The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…from folk wisdom to scientific study, all agree that conditions and character are passed down from generation to generation, whether by nature or nurture. Though most generational physical diseases have a genetic (nature) element, many behavioral conditions seem to be generational mostly by nurture, or parental programming. Since Mom and Dad didn’t set out to mess us up, it’s important we understand their roles in our mental health and find a way to get beyond our programming and become who we want to be. That’s what this article is about.
Patterns Of Anxiety, Anger, Addiction, Depression, Etc: My father has been dead over 30 years, but I often find myself leaning on my porch rail exactly as he did. I first discovered his subconscious influence on my life when I began verbally abusing my wife for no reason. That sparked what has become a 20-year study in human behavior. The patterns exist in every family, for good and bad, alike. With a few exceptions, traits of kindness and decency, addiction, cruelty, even odd tilts of the head and other quirks are found throughout every family. I believe these things could even be mapped if you had enough generational information.
Family behavioral traits are so reliable that many have tried to prove a genetic cause. While it’s convenient to pin our bad behavior or mental health issues on our genes, that kind of thinking may duck very real causes and prevent us from embracing possible solutions to our problems. After all, if it’s in your genes, you are helpless, right? Wrong! Even if there is a genetic predisposition for your anxiety, depression or addiction, just like cancer, it doesn’t mean you can’t avoid or recover from the condition.
Mental Health Isn’t Always In The Genes: While researchers have found some suspected physical causes of a few mental health issues, most are considered to be psychological in nature. This is why, for anxiety, depression, anger, addiction, pedophilia, anorexia, bulimia and all phobias, the preferred therapy is psychological counseling. Although the more severe of these conditions may also require medicine, it’s usually just to ease discomfort. In many cases, over time, a therapist can get back to one or two “root causes” and greatly ease the condition. In most cases, this isn’t possible because the root cause is a lifetime of experience rather than a single traumatic event. This is what many refer to as programming. Some call it a “cache” of experiences, just like your computer cache stores copies of pages visited. Unfortunately, we can’t just tell our brains to clear the cache, or selectively remove the “bad” experiences. We are “programmed” by these experiences because they form the basis of our actions and reactions from now on.
Programming…Understanding Normal: For most of us, even before we could speak, we learned how to be “normal” parents, spouses, employees, neighbors and citizens from our parents. These were sometimes very dysfunctional lessons because they didn’t know they were teaching us…they thought they were just living. You parents, please re-read the previous two sentences until you realize the importance of your every thought, word and action in the lives of your children and theirs. For most of us, despite how we hated the behavior of our parents, we became them. We became addicts, abusers, liars, complainers, cowards…whatever their chief characteristics, we acquired them. Why not? So far as we knew, that was normal. A few thousand years ago, a guy named Solomon wrote that we tend to become like those we hang around. Well, we hung around our parents for the first couple decades of our lives. Like it or not, unless we go to great effort to change our programming, the apple will not fall far from the tree. I’ve known a precious few who changed that initial programming and decided for themselves who they wanted to be.
Changing A Faulty Program: Changing these deep-seated programs is not easy, and requires great effort. That’s probably why many therapists opt for sympathy rather than help…sympathy is what most people want from them, because change is more work than they’re willing to do. The work is in changing your attitude…how you think and feel…rather than your behavior. Before you set out on this path, make sure you’ve explained what you’re doing with those who are closest to you because even a positive change in someone can be frightening if unexplained. Make sure they all know you still love them and are just working to improve some things about yourself. Also, let them know you’re not expecting them to change anything, just be patient with you. Once that’s done, you’re ready to begin.
Take a day or two to identify all the emotions, attitudes and character traits you no longer want in yourself…make a list. You’re not going to do anything with this except refer to it in years to come. The way to overcome these traits is by spending all your energy on new traits you want to cultivate into your life. So, take a day or two to identify the 10 or so character traits you want to build your life around. Use character traits of people you admire, for ideas. Now, take a day or so to define each of those character traits, then prioritize them.
Turn those traits into positive, present-tense statements that you will recite multiple times each day, and memorize over time. These are the new rules you will live your life by, so they must become as familiar to you as breathing. Post these traits on the mirror in your bathroom. Keep a copy with you and review them while you’re waiting in line or for an appointment. As you plan your business and personal activities, make sure you’re incorporating these character traits into every decision and action. During the day and at the end of the day, take a little time to assess your behavior against your new set of character traits. You don’t need to punish yourself or get down on yourself when, not if, you fail from time to time. Use these failures to learn new ways of handling situations in the future. That way, every failure becomes the root of a better future.
If you stay committed to your new set of traits and do the hard work I just described, you’ll see character changes in as little as a month. Still, as life situations change, you’ll discover long-hidden attitudes that are part of the old life rather than the new, so you’ll need to change them. You’ll also discover adjustments you need to make to your list of character traits. This takes time! It took your whole life to become who you are, so don’t think becoming who you want to be will happen quickly. After a year, look at the old list of discarded traits and compare your present behavior…you’ll see big changes. After 10 years, you might not be able to imagine how anybody could have the character traits on that old list, then it will hit you…that’s who you used to be. In my own experience, this process helped save my marriage, eliminate several addictions and anxieties and dramatically change my life to one devoted to helping others with their problems.
This article isn’t meant to suggest that all mental health issues can be resolved in this self-help manner. Always get advice from a professional therapist when dealing with mental health issues. That said, I can’t imagine a psychological condition that wouldn’t be greatly improved by this proactive, self-help process. Whether the cause is nature or nurture, as I see it, we who have faulty programming have two choices. We can wait for the scientists to develop a successful treatment for our problems…or…we can take responsibility for our own mental health and start treating ourselves while the scientists are figuring it out. Which choice has the most promise for your recovery.