Yeah, me too.
This fear motivated the vast majority of my choices throughout my early twenties, and looking back, I was like a ping pong ball, violently reacting and bouncing from one thing to the next, always accompanied by the sinking sensation that, try as I might, I was turning into my parents.
A full decade later, I finally have more useful tools for dealing with this fear, tools that allow me to relate to my parents in a healthier, more compassionate way (most of the time) while maintaining my independence and the ability to learn from their choices. Let me tell you about a recent conversation with one of my parents that inspired me to make some changes in my own relationships.
My parent (I have multiple sets of parents, so this is my paltry attempt at obscuring to whom I might be referring) was describing interactions with their neighbors, and I was hearing a lot of definitive statements that, as a kid, I would have swallowed as irrefutable truth. Statements like, “This person was doing this, and that’s just not how we do things in the north.” (What, is this the Civil War or something?) Or “I had to explain to this person how they were obviously doing something wrong.” (Gee, how helpful!)
They also told me how, when they would knock on neighbors’ doors, oftentimes the people wouldn’t even hide the fact that they were home and purposefully not answering the door. My parent chalked this up to “how things are in the north” and not a result of their poor choices in how they related to their neighbors over the years.
What I heard in this conversation is something that I was told again and again as a child:
- The way I [my parent] do things is correct, and anyone making different choices is clearly wrong.
- I am tasked with telling people how wrong they are, and shame is a very good way of bringing people back in line.
- My beliefs and my reality form a universal truth that others should not violate.
Needless to say, this didn’t leave a lot of room for diversity of choice, and I grew up feeling very threatened by any realities that didn’t match up with mine, because there can only be one! And I also carried around the burden of having to “fix” everyone who didn’t see things my way. Sound obnoxious? Yeah, it was.
As my beliefs and choices began to diverge from my parent’s, I became the subject of that shaming and correcting. Sound obnoxious? Yeah, it was.
For years, this created massive amounts of friction in our relationship, but because I wasn’t in a place where I was able to observe my part in this dynamic, I would turn around and do the same thing to other people, perpetuating the cycle of wronging and shaming. And then…I started to meditate, and I started to watch myself. And it started to feel really icky.
This was when fears of becoming my parents really kicked up, like, a million notches. I was opening my eyes to all of the behaviors that I’d learned and taken up as my own crusade, in spite of vowing to do the opposite, and that was intensely painful to recognize. But on the other side of that pain was a glimmer of hope that things didn’t have to be this way. If I could see myself doing these things, maybe I could stop. And that became my mission in my thirties. It still is, in fact, and it likely will be for many years (decades?) to come.
Throughout this process, here’s what I have learned:
- Start by witnessing the behavior (just pick one) in your parent that you’re afraid of repeating. Try to maintain an attitude of openness and curiosity, like you’re Sherlock trying to deduce what is motivating your parent to act in this way. Smoking a pipe while you do so could help.
- See if you can muster up even a tiny shred of compassion for this person, even if it’s along the lines of, “Wow, that’s a really poor choice you’ve made. That must be really hard for you.” If you can’t, that’s okay. When we have decades of ick built up in a relationship, compassion can be a little tricky to find at times. It will come.
- Look honestly and gently at yourself and see if you have adopted this behavior and/or have behaviors or thoughts that are motivated from the same place. This is not a time for beating yourself up. Again, become an emotional Sherlock and try to uncover clues with as much neutrality as possible. The less shame you carry into this, the more clearly you will be able to see and the easier it will be to release these behaviors that are keeping you stuck. I like to respond with something like, “Huh. Look at me doing this thing. That’s interesting! I wonder why I’m doing that…” and so forth. Keep it gentle and take breaks whenever you feel yourself moving from curiosity to shame.
- Forgive yourself for adopting these behaviors. If you’re ready, forgive your parents for teaching these behaviors to you. This isn’t about absolving people of responsibility or allowing further damage; it’s about freeing yourself from the toxic emotions that are tangled up in holding grudges. You might have to repeat this step on a daily basis for, well, however long it takes.
- And finally, take an action, however small, to change and, in essence, to disprove your parents’ paradigm. Here’s an example: After going through the above process myself, I realized that I was engaging in behaviors that were isolating me from my neighbors in an unhealthy way. I wanted to challenge my parent’s paradigm that “this is how things are in the north,” so I went downstairs, knocked on my neighbors’ door, and surprised them with a handmade Easter present. This wasn’t about the gift, really; it was the first step in proving to myself that disconnection is a choice, and so is connection. I can choose to remain isolated or I can choose to reach out. I can choose to believe my parent, or I can choose to ask questions and be open to seeing things in a different way.
So, to recap:
Witness the behavior in your parent that you want to avoid and what might be motivating it.
If you can, drum up a little compassion for them.
See if you can recognize similar behaviors or motivations in yourself, and be gentle and loving as you do so.
Forgive yourself, forgive your parents.
Take a step to change this behavior and challenge your parents’ paradigm.
Rinse, wash, and repeat.