It seems my last column struck a nerve with some, eliciting comments and questions. It was a wake-up call for several people, who believed they had avoided facing their family legacy, intentionally or not, to dilute any emotional pain. Thus, facing their family patterns, they began realizing they were repeating the same mistakes with similar dynamics from the previous generation. Emotional triggers: they’re certainly not comfortable, nor easy to shake off. Perhaps one of our children behaves provocatively, simply adding more gasoline to the fire. If we don’t stop the flames burning through one generation to the next, we will undoubtedly carry on the legacy. What stunned me most from the reactions to my last column was hearing how many marriages are truly dysfunctional. I suspect each partner is reacting from a place of unhealed wounds and unmet needs. The outcome is relentless disappointment in our partner, believing he/she is responsible for our despair, and the disillusionment that “happily ever after” might just be manipulation. How we were parented affects how we parent our children and how we relate to our intimate partner, requiring us to look at our family of origin and our childhood wounds to understand what traps us in an unfulfilling marriage.

When there’s conflict, it’s common to blame our partner for causing our discomfort or anger. However, the emotional trigger should compel us to look for the source. The other person is likely not the cause of our anxiety. We need to first accept our discomfort if we are to identify the root cause. It’s easier to look outside of ourselves, criticizing our partner, expecting him/her to change. Carl Jung suggested that what irritates us about others opens the door to better understanding ourselves. We often hold fixed beliefs about ourselves, which influences both the satisfaction and dissatisfaction we feel with our partner. We watched how our parents communicated, how they treated each other, as well as how they navigated conflict. They were our role models, for better or worse, teaching us how to relate to a partner in an intimate relationship. If the model our parents showed us was fraught with contention, abuse, power imbalance, divorce, or the loss of one or both parents, our relationship compass malfunctions, leaving us to navigate in the darkness without headlights.

We’re not paralyzed to change the patterns; however, we must consciously shape a new landscape for our children and our intimate relationships. The legacy that formed those unconscious reactions when triggered can be transformed. We must turn to those flames that have swept through generations and firmly push back on the inheritance that doesn’t serve us well. There may be some parts we want to embrace and other parts we will reject. This provides an opportunity to draw in our discomfort, examining it closely, digging into the root cause. This will help us in turning away from those flames to learn more about ourselves. We must try getting closer to our discomfort rather than avoiding it, allowing it to teach us about long-standing family patterns. It could lead to some interesting and helpful discoveries. This opens a door to share our insights, any epiphanies, with our partner and our children, revealing family patterns that trigger us. It can provide a great learning experience for us and our children to move beyond an uncomfortable dynamic. We can use this time constructively to express how we genuinely feel about our family history, assuming responsibility for some of our behaviors, attitudes, and reactions. Speaking from our perspective, rather than passing on any hurtful patterns, helps to soften some of the sharp edges. It’s an opportunity for candid discussions that will open pathways to powerful conversations with our children. Rather than protecting our children from our family’s legacy, let them be exposed to this. What evolves is meaningful connection as we hear how each of them feels about their experience and how each perceives our family members. A rich opportunity not to be missed!

We might believe we need to change a parent’s or relative’s behavior or attitudes, and yet it’s far more helpful to think about what we can learn about ourselves. One woman recently shared vivid childhood memories of her chronic anxiety as she monitored her mother’s vacillating behavior/moods — self-denigration; shame; random anger outbursts; trying to manage their sibling battles; escalating anxiety about finances. She realized that by focusing on her mother’s emotional barometer, she hadn’t paid any attention to her own emotions, all integral to the dysfunctional family dynamics. Within this profile, children learn to meet their parents’ needs, rather than parents assuming responsibility for meeting the needs of their children.

Becoming extremely sensitive to the family stress, these children unconsciously sacrifice their childhood rights, assuming some of the care-taking for the emotional and physical needs of the family. Within this, self-esteem is dependent on external validation. Family communication avoids any discussion of the reality. For example, a parent’s workaholism may appear to be responsible; overprotection of the children might appear to be loving; compromising parents’ needs and feelings looks like caring for their defenseless children. There’s no need to pass on the same legacy from generation to generation. This same woman began understanding that she could face her past honestly, sharing openly with her children and grandchildren, to spare them repeating these dysfunctional family patterns. Learning to parent by how we were parented makes it easy to follow the same tendencies, for better or worse. There are questions we can ask ourselves, just as this woman did, to better understand whether any of this was part of our childhood:

Did you provide emotional support for your parents when your own needs were being compromised?
Were you overly sensitive to your parents’ moods and emotions, while your own feelings were marginalized or shamed?
Was there something you wanted from either/both of your parents that you never received? (Ex: “That they would love me just as I was.”)
Do you have difficulty now in knowing what you need and what you feel?
Do you feel deserving of being protected or of asserting yourself?
Did you experience verbal abuse, name-calling, screaming, or shaming?
Did you often feel embarrassed or ashamed?
Did you often feel lonely? Invisible? Ignored?
Did you become judgmental of others?

It may be challenging to answer the above questions honestly. As young children, we don’t question our parents’ behaviors. Reflecting on the past can be painful, often eliciting anxiety, shame, and deep regret. We must heal consciously, intentionally, bringing transparency and honesty to the process. We can address this with our parents and grandparents, without blame, simply holding them accountable for how childhood impacted us. Releasing emotions that have been denied, either within our individual recovery or in their presence, while facing how we reacted to the behaviors and our family legacy, brings clarity to our experience.