in some weird determinist scheme, pawns that always move in the same direction because their fate is encoded in their DNA.
Well, not completely. DNA might actually have very little to do with this.
There is a way to not be like your parents — but first, we need to get into the nitty-gritty of why this phenomenon even happens.
The Parent: Our God, Our Nemesis
Remember when you were an infant?
Unfortunately, the way your parents acted when you were at your most vulnerable has affected your entire psyche to the point where you might still struggle in adulthood, and not even know what the root cause is in the first place.
Pretty scary stuff.
Apart from developing specific kinds of attachment that will further intervene in your romantic relationships, growing up comes with a whole set of patterns of behaviour and attributes you learn from your closest caregivers.
Assael Romanelli Ph.D. talks about something called “scripts”:
“The way families transmit their traditions and behaviors is through family scripts. These scripts describe the acceptable ways to behave, speak, and even think. It is essentially the shared expectation of how life should be.”
The way your mum washes the dishes? Yeah, that might actually be only her way of doing it. More precisely, her ancestors’ way — with each new generation, knowledge and habits are automatically inherited, often without a second thought.
My mum still nags at me when I don’t fold the clothes “the right way”, which is really her way, which is really her grandmother’s grandmother’s way.
And imagine my bafflement when I found out the toilet roll is more commonly arranged with the tail facing the front!
You get the point.
The way you clean your house, the rules for walking around naked, the cleaning protocols (or the lack thereof), these are all what Romanelli refers to as replicative scripts. You’re engaging in a replicative script when you repeat what your parents have taught you automatically.
Corrective scripts, on the other hand, happen when you realize how much you don’t want to be like your parents, and you distance yourself from their way of life.
I, for one, moved to a different country. It worked out pretty well, except for the fact that most of the behaviour you inherit is within you, not around you, therefore I still had to unlearn lots of things.
Improvised scripts are my favourite: they don’t actually arise from anything connected to your parents. When you don’t try to run away from them or when you don’t automatically repeat their behaviour, you come up with your own way of doing things — it’s not the same, and it’s not the opposite.
It’s somewhere in between. Which is always the nicest place to be, if you ask me.
When you think about it, it’s understandable that we are so intrinsically linked to our parents’ behaviour. Your journey through life is largely defined by your dependence on them and your cutting of this bond to a certain degree when you depart from home.
As a child, you saw them as Gods. You couldn’t have done otherwise. The parent was an idealized version of safety, security, and love. The older you grow, though, the more you become aware of their faults — and the more you distinguish yourself from them.
The problem in all this? No matter if you’re trying your hardest to not end up like your parents or if you’re just repeating the very same patterns without thinking about it too much, you’re still defining yourself through them. Both can be really harmful, just in different ways.
And while a large chunk of your inherited habits will probably stay, there is always a way to free yourself from the shackles that are your parents’ patterns. There is always a way to be a better partner, parent, and person overall.
You: The Individual
It’s not your fault when you unconsciously repeat your parents’ behaviour. A psychotherapist and coach, Victoria Donahue, has told Vice:
“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.”
She compares this to a path in the forest — if you have to quickly choose which way to go, it’s easiest to walk down the one that’s already been created and walked through hundreds of times.
For most of our life, we operate unconsciously. This makes the whole walking-down-the-path-we-don’t-want-to-choose-yet-still-choose-nonetheless even more understandable.
If you don’t want to become like your parents, you literally have to reprogram your brain. It’s a lot of work. And when you do in fact try your best to be the very opposite, you often draw your attention to the issue too much and therefore attract the unwanted into your life.
Not to mention that running to the complete opposite of the scale might be just as bad, only in a different way.
Romanelli actually offers a great method that might make things easier, though. You see, self-awareness is the first step. Wanting to not be like your parents does nothing if you don’t truly work on becoming self-aware.
If you realize what it is you’re doing — be it a replicative or a corrective script — you have the power to change the story. Romanelli gives us a step-by-step exercise:
- On a piece of paper, draw three columns. One is for replicative scripts, one for corrective, and one for improvised.
- Brainstorm about the different things you do based on the scripts’ descriptions, and then write them in the separate columns. What patterns are you replicating? What are you trying really hard not to do? This ranges from small things like what you always put in your first drawer to the ways you express love.
- Write down improvised scripts as well — these are often things you’ve learned after becoming an adult and moving out of your parents’ house that have nothing to do with them. I, for instance, learned how to clean my bathroom in a specific way because of a housekeeping job I used to have.
- Circle the scripts you like and the ones that you feel are limiting you.
- If you have a partner, it can be super helpful for your relationship to do this exercise together. After you’re done writing and circling, you can discuss everything and decide which scripts can be beneficial for your relationship and which you should try to get rid of.
- Be conscious of your choices as you try to adhere to these new scripts you’ve agreed on.
Nobody is perfect, of course, so there will always be mishaps and failings along the way. As long as you persist, however, the future is bright and full of less parental influence. Hurray!
As Romanelli pointedly says, self-awareness is everything:
“Can the apple fall far from the tree? Perhaps, but only if the apple is conscious of the tree it came from.”
Oh, and one more thing: let’s not forget that there might always be nice things our parents do that are actually good to replicate.
That whole thing about them sitting in silence over a cup of coffee? After spending 20 years with someone by your side, it might actually not be a sign of a dead relationship at all… but rather a sign of a peaceful bond where words are no longer needed.
Sometimes, it’s for the best when you find your own way of doing things, independent of your parents. And sometimes, the older you grow, the more you begin to understand the beauty behind what you used to hate.
It’s the blissful in-between.
If you liked this, you might enjoy reading another of my articles.
About the Creator
Student of Literature & Languages. I write about relationships, self-improvement, lifestyle, writing and mental health. Contact me: [email protected]
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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Hey! Found this article very insightful as well as relatable!