It’s hard not to leave our childhoods with some trepidation. You may know about that long strand of alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental illness that has been running through great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts for generations. Or you see in your sister the way, despite her best efforts, she seems to be repeating your mother’s mistakes down to the most minute detail. You look back at the decisions you've made, where you are now, and wonder how much you are really in control of your life, wonder how much of your past your children may carry forward. You resolve to do it differently, or you find yourself resigned to some inevitable psychological fate.
This is the nature of being human. Unlike other animals, our lives are ones where we create stories, where memories of our childhood experiences accumulate and linger, shaping our present. Like it or not, our parents and our perceptions of them leave some indelible imprints on our biology, psyche, and views of the world in several important ways:
Probably one of the biggest shifts in psychology and mental health over the past several decades has been in our knowledge and awareness of the impact of brain chemistry on the shaping of our psychology, and with it the role of our genetic make-up. We’re no longer born with the blank slate; we no longer blame our mother's parenting for our schizophrenia. We realize our grandfather's "craziness" was probably mania and may be lurking somewhere in our genetic pool, just as our father’s alcoholism or mother’s rampant OCD or ADHD may easily be biologically part and parcel of who we are.
Your parents always argued or never talked, or actually had sane conversations and solved problems; your father was a man of few words, leaving you with few clues about what made him tick, but who also periodically exploded or acted out and had affairs, while your mother always had headaches or retreated to the back bedroom for hours or days at a time; or your parents divorced, or are the best of friends to this day.
As a child, you can't fully understand what is happening all around you, but you still take this in; you find ways to cope with things that make you feel afraid, discover ways to get attention. And so, you identify with the most powerful person in the family, especially the one of your gender, and take in his or her ways of coping — you get angry or you accommodate. You manage your daily fears by being hypervigilant, or by withdrawing, or being good, or by pushing back. Your parents show you their ways of navigating the world, show you solutions, both good and bad, to life's problems, and you take them in.
But along with this basic role-modeling comes something else that that is even more insidious and equally powerful, namely, their worldview: Is the world safe or dangerous? Can others be trusted or are they always out to screw you? Can I lean into my life or is disaster always around the next corner and I need to be ever prepared?
If you lack a base of safety in your home or in the world, you understandably are likely on constant alert—that your child's vaccinations will cause irreparable damage, that the falling economy will lead to your losing your job, that your partner's withdrawal means that he no longer cares and you will wind up divorced. Such ever-present anxiety is difficult to turn off.
Your mother left the family or died suddenly. You were emotionally or physically abused. Your family moved to a foreign country and you were frightened and disoriented for years. Here your brain unconsciously (or more consciously) moves to a different level beyond the everyday to handle an even more scary world. Now you decide that you are the only one who can look out for you, and as a result, you are easily suspicious of others or need to always have control in your adult relationships. Or your trauma leaves you easily triggered: you get irrationally angry at the boyfriend who doesn’t answer your texts quickly enough, or you are overwhelmed with anxiety because you imagine that he has been in a terrible car accident. Or you become more avoidant—dumping anyone you're dating who shows any edge of strong emotion, or simply not dating at all.
Bouncing off of siblings
If you grew up with siblings, your personality was shaped, in part, by the bouncing off of theirs. Here we talk about the oldest child being the good one, conscientious, and a leader; the second child bounces off this and becomes the rebel; the middle child is the one who is forgotten and falls through the cracks; the baby is spoiled. But we also bounce off of their coping styles: Your brother is the angry one, your sister is the quiet one, and you are the one who walks on eggshells. Your coping styles are different, and it is through these differences that you often learned to gain attention from your parents.
The impact of all this
All this comes together to form an experiential collage of your childhood that can leave deep scars or unresolved fears, expectations about the world and how we can expect to be treated, decisions about what to avoid, what to hold onto. Two common remnants of our childhood that impact our everyday relationships are our emotional wounds and our perceptions of our parents' relationship.
Emotional wounds are feelings that we were particularly sensitive to as a child that are easily triggered by others in the present. The most common ones are criticism, being micromanaged, being not appreciated, not feeling heard and being dismissed, not getting enough attention and feeling ignored. So when your boss looks at you cross-eyed, you feel criticized; when your friend tells you how to drive to Wal-Mart and you feel micromanaged; when you make a big dinner, and your partner says little, you feel not appreciated, or when you complain about his leaving the dishes in the sink and he gets defensive, you feel dismissed; or when your sister doesn’t answer your text for 6 hours, you feel abandoned.
Your hurts are immediate and strong, and you now do what you did as a child—withdraw, get angry, get good and walk on eggshells. History is emotionally repeating itself, leaving you seeing others through that childhood lens, and keeping old patterns in place.
And the other, your impression of your parents’ relationship, has a similar effect of distorting your adult relationships—in this case, your intimate ones. Here you look back in your teen years at your parents' relationship and evaluate the state of their union. If their relationship was in your mind a good one, you instinctively try to replicate it. If it was bad, you decide the one or two things that made it that way—that they argued or drank too much, for example—and you instinctively decide to avoid these—you won't argue, you won't drink.
The problem is that whatever impression you left your childhood with is likely distorted because it is a child's perception—black and white, too simple, too incomplete. So, while their relationship seemed always caring, you weren't aware of the struggles they wrestled with when you weren’t around. Or if it seemed only filled with anger or drinking, you didn’t know the backstory about your mother’s depression or your dad’s PTSD.
Without this more complete picture, you march ahead and often find out that your simple takeaway isn’t working the way you hoped it would: You try and copy your parents' good relationship but find yourself in your own feeling bored or sensing that there is always an underlying tension that you can't put your finger on. Or you follow your vow not to argue or drink but find that you are using distance to avoid confrontation, or that you have essentially turned into a dry drunk.
What to do
To avoid replicating history, you need to upgrade those childhood perceptions and take action to heal old wounds. Here's how to get started:
Know your genetics
If there is that long trail of depression, anxiety, ADHD, or psychosis, take note. You don't want to be hypervigilant, but do be aware and knowledgable. This is not about personality but about brain chemistry. If you suspect something, do something, the sooner the better.
Be aware of your wounds and triggers
Identify what you are particularly sensitive to, what others do that can trigger these strong, little-kid reactions, and let those close to you know about them. This is not about raging at them, but helping them better understand you; not about your passively accepting how you are, but instead being assertive and letting others know what you need. By doing now what you couldn't do as a child, you begin to repair those old wounds.
Avoid swinging too far to the other side
Yes, controlling your anger and not drinking may be good ideas, but swinging too far in one direction, resorting to a black-and-white approach based on childhood anxiety and perceptions, can be difficult to sustain or can backfire on you. Instead, you want to gather more information.
Gathering information here isn’t about endlessly Googling addiction or anger, though knowledge is power, but more about gaining a more complex picture of your past. Here you have an adult conversation with your mom about the divorce, with your dad about his heavy drinking or his time in Viet Nam, or if they are not able to do this with an aunt or uncle who knew the backstory. With a more complete picture in hand, you are less likely to overreact and can make more realistic, less reactive adult decisions.
The past intrudes into the present when there isn't closure, when there is unfinished emotional business. Here you say to your dad how you felt about his anger or drinking, or you ask your mother why she didn’t protect you better from all that chaos, and if you can’t say it for whatever reason, write it down and then write back what you want each of them to ideally say. Getting this unfinished business out of your head will help put it to rest; by putting it to rest, you can psychologically better separate past from present.
Unraveling all of this can feel overwhelming, especially if there is trauma involved. Here you want to seek some professional help to support and guide you as your unravel these emotions, and / or provide a safe place to have these family conversations. By getting some of this old—yet still-alive—sensitive stuff off your psychological plate, you can begin to see your life with less fear and more realistically. Here, even short-term counseling can make a difference.
Your past is not going to go away, but you don't have to repeat it. Instead, reshape it.