I like to observe people. Not in a creepy kind of way. I take note of the words and gestures they use, their habits, how they respond to negative situations, and what motivates them. I do this often with family and friends, and then go all Freudian, trying to connect a particular action or quirk they have with events from their past. It’s like connecting the dots to reveal a hidden picture – and I’m almost always able to connect their current behavior to some underlying cause.
My friend for instance, despite being extremely athletic, has suddenly started smoking. His mom smokes, but he’s always made it clear that he finds the habit disgusting. The day I noticed the habit, he proceeded to light up at least three times during my 2 hour visit. I couldn’t understand why until I watched his interactions with his family. His brother is everything a parent could hope for – he has both brains and brawn and a string of wonderfully sweet and pretty girlfriends. He’s ambitious, doing well in school, and is holding down two jobs so that his parents don’t have to pay for his car or his education. His mother always looks at him with absolute devotion and caters to his every need (brings to mind FDR and his mom). He receives a lot of attention and praise from his parents – much more than his brother does. It was clear that my friend was living in the much more successful shadow of his sibling. As he lit up another cigarette midst the chastisement of his parents, it dawned on me: Negative attention (disapproval of his new smoking habit) was better than receiving no attention at all. And why bother trying to be a good person? It’s not like his parents noticed his good behavior anyway.
A friend of mine recently took in a female colleague who emigrated from China. The first time I saw her, I had to do a double-take – she dressed and acted like a boy. My friend explained that the girl was raised by her grandmother after her mother rejected her – literally, right after her birth – for being female (she had wanted a son). Nearly 20 years later, the girl had completely stripped herself of her femininity; she shaved her head, wore men’s clothes, and chose a career in manual labor. Her mother rejected her femininity, and today, so does she.
If you’ve watched the Harry Potter movies, you’ll recognize the following pattern. Harry’s aunt and uncle, disgruntled over the fact that his well-being was thrust upon them, purposely withheld their affection and kindness from him – and directed them entirely toward their son, Dudley. Spoiled excessively, Dudley grows up believing that he can do no wrong in his parents’ eyes, even when he does, like bullying people who are smaller and weaker than him.
I know a lot of women who ended up in a relationship with really horrible boyfriends, only to find out that growing up, they had really bad relationships with their dad. I know adults who grew up with cold, distant parents, who have difficulty showing affection toward others. I know overachievers and workaholics whose parents continuously criticized them and made them feel like they were never good enough. The list goes on.
But there’s something really important I want to point out here. I am not advocating the belief that if your life sucks, it’s your parents fault. Trust me, I’d love to blame self-esteem issues, perfectionistic tendencies, and my deep-seated inner critic on my parents’ unstable relationship and excessively strict parenting style – but I can’t. They may have started the pattern, but it’s up to me to decide whether I want to continue blaming others for my issues, or strive toward self-improvement. The bottom line is, we may develop attitude and behavior patterns as a result of the way others have treated us, but we are not helpless victims of those patterns. If anything, you can use your experiences to bolster your resilience, and make sure that you don’t repeat the pattern with your own children.