When you were a child you probably remember swearing to the universe that when you grew up youd never, ever treat your children the way your parents treated you. Youd be different; youd be better. You knew it from the core of your being. Right? So how is it that instead of making your vow come true, all these years later youve ended up copying their very qualities that you most despised? Welcome to the world of mimickingthe third mechanism (accommodation and rebellion being the other two)
we sometimes use thats influenced by guilt toward your parents and siblings.
Why do we use mimicking? What are the reasons behind this behavior? Remember the warning I hope your children do to you what youve done to me? You were blamed for your parents suffering, and they wanted you to suffer the same way at the hands of your children. And so you do. Four reasons explain why.
MIMICKING: PUNISHMENT AND RELIEF
We become like our parents to punish ourselves and relieve our guilt for hurting them. If you think youre responsible for causing your parents unhappiness, suffering, disappointment, getting out of control, then you deserve to be punished by having the same faults. Huh? Think of it like this, if you are unhappy, suffer, are disappointed, or out of control, then you have paid yourself back for the suffering you caused them. Think of the biblical expression, an eye for an eye. This requires that a punishment fit the crime exactly. It turns out that your conscience operates the same way. It requires that you be punished exactly in the way youve made another person suffer; in this case, your parents or sibling.
When your overprotective parent became frantic with worry when you played sports, you felt responsible for causing their worry. They screamed with anxiety, Youll break your leg! Youll get killed! And how does your conscience operate? It requires your becoming frantic with worry when your kids are playing, just as your parents did with you. There. Now youve been punished for your long-ago offense of causing your parents to feel frantic with worry over you.
Remember the indigenous tribe described in Chapter 1? Remember how they blamed themselves for earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, and so on? A child blames him- or herself when a parent continually acts badly. Later on in life, being like that parent keeps the grown child from feeling better off than the parent. This is how our conscience evens the score.
If you blame yourself for the explosive rages your domineering, overbearing father suffered when you didnt submit to him, youd assume that your independent attitude was responsible. You could do penance for your guilt toward him by becoming domineering with others and explosive with your own children. Why is this penance? Because by mimicking your father, you also suffer when your children act independently of you.
Does this sound self-destructive? It is. Surely, youd prefer to not fly off the handle and rail at your children. And just as surely youd rather not suffer when they dont submit to you. But the idea is that if you caused your parents or siblings to suffer, you deserve to suffer in the same way. Its precisely this idea, the dynamic of self-blame, thats central to why we behave in ways that we hate.
That explains the first of the four reasons why we choose to suffer through mimicking our parents behavior. Lets look at the second reason.
MIMICKING: DONT FEEL BADWERE IN THIS TOGETHER
If youve ever felt bad because you think its not fair to be better off than your parents, you might resort to mimicking to relieve your bad feelings. At a talk I gave, a woman told me about her experience with her obese mother. She remembered not only sitting with her during meals and snacks, but she also recalled mimicking her mothers overeating because she thought that would comfort her mother. Her exact words were, I felt she would feel comforted because we were in it together. What was she really saying? Dont feel bad, Mom, I have the same [overeating] problem that you have.
Thats the second reason for mimicking behaviors we hate, whats the third?
MIMICKING: PUSHING AWAY THE PAIN
For the most part, we all want to forget our unpleasant experiences of the past and have the bad feelings associated with them fade away. This done, we can enjoy our present-day lives. Now factor this in: By mistreating others the way weve been mistreated, we help forget that we suffered at the hands of our parents. How does that help, youre probably wondering?
Imagine youve gone through something terrible like childhood abuse. (The victim could have been you or perhaps someone else in the family.) The result is that you cant stand thinking about it, that you want to bury the memory and never reexperience the pain of it again. The farther removed from it you get, in physical distance and in time, the safer you feel and the less likely you are to think about it. What helps you accomplish this? Being as far removed as possible from your memories of the traumatic experience. What could be farther away from that opposite position? To become the one who mistreats, not the one is mistreated.
If as an adult you act possessively toward your children, you demand underlying loyalty and overt demonstrations of love the way your parents did with you, itll help you forget the pain you felt when your parent was that way with you. What pain? Maybe out of loyalty to your possessive parent, you inhibited your relationships with others. Or maybe you cut off new relationships because you feared being trapped by the demands of loyalty you felt all relationships came with. Either way, you suffer. And now, as an adult, if you dominate your children, maybe youll forget that you yourself submitted to your own domineering parents. You dont want to recall painful memories of having been cheated out of your own independence.
With three reasons for mimicking looked at and understood, were left with one more. Heres how that one shapes our world of self-blame.
MIMICKING: WORKING HARD TO IMPROVE THE FLAW
By doing to others what was done to you, you hope to meet people who can show you how to better cope with the behavior that harmed you. Thats the basic premise, and its a lot to take in so lets look at it from another angle. These new people you meet become role models for you in learning new ways of dealing with behavior that was painful or difficult for you in the past. If you think about couples you know, youll find that this is often true. And if youve ever wondered why many couples have extreme opposite personalities that often clash, you now have the answer to all your wondering. A submissive person, who gives in easily, is with a domineering partner who tends not to. Why? Each one is actually learning from the other how to improve on his or her own shortcoming.
These four reasons are why, in spite of your best intentions, you may have acquired those qualities of your parents that you hated the most. In the case of David, a smart businessman who undermined his career success, youll see that he did this because of his father and because he identified with some of his fathers qualities.