Occasionally, we all act like our parents. How can we not, as they are the ones whose genes we carry and who first taught us how to be in the world. A number of my clients are aghast that they will become too like their parents which colors how they choose to think and act—often to their detriment. Here are some examples of this dynamic:
- One client is very timid and works overly hard to be agreeable—the kind of woman I write about in Nice Girls Finish Fat. Her father spent most of her childhood raging at her and her sister after their mother died and he had to raise them himself. Afraid of his anger, people kept away and the family became quite isolated. My client vowed early on to put a damper on her temper and go along to get along. Now, middle-aged, she’s had two abusive husbands and is in the midst of divorcing a third.
- Another client’s father did little to contribute to the family’s income and my client and his siblings made due with what their hard-working mother made. His father was always taking risks with the family savings and losing money. Although he and his wife are quite comfortable financially, this client now is almost obsessed with saving, rather than spending, money. His rigid stance brought them to couples counseling with me.
- One client’s father worked so hard that she hardly ever saw him, while her mother was generally exhausted and irritable from raising four children. This client decided early on that work was never going to be the be-all of her life and she’s shied away from building financial security. Consequently, she’s frequently near broke and often anxious.
- Another example is a client whose parents were both quite passive and let friends, family and co-workers walk all over them. They always taught her to turn the other cheek. Seeing how they suffered, she vowed in her teens to stand up for herself and say and do whatever she wanted in life. She has been highly successful in her career, but she has few close friends and her co-workers keep their distance.
In each case, these clients were terrified whenever they acted like their parent(s) that showing any similarities would make them become more and more like them. The fact is, this could never happen, precisely because they are highly aware of disliking certain behaviors (eg, rage, passivity, etc.) and don’t wish to develop them. Their parents, on the other hand, felt comfortable with these behaviors and, therefore, continued them.
By choosing only one way to engage with the world, my clients became imbalanced. Sometimes it’s wise to be passive and other times it’s wise to stand up for ourselves. Sometimes it’s wise to spend money and other times to save. Sometimes it’s wise to work our butts off in a career and other times it’s better to relax and play more. Can you see how my clients became imbalanced? Is this a process that’s happened to you?
If so, it may be the cause of your dysregulated eating and other unhappiness. If you grew up forming your personality to not be like your parent(s), you’ve matured reactively rather than proactively. Proactive means looking at all your choices to act in a way that encompasses the best of them. And, this may mean being occasionally like a parent whose traits you disliked. With new understanding that you will never become them, you can now engage in previously condemned behaviors when they’re called for rather than limiting your repertoire to only one end of a very wide spectrum.