Are You Repeating Your Parents’ Traits?

The reasons we act like our parents may not seem like a great mystery. Even setting aside our genetic connection, from the moment we open our eyes, we are absorbing our parents’ point of view and entire way of being in the world. This doesn’t doom us to a life of being boxed-up replicas of the people who raised us. However, it does mean we inherit a complex series of both apparent and invisible lessons from our parents that impact our lives in all kinds of ways we may not expect.

Many of us wrestle with the messy push and pull of navigating our parents’ traits within ourselves. Often embracing the positives and, with concerted effort, denying the negative ones. These traits are not always explicit and often come from subtle points of view we picked up. The positive traits often resonate with us, and they help guide us in our lives. The negative ones, and both our replication and resistance to these traits, can bend us out of shape and push us away from our personal goals and more authentic expressions of who we are.

Because, as children, we internalize our early environment, when we grow up, most of us are not fully differentiated selves. The degree to which we’ve failed to identify, understand, and separate from certain overlays on our personality can lead us to relive rather than live our lives. One important question that we can explore is, “to what degree are we following a prescription laid out for us by our past?”

This is not to say that our parents meant any harm or intended to influence every aspect of who we are. The point in recognizing how their traits affect our own behavior is not to blame them or get permanently entangled in our past. Rather, it is to help us free ourselves from overlays on our personality that do not reflect genuine aspects of our selves. This process helps us make sense of our actions and reactions and allows us to make sure they align with our personal goals. More likely than not, there will be a list of lessons for which we’re grateful and traits we hope to emulate from our parents. Conversely, there will be a list of lessons we’re living out that could be limiting us in everything from the way we see ourselves to the way we relate to others.

The division we all feel within ourselves between who we really are and the echoed “voices” of our history can lead us to act in ways we don’t even like or say things we don’t even mean. We’re most likely to engage in these reactive behaviors in times of stress and in situations that trigger painful and primal feelings. What we fail to realize in these moments is that much of what we’re experiencing on an emotional level is based on projections and old feelings from our childhood.

Parents are people, and people are not perfect. Because we are wired to best remember the things that frighten and upset us, unfortunately, it is often when parents are at their worst, in moments when they lose control or fail to be responsive to a need, that they have the strongest influence on their children’s negative attitudes toward themselves and others.

Because we have a tendency to take on our parent’s point of view at such an early stage in life, we can start to experience that point of view as our own. For example, we may be harsh and critical toward ourselves or suspicious or untrusting in our relationships. We may play out our parents’ anxieties, insecurities, frustrations, etc. in our own lives, particularly in our closest relationships.

There are three primary ways we do this:

The first is by directly repeating our parents’ way of being. If they were controlling, nervous, reactive, or introverted, we may very well carry these traits and express them in our own lives.

The second way we display our parents’ impact is by reacting to their traits (or rather overreacting). Maybe we saw our mother as nervous and overbearing, so we react by being reckless or extra sensitive to intrusion. Maybe we felt our father was rejecting and cold, so we react by putting pressure on ourselves to achieve at the highest level or feel like we need to actively seek people’s attention and approval.

The third way we display our parents’ influence is by recreating the emotional climate of our early environment. This is often done completely subconsciously, and therefore, can be tricky to catch on to. It’s hard to see it, but we may engage in behaviors that lead old, familiar scenarios to play out. For instance, we may provoke our partner to treat us in ways our parents did or to say things our parents used to say to us. We may even act childish with our own child, seeing them as having power over us, which may reflect how we felt as a child. 

The best way to approach the process of differentiating from the traits that no longer serve us in our lives is with curiosity and compassion. So often, we are incredibly hard on ourselves for displaying traits we came by honestly. Instead, we should allow ourselves to explore where these patterns come from.

The gift of recognizing a lack of differentiation inside us is that once we’re aware of it, we can start to change the things that don’t feel like an honest reflection of who we are or what we want in life. We can recognize certain self-attacks and self-limiting attitudes as shadows of our history rather than real reflections of who we are. Finally, we can unlearn old habits and develop new ways of being that move us closer to who we want to be and the life we want to lead.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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