People tell me over and over how “impossible” it seems to change their unwanted attitudes and that they have “no idea” why this is. If you’re reading this book, clearly you want to make changes in your life. If you want these changes to last, you’ll need to understand the how and why of guilt and resentment. How things you experienced in dealing with your parents and siblings created self-defeating patterns in you. Why these very same self-defeating patterns keep you from functioning as well as you can, or from being the person you’d like to be. All the willpower you have and the new year’s resolutions you make will not help you function better or assist you in becoming the person you truly do want to be. Why? Because long after you’ve left your family, your childhood patterns continue to show up and impose themselves in your adult life.
Ever heard the joke about the young man who calls his mother and asks her how she’s feeling? With a moan, she replies, “Oh, I haven’t been doing well at all.” “What’s wrong, Mom?” he asks. “Well, I haven’t eaten for thirty days.” “How come?” She replies, “Because I didn’t want to have my mouth full in case you called.”
Why do we laugh at that joke? Because it makes it easier for us to think about unpleasant experiences with our parents, experiences we’ve all had and that may have had a negative impact on our emotions and behavior. In that particular joke, the young man’s mother makes him feel guilty for not calling more often by showing him how hurt she is. Imagine the impact on the man in the joke if his mother had treated him this way from childhood on up. Maybe he’d feel guilty about not being attentive enough to her. And maybe he’d then go on and live his life . . . all his dealing with others . . . feeling it was wrong to put his needs first. Ultimately, he’d end up being angry with himself for doing just that. Imagine living life this way.
People often don’t give much weight to the impact their parents’ and siblings’ guilt-provoking behaviors have on their lives. Yet, the repeated comments and actions that make us think that we’ve wounded and threatened them just by being ourselves add up to affect us deeply. The joke above, along with its possible lifelong repercussions, makes us think that we should give our parents’ influence more weight. Your childhood probably had its share of carefree fun, exploring, risk-taking, sports challenges, “I dare you’s” and “I double-dare you’s.” But “carefree fun” can quickly become “guilt-provoking events” when, for example, your parent cries out “You’ll kill yourself!” as you skateboard down the hill in front your friend’s house. Or “You’ll get pneumonia” when you get home from school with your jacket off and sweater tied around your waist.
Then there’s the “You’re giving me a heart attack” when you miss the bus from the mall and get home twenty minutes later than you said you’d be home. What are the results of these repeated bombardments of parental anguish? You, the child, start believing that being carefree, playful, and adventurous, threatens your parent’s emotional well-being. And what do you do? As a loving child, you try to protect your very worried parent from more suffering by curtailing your normal childhood activities. Where does this leave you? Becoming a grown-up with a very cautious, inhibited attitude about sports specifically and life generally. And if it is sports you’re overly cautious about, you’ll be reluctant to ski, hike, bike; moreover, you’ll have trouble overcoming your caution no matter how frustrated you feel, how hard you try, and how much you will yourself to master a sport.
Fact or Fiction? Where There’s a Will There’s a Way
“Where there’s a will there’s a way.” Sound familiar? Every day I hear people dismayed at their inability to control some behavior. And they blame themselves . . . “I can’t find a way to make more money,” “I can’t figure out how to lose more weight,” “I can’t understand how to have a lasting relationship.” You yourself have probably made a New Year’s resolution (or two, or two thousand) vowing to change something you didn’t like about yourself. And you failed, right? And so you felt frustrated when you noticed you were repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and you felt panic-stricken when you realized they were the same mistakes your parents made. You felt worse knowing you’d vowed that you’d “be different” than they were when you grew up. Comedians often make us laugh about “guilt trips” our parents lay on us. But the truth is, they’re no laughing matter. Their negative effects are long lasting and their guilt-provoking behaviors hold us back from achieving our dreams, whatever those dreams may be.