It’s pretty common to want to blame other people for our flaws, and it’s especially tempting — easy, even — to put the burden on our parents. Got angry-drunk and called your boss a bad name? Thanks for showing me how to self-medicate with alcohol instead of controlling my anger, Dad. Got depressed and binge-ate a whole extra-large pizza? Thanks for teaching me to eat my feelings instead of handling them, Mom.
Following in your parents’ footsteps can certainly feel inevitable at times — you’ve been tainted by their genes, your upbringing has hot-housed you into terrible behavior, and by the time you escape their clutches, you feel like little more than a helpless passenger on a one-way trip to emotional self-annihilation. But hold on: When we reach, for want of a better word, adulthood, isn’t it time we took responsibility for our own actions? Surely, past 30, we can’t blame anyone else for our bad behavior?
Sadly, it isn’t that simple. Our parents have a massive effect on the way we are, and it continues well after we leave the nest. And while we can superficially rebel — a skull tattoo here, a perineum piercing there — the deeper personality traits we picked up from our parents are so ingrained, it’s difficult to escape them.
“I believe that 100 percent of personality disorders are caused by poor parenting,” says Becky Spelman, a psychologist at the Private Therapy Clinic. “A great majority of the difficulties I help people with in my clinical practice are routed in their upbringing. That’s because, by the age of 5, our personality has already been established, and it’s significantly influenced by our upbringing. ”
Those early years are extremely important. When we’re kids, we observe the actions of our parents — how they react to difficult situations, to other adults and ourselves — and then we mimic what we see. It’s a subtle thing in operation, but at the same time, perfectly obvious: Kids are incredibly vulnerable and open, and also constantly imprinted with information on how to behave and, crucially, how to feel. This information is what we base our own behavior on later in life. As expressed by L. Alan Sroufe, professor emeritus at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, in response to a study on attachment relationships between children and their caregivers, “Variations of [future relationship quality] are not reflections of genetically based traits of the infant but of the history of interaction with the parent.”
In other words, how you react to the world around you has far more to do with the way you were raised than it does with your DNA. So if you grew up to be someone who, say, is susceptible to addiction or sexual promiscuity, you’re within your rights to blame the father who taught you that showing emotion was unmanly, leading you to express your feelings in secret, obsessive ways.
But once you understand the root of your problems, can you actually change the way you behave? “If people really put their mind to it and work hard to understand and overcome their difficulties, they can,” Spelman says. “However, when difficulties are very deeply routed, it takes a high level of motivation and often the help of a very skilled therapist.”
Certainly in more extreme cases — such as those who had emotionally disturbed childhoods — real change may require psychiatric intervention. But for the rest of us — those whose lives have been negatively affected by what we learned from our parents, but not entirely derailed by it — there’s still a good chance you can change. While it’s true that your brain is pretty much done developing by the age of 23, neuroscientists are now discovering that the brain remains somewhat malleable throughout life.
According to psychology professor and adolescence expert Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, this adult brain plasticity allows you to change some of your learned behaviors. Admittedly, though, these changes won’t take root as deeply as they would have at a younger age. “It’s like the difference between remodeling your house and redecorating it,” he explains. That means the impulse to eat the whole extra-large pizza is always going to be there, but if you try hard enough, maybe you can train yourself to only eat one slice instead.
If there’s one time in your life that will probably inspire this urge to change above all others, it’s becoming a parent yourself — the time when you’ll be most acutely aware of not wanting to pass on the flaws that your parents gave to you. This requires an intellectual approach to an emotional problem: figuring out how to make your kids feel as secure as possible. That’s because it’s those who grew up feeling neglected or shunned who are most likely to have real problems as they grow older.
As part of this process, it may be crucial to reach out to your parents, says Spelman. “Sometimes, having difficult, well-structured conversations with parents to get some things off your chest can help you release some of the weight of emotions you’re carrying around about how your parents have affected you.” Translation: Dump the baggage, and maybe you’ll have a clearer view of what you need to do. It’s easier, after all, to examine your childhood memories to see where your parents went wrong when said memories don’t send you down your own emotional rollercoaster.
The short answer to our original question, then, is: Everything. You really can blame your parents for just about every problem you have. But far more useful than this is the knowledge that with some hard work, you can learn to fix those problems, and in that case, the will to do it is all yours.
If it helps, just remember that you’re far from alone with these issues. As the poet Philip Larkin so accurately wrote back in 1971:
“They f*ck you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”