Recently, I was working with a man who seemingly has all life has to offer. With lots of money, he owns his own business, has a great wife, good kids, and enough freedom and money to do whatever he wants yet, he is unhappy. His misery is so engrained that he has come to accept his pain as just the way it is. However, one of his strengths is that he learned to channel the energy/anxiety from this depression and turn it into a force that motivates and keeps him going on with life. But still, at his core he is not a happy person despite all the outward appearances.
During one of our sessions, we were discussing his 17 year old daughter. He remarked how living with her was like living with his ex-wife. If you have an ex-partner, maybe you can imagine this was not a pleasant realization! I agreed with him that it would be exactly like living with his ex-wife, as his daughter’s emotional patterns and some behaviors would be just like her mom’s. Seeing his confusion, I explained. Most pre-teens or teenagers have said the mantra I will not be like my mom/dad at least a thousand times. We make diligent efforts to not be like our parents, yet one day we wake up and realize we are more like them than we care to be. YIKES! So we set off to change our behavioral pattern but where we fall short is in exploring the emotional pattern that creates the behavior. For example, if a parent yells a lot and we decide we don’t want to yell, then we will work hard at not yelling. But, we will substitute another behavior, like not speaking to whomever we are angry at, or slamming things. Typically, we are not taught that emotion underlies all behavior and that we need to heal emotions in order to break dysfunctional behavior patterns. For example, when people quit smoking cigarettes, yet still crave them six months later, it is because the emotions involved with smoking have not been healed. The same thing applies to dieting. When we can not stick to a diet, or gain weight right back after losing it, it is because we have emotional issues to contend with that are driving our need to over eat. Or we may stop one behavior and then substitute another behavior that seems different but is really the same. For example, we stop eating excessively, but start exercising excessively, stop over spending, but go from relationship to relationship. All of these examples are forms of escape behavior and if the emotions creating the need for escape are not healed then the need will persist. We have to have an outlet for the emotion. Emotional/ behavioral connection is true of ALL behavior, whether we realize it or not. We learn our emotional patterns by diligently studying our parents almost from birth. So it is almost impossible not to grow up to be just like them, as we have spent our whole lives studying them. Of course most of this is done on a subconscious level, so we are not consciously aware of the process taking place.
My client, who likes to challenge my every word, bought all if this until I said that the same concept applies to boys and their fathers. Now, the discussion was getting too close to home, as he has a really low opinion of his father. Underneath the surface I know my client doesn’t want to see how his own dishonesty is the same as his father’s stealing from him. Nor does he want to see how his father’s compulsive gambling is borne of the same anxiety that leads to his own obsessive/compulsive tendencies. To my client, the fact that his father never double checks himself means they are vastly different, as my client triple checks everything. However, what is the same is the fear and anxiety that creates the behaviors for both father and son.
Having never met my client’s father, I can confidently say his father has a lot of fear and a lack of self trust. How can I say that? Because my client has a lot of fear and doesn’t trust. How do I know that he did not learn these things from his mom? Because my client learned how to be a man, how to live in a man’s skin, how to feel like a man by observing his father. We all do this. We learn to be women by observing mom and men learn how to be men by watching dad. This is not exclusive as we do get some strengths and challenges from the opposite sex parent but the primary patterns come from the same sex parent. That is part of the subconscious studying we do during our childhood.
So how do we heal this stuff? When we say I am not like my mom, I am not like my father we are probably looking at the superficial, easily seen, behavioral level. Again, behaviorally we may seem very different. However, we have to see how our emotional patterns are alike before we can begin to make progress in our own healing. Start with the premise. How am I like my mom/father? and make a list of the similarities, both emotional and behavioral. This opens the door for us to objectively examine the core of who we are. Be sure to examine both strengths and challenges. While we learned our challenges from our parents they also gave us our strengths that we can then use to overcome our challenges. It is also a good exercise to acknowledge our strengths because we are usually so hard on ourselves that it helps our self esteem to explore our gifts. When starting to explore our challenges some people will have a sense of shame because we are acknowledging our own bad behavior. Please, don’t use this as a reason to beat yourself up. We all make mistakes, this is why we are called human and it is just part of the life process. For me, it was easier to see my destructive emotional patterns by first figuring out what the emotional challenges were behind my mom’s actions and then applying them to myself. At first it was very difficult, as I had dutifully said the mantra I will not be like my mom, so some of my behaviors were different. But, by not letting myself off the hook and exclaiming Whew, we ARE different, I stuck to the uncomfortable exploration and the patterns then became clear rather quickly. When I saw my mom’s controlling behaviors, anxiety, fear of rejection, etc. it was much easier to apply these things to myself. I asked myself what do I do that is out of anxiety? How do I control others in relationships? How am I insincere with others? There were also times that I really worked on releasing the various hurts and fears pent up inside by reliving those memories while journaling, crying, or yelling, as the emotion came up. All of these exercises are designed to bring awareness to the patterns that are creating problems for us and release the emotion so that we can make permanent positive changes. While it is not an easy process it is one that is necessary and provides a big reward. Peace.
Cynthia Pickett, MSW, LCSW, LADC