Are we doomed to inherit the worst parts of our parents?
Monkey see, monkey do, and keeps doing even though it used to annoy her when others did it
Whenever any specimen from my family tree finds themselves in landscape mode on a bed or sofa for some ‘thinking time’, it’s inevitable. Legs are stretched out and feet crossed over each other. One hand rests on the chest, the other is casually swung over the head. One foot starts to wiggle side to side and gain speed the deeper in thought we get. It’s out of our control. We call it the Hussain pose. My sister and I have accepted that as much as we fought it, we are becoming our parents.
It first hit me when I was 21. I saw a photograph of my father and I sitting side-by-side and looking at the same person with the exact same expression on our face. Our resting bitch face in full form. Slight scowl, condescension dripping from our eyes as if we’d been chopping judgemental onions.
It easy for my sister and I to defend our father, much to the chagrin of my mom. Because when it comes to becoming our parents, we both fell on the paternal side. I crashed-landed hard.
It’s not just the Hussain pose I’ve inherited from him. I can make you feel like my new best friend with ease (if I want to), use my poker face to my advantage and employ a tone of voice that could unravel even hardened stoics. These traits hold a special place in my toolbox of survival skills. But this wasn’t always the case.
I was a lot softer growing up. I’d tear up whenever anyone would raise their voice as panic grew in my chest. I couldn’t handle being put on the spot and was a complete people-pleaser. I picked that up from my mom, and I hated it. I used to watch her tear up in arguments, get pushed over by family members instead of standing her ground. It would make me angry at her, even though I didn’t fully understand the context as a child.
Recent surveys say women start becoming their parents, namely mothers, at around age 33. But there I was, at age 16 and something in me just clicked. When I spoke back and stood up for myself while getting shouted at by my sister, everyone (including me) was stumped.
I’ve seen the pain I cause others from the impatience and dismissiveness that I’ve adopted from my father. Sometimes it feels like a lose-lose situation. I joke with him, “Why couldn’t I have inherited your maths skills instead?”
Why are we becoming our parents?
Some say it’s nature, others say nurture plays a more important role. Psychotherapist Nishita Khanna says both are in the mix. It comes in flashes, where you realise that you’ve taken stepping into your parent’s shoes too far and end up starring in your own version of Freaky Friday.
Our parents are whom we spend our formative years with. The primary role models from whom we pick up the blueprint of what is appropriate and inappropriate, our language and speech patterns, rules of engagement and more. All while we’re still forming our individual personalities, figuring out our likes and dislikes. The developing brain creates neural pathways over time like trails in a field when we keep repeating certain behaviours as a child. These solidify and become more marked as we grow up, turning into the path we naturally take.
Biological and social interactions lead us to pick up some of our parents’ characteristic ways of interacting with each other and the world. She says there are many theories as to why we hold onto some of them and discard others as we experience more of the world.
“There is imitation for validation from your primary role model. The chameleon effect has us subconsciously mimicking the mannerisms and behaviours of those around us.”
Monkey see, monkey do
It can be harmless things like hand gestures, certain words and speech patterns. You may feel like your friend’s group has its own language and way of communicating with each other that no one outside of this tight-knit community will understand or relate to.
In other cases, we watch those with whom we spend the most time. To put it simply, Khanna says, we see what works for them when they’re facing the world and we pick it up. Even if we don’t really approve of or like this behaviour/trait.
Seher* has always had a contentious relationship with her mother. Her childhood was largely shuffling between boarding school and her uncle’s home. “My parents lived abroad. My uncle’s home was the closest to my school, so I’d spend most of my holidays at his place and with my grandparents, while my parents would come and ‘visit’.” This fraught mother-daughter relationship got more intense as she grew into adulthood.
“She’s a domineering woman. She likes to be the centre of attention, is very loud and calculating. She’s quite the mover-shaker, she always manages to get her way. But I never came close to what she wanted in a daughter. I wasn’t a high achiever, the best looking in the family or as successful in my career as she’d have liked.”
The process of becoming our parents, for Seher, focused on her mother. It happened subconsciously. She would treat her younger siblings the way her mother treated her own. From mannerisms to even dressing. It slowly crept in. After starting therapy due to the emotional stress, she had a revelation.
“My mother is her own favourite person. I think in a way I started to become her, to get her approval. Even adopting her habits that I hated. Her constant criticism, passing snide remarks, pulling down her siblings, friends and their achievements to make herself feel better… I had started doing it all.”
Jaya L Swamy recounts a similar realisation. Except in her case, it was her mother-in-law whom she had started to mirror. She recalls how her mother-in-law would walk into the house and “find at least three things to criticise and blame me for”. This would give Swamy immense anxiety and she always ensured that everything was kept in its right place. Over the years, she became so hyper-aware of these placements, that she found herself noticing “things out of place and pointing them out” to her daughter-in-law, Madhumita.
“My husband laughed one day and said ‘Becoming just like amma, your nemesis.’ That’s when I thought, oh god, is that true? I didn’t want my daughter-in-law to think of me the way I did my mother-in-law,” says Swamy. She brought it up with her daughter-in-law, who admitted to feeling hurt.
We’re playing our parts too well
Khanna also mentions following ‘family scripts’, as described by renowned family therapist John Byng-Hall. “Byng-Hall describes a repeated pattern of behaviour that he calls ‘family scripts’. We all play a part like characters following a script in a film or show. And that same script gets passed onto the next generation unless someone takes on the writer’s role and makes a change.”
Replicative scripts are the ones you take on from your family. Things like what time you eat dinner, how you greet visitors coming to the house or the family TV time on Sundays. The positives as well as the negatives, as an unconscious or conscious show of loyalty to the family. It can be general behaviours that you deem inconsequential but also more intricate. Like how you communicate with a partner, express your emotions or act in times of crisis.
Is it inevitable then, becoming our parents?
I will always be my parent’s child. Even on the days that I get my electricity bill and wish I was born an Adani to get a family discount. As much as I cringe every time I give in to people-pleasing and over-commit to tasks beyond my comfort, like my mother, or scowl at friendly strangers or deflect during arguments because my ego’s hurt, like my father, there’s a bucket of goodness that I’ve gained from them as well. Trump cards that I play while navigating through the messiness of being an adult.
I can manage to keep calm and have a straight face like Dad while calculating my next move. It comes in handy when dealing with a difficult landlord, negotiating terms of engagement with third parties in a professional setting and when the repairman is overcharging for fixing my fridge. Empathy and understanding from my mother allow me to relate better to people, create meaningful friendships and let others feel comfortable when opening up about difficult subjects.
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Trying not to become our parents, carrying in us their worst habits and passing those on to our children requires self-awareness, says Khanna. Recognition and acceptance is the first step towards breaking any bad habit. Course correction is possible, but it takes work. As long as you’re willing to put in the effort.
She adds, “There will be moments when you find yourself falling back into old patterns of behaviour, especially when you’re under stress. Your natural instinct is to go down the same paths your brain created. Allow yourself to err and try again. It takes conscious and active practice to create these new connections in our brains. Soon enough, that will become our go-to behaviour.”
Write a new script
Speaking about it in terms of parenting, Byng-Hall writes, “Most parents will readily recognise the phenomenon of being determined not to make the mistakes they felt their parents made with them, but then, to their horror, find that at times they are doing to their children those very same things that they swore they would never do.”
Just because we’ve inherited habits, traits and behaviours, we don’t need to stick to the family script. A ‘corrective script’, as Byng-Hall calls it, is choosing to do things differently. For some, this is an unconscious switch that happens, almost like a rebellion. We go so far off our expected role, we switch to the complete opposite of what we grow up with. For example, if you grew up in a strict religious household, your corrective script could be moving away and cutting all ties with religion and spirituality completely.
Real growth comes by writing our own script. Some things are unavoidable that you’re naturally going to fall back on. For example, your body naturally starts to feel hungry at 8 PM now. But there are things that you can actively work towards change.
Khanna advises creating a list. The habits/behaviours that you recognise are from your inherited script and from your corrective script. Speak to others you’re close to in the family, like a sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle. They may have observed things that you aren’t aware of as yet.
“Circle the things you want to change and create a new list with that. Try and map out why you act in this way, what’s driving it? Then figure out what is the opposite or more practical/ideal version of this behaviour/habit in your opinion. Write that down as the action you’re going to take along with 1-2 ways in which you can practice achieving it,” says Khanna.
For example, I tend to interrupt people before they’re done speaking. I adopted this from my big fat Indian family. When there’s so many of you, you don’t always get a chance to be heard before the conversation changes and goes off into another tangent. It was harmless until I found myself doing it more and more in professional spaces. Especially because it’s something that used to annoy me.
To change: Interrupting; the need to voice my opinion to gain approval/validation.
Why do I do it? Perhaps it comes from the insecurity of my own lack of knowledge or intelligence. So I jump in before they can judge me.
Ideal behaviour: To not seek validation and approval by voicing my opinion/side before others can do it.
Practice: Holding my tongue and not cutting people off before they’re done. Especially when I disagree or have a differing opinion.
How can I do that?
1) If something to say pops up in my head, write it down. Then it’s out of my system and I don’t have the urge to blurt it out. Wait till the person is done speaking and then say what I have to say.
2) Hold myself accountable by apologising when I do interrupt someone.
Have an accountability buddy
Accountability is what’s going to keep us on track to building newer, better habits. I try and apologise every time I find myself interrupting others when they talk. It reminds me when I’ve veered off track from my practice to be better. Personal growth comes when we hold ourselves accountable, says Khanna. It reminds us of why we’re doing this in the first place.
There will be moments that we forget, or feel it was valid to act the way we did, even though we’re trying to change. Unconsciously we may fall back on old patterns of behaviour. For times like that, it’s helpful to have an accountability buddy. Someone that you trust to pull you up. To remind you of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, even if your judgement at that moment is a bit cloudy.
I’d assigned myself an accountability buddy at work in the form of a close colleague, and my partner at home. Two people that I spend most of my time around.
Reconcile with your parents
Addressing the root problem will only speed up the process of healing and growth. Whether we want to admit it or not, pretty much all of us have held onto some kind of resentment for our parents. For things we wish they did for us, the things they did wrong and some that they’d never admit to doing.
Khanna says that to stop ourselves from becoming our parents, we need to confront and reconcile with the pain that those habits caused us. “We may change ourselves out of spite, but the resentment we hold continues to influence how we behave.”
You don’t have to necessarily forgive and forget when you’ve been deeply hurt by something, and make amends when you don’t want to. It can start with a conversation, says Khanna. “It’s not a confrontation or a fight. Just a conversation where you say, ‘Hey, XYZ thing you used to do/say hurt me. This is how it made me feel’.” The best-case scenario would be an acknowledgement by your parents and you move on together, and deepen your relationship. And if nothing else, you’ve done your part to make things right, to be better and change the narrative for yourself and your household.
*Name changed upon contributor’s request for anonymity.