An Exercise to Work With Your Personal History
Make the List
Get a pad of paper (or computer if you prefer to type). You are going to make two lists. The first is a list of everything you can think of that you learned or gained from your parent (mother or father) that you feel has had a positive influence or effect on you. Stay with just one parent at a time. This list can be anything and everything, and you can create it over days if you like, but I would suggest on the first sitting to write as many things as you can think of right now. The items can be extremely simple such as “how to peel a potato” to very complex – “the value of being honest.” If you like making lists, you can even organize your items in categories, but it’s not necessary. Mostly it’s important to be as specific as you can. For the second list, write everything you learned or gained from your parent that you feel has had a negative influence or effect on you. Again, go from simple to complex.
Be as honest and thorough as you can. This is a list for you, not for anyone else’s eyes so it is important to write as much as you can and as accurately as you can. Include habits, values, ways of relating, ways of handling feelings and particularly negative feelings, how to dos, physical characteristics (if you like), religious beliefs, political beliefs, goals, limitations, behavioral tendencies, and so on. Keep in mind that the list is not being created to criticize your parents, but rather to help you.
Again, I would spend some days on this with the first attempt being a longer and more thorough session to get the process going. You will find that as you are thinking about and completing your lists, you may re-experience incidences with your parent, feelings you have about them (both positive and negative), the emotional aspects of the relationship and possibly things you had forgotten about or put away. If the relationship was conflicted, unstable, or emotionally difficult, you may find the exercise to be difficult at first. Stay with it. There is an outcome we are going for which you will see as we finish.
A Little Contemplation
After you have made complete listings for either one parent or both, put the lists away for a couple of days. We are going to come back to it, but I want you to let it settle a bit.
Now before taking the lists back out to review them, I want you to think about something which is this: Ask yourself the question, who made the lists? Sounds ridiculous right? The answer is obvious. “I did” you say. Yes, you did. You made the lists. Here’s the point: There is a “you” that is separate from and different than and more than the sum of everything you’ve acquired from your parents. You have characteristics related to your parents and that you have acquired from them, but you are more than those characteristics. There is a “you” that is outside of and beyond your parents(s). This may sound elementary to you, but it is very important. The reason is that people often feel very stuck with their backgrounds. They see themselves as extensions of their upbringing and feel powerless to change those characteristics and trends they internalized growing up. They may see themselves as a victim, a chip off the old block, or as someone unable to move forward because they are stuck with not having had parents that helped build self-esteem and confidence in themselves. Conversely, they may see themselves as not having any characteristics from their parents, which is ultimately not possible. Here’s the thing: Many people go through life thinking they can’t move beyond where they came from. Worse, some don’t even think about moving forward or making changes at all. They just mindlessly repeat the patterns they were raised with and call it a day, or should I say, call it a life. No one has to remain where they are. Here’s how your lists will help you with that.
Now get your lists back out and read them over. Make a new list that contains everything on it that you want to keep from the originals. Most likely, you will want to keep most of those things you listed in the first list which were the positive things you received from your parent(s). You may have outgrown some of those things, so they are no longer important to you and you will likely leave them off your new list. I’m guessing that you will not want to keep any of the negative things you received from your parent(s), but you may have gained some lessons or insights from those things and you will want to keep those. Write them down. It is important for you to really understand and grasp that you don’t have to keep what you don’t want. You can pick and choose and keep what you want and be grateful for having gotten those things, and you can begin to dislodge and discard those things you don’t want. Better yet, make use of those things to think about where you would like to be and what you have learned from them that will move you forward.
Sounds easy huh? In some cases it is easy. There are things that you probably already have discarded or are very close to discarding. Other characteristics have taken up residence over time and may take some time to dislodge, but you can dislodge them. “Dislodge” sounds kind of difficult and it can feel like drilling out a cavity in a tooth, but there is an easier way and this is what I recommend:
Recognize what characteristics, values, habits, thought processes, and emotional patterns you got from your upbringing that you want to change or discard.
Make a list of the characteristics, values, habits, thought processes and emotional patterns you would like to have in their place.
Add any new characteristics you would like to add to the list.
Begin developing the characteristics on your total combined list one at a time. For habits, give every new habit at least 30 days time of focused attention before trying to change or add another one.
This strategy is focused more on replacing bad characteristics and habits with good ones rather than focusing on stopping bad habits and behaviors. Sometimes, if a behavior is destructive enough, you will need to get some assistance with stopping that behavior while replacing it with a new alternative behavior. For example, if you have a drug addiction, just working on activities that don’t involve drugs probably won’t be enough to make you stop using drugs. You will need to make use of a drug treatment program at the same time you are focusing on creating new habits that will move you away from using drugs such as not hanging around with friends that do drugs with you, making new friends that don’t use drugs, starting an exercise program, changing your diet, doing meditation, and so forth. For stubborn destructive habits and behaviors, you will need to work on inhibiting those behaviors while at the same time adding in new behaviors to reinforce your progress.
For less destructive behaviors, you can directly counteract them. If you find you are highly reactive emotionally to any little thing that goes wrong, and you placed this problem on the list because your mother is also that way, you can work on being calm when things go wrong. As you begin, you may be able to maintain calmness in the face of problems one out of every five times. That’s great! So you work towards two out of every five times, and then three out of every five times, and so forth until you feel like you’ve really cultivated that attitude and practice of remaining fairly calm most of the time when things go wrong. You might at the same time practice taking action when things go wrong rather than your old habit of lamenting that things always happen to you and you don’t know how you’re going to handle it. When you (1) remain calm, and (2) take action immediately to resolve the problem, you have come full circle and changed your approach entirely. You no longer sound like your mother going off the deep end when the car broke down, or the washer overflowed, etc. You have not only changed the way you handle things, you have gained a new confidence that you can handle things. So does this mean that you don’t love your mother because you have decided not to share one of her behavior patterns? No it doesn’t, but sometimes it does feel like treason to leave behind something you shared with a parent, even if it was dysfunctional. If you feel that way, just let it settle in a bit and get used to being your own person.
This is the process. This is how you take control of who you are. You are the creator of You, and you can mold yourself however you want to in spite of your history.
Gratitude for What You Got
Another great and important benefit of creating your lists is that it allows you to really see what you did get from your parents that are good characteristics and qualities. With few exceptions, even those who feel they got nothing good from their parents will find that in making their lists, they did get some important things that they had never recognized consciously. When I thought about my mother, I realized that something she did really well was that she could explain anything in such a way that you totally understood it. She was an excellent teacher in this sense. And as I thought more about that, I realized that all of my brothers and sisters including myself had inherited that same talent from her. When I listen to any of my siblings explain something, they all go through the same easy to understand sequential layout of steps and check with you along the way to be sure you understand what they are saying. This came from my mother, but I never would have thought about it unless I had made these lists for myself.
The take away from this is that as you make your lists and then stand back and look at them, you see your parents in a different way. You may see them as more human. You will undoubtedly be able to appreciate characteristics you had not really noticed before. You may also see more clearly patterns you have inherited that are not serving you well, and by seeing those, you can change them. In either case, be grateful for what you got and grateful that you have the power to change what you don’t want.
The last unintended effect of this process I’d like to mention is that you can move from a position of blame and helplessness to one of understanding and confidence. When we feel stuck with patterns we know are dysfunctional, and those patterns were learned at the hands of our parents, it is easy and natural to get sucked into a continual thought patterns of blame. If only …, I could be (would be) … Life is not perfect and lamenting continually on it’s imperfections will keep you in the same place, and maybe even move you backwards. Taking responsibility for yourself even if you have a lot to overcome, is empowering and is the antidote to helplessness. The result is a growing confidence in yourself and improved life.