How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ll never be like my father” (or mother).
Maybe someone said to you, “You know, your grandfather had a temper just like yours.” How shocked you were to hear such a false accusation.
You protest, “Not me,” or, “I’m never going to raise my children the way I was raised. …
“I will never be impatient like my father, or say those mean things to my children that were said to me. I will be different.”
These are noble intentions and commitments, particularly if your parents or other family members could be deeply hurtful and insensitive.
Within these commitments, however, there appears an inescapable truth: No matter how hard you try to lessen the impact of the past, the Legacy will haunt you and call you to task. It is inevitable.
This is not to make change sound daunting or to say inherited dysfunctionality is insurmountable — but rather to point out a reality we all face. The impact of the behaviors we witnessed and endured during our childhoods — for good and for ill — remain with us throughout our adult lives with a power that borders on the unimaginable.
As children we absorb the atmosphere of our environment — the subtle and not so subtle ways our parents and caregivers interacted with us and others. We may be positively influenced or we may be injured by their behaviors and values.
Nonetheless, we often mimic or mirror these behaviors, usually as a way of maintaining a strong tie or connection with those we love. We re-create these behaviors throughout our lives, often without “prereflective” thought or observance. (Prereflective thought comes when you think about what you are doing or saying either before you say or do something, or after you have said or done something. Either way you are thinking about your behavior and the impact on yourself and others.)
Often in family systems the impact on others or the self is insufficiently considered; the action is not prereflective.
For example, children are rarely consulted about decisions that inevitably affect them. Children are typically raised “to go along with” events and behaviors. The fallout or backlash often comes decades later, when unexpressed or unrecognized feelings rise passionately to the surface — usually triggered by an event or “a feeling” reminiscent of something that happened in childhood.
The value of reflection
Reflecting on our resulting behaviors can be uncomfortable and difficult. This requires maturity, responsibility, humility and grit. When haunted by the shadow of your abusive family members, you have an opportunity to pause and reflect. Here is an uncomfortable yet empowering chance to stand in the Legacy — not to recoil from its grip, but to confront its power. To challenge it.
The Legacy stands atop familial behavioral traits. Perhaps avoidance (a style your father adopted when he did not want to confront his pain), or the hot temper and blaming tendencies your mother resorted to when feeling overwhelmed or threatened. Or your grandmother’s relentless work ethic and her inability to relax — reflected in a critical voice that now belongs to you when it comes to taking time for yourself … as you berate yourself for being lazy despite working so hard.
The subtleties of the Legacy run deep in the veins of all family systems. To think you have grappled with it and it no longer controls you is an illusion.
Be not disheartened. The Legacy exists as an opportunity. All growth requires essential reflection; without this, the Legacy is simply handed down from generation to generation — the good, the bad and the ugly.
The more you commit to looking squarely in the face of your family’s actions that caused you pain, the greater the chances you have of eliminating legacy behaviors that you no longer find nurturing or useful.
Courageous reflection brings the potential for greater closeness with those we care for and love. As the wheel turns, each generation benefits from new Legacies forged in the fires of reflective mindful conscious commitment to change.