Steve and Karen—late thirties and married for nine years—are sitting, facing each other, during their sixth session. Steve says, “Karen never wants me to go surfing, but I love surfing. It mellows me out.”
Karen looks dismissively down at Steve, “Boys just enjoy playing with their toys.”
Steve, outraged, responds, “You sound just like your mother.”
Karen, more outraged, snaps back, “How dare you compare me to her! You know what she’s like!”
Karen does not want to consider that she has a contemptuous side, originally absorbed from her often selfish and demanding mother, that repulses her so much she denies or defends when it shows up. As long as she keeps denying or defending, she blocks integrating—healing and digesting—this part of her personality into her larger self.
What’s going on here?
From birth onward, humans are learning machines. If you’ve ever tried to master another language, you know how hard it is to absorb enough vocabulary and grammar to have even rudimentary communication. Human toddlers grow from knowing very few words at seventeen months, to having conversations at twenty-seven months.
Babies learn way more than language—as we grow we absorb the personalities and cultures that surround us. We come into the world with a hundred billion neurons (each neuron with eventually ten to twenty thousand connections with other neurons), but only seventeen percent of these hundred billion are hooked up into neural networks at birth. Newborns look into mom’s eyes, and her brain (especially her right hemisphere the first two years) communicates with baby’s brain (especially baby’s right hemisphere the first two years) causing neurons to form neural networks that are rapidly myelinated (insulated and reinforced by fatty sheaths of myelin) by the infant’s super-charged nervous system. Spoken language, more a function of the routine-oriented left hemisphere, starts coming fully on line in the second two years of life when the left hemisphere is more dominant—but language is just part of the avalanche of human development. Starting before birth—through mirror neurons in our brains and our general social tendencies to harmonize in every way with people close to us—we copy and encode family members tones, attitudes, expressions, and even beliefs.
Thus, as we grow up, we absorb personality traits from the people around us—especially those we spend the most time with like mothers, fathers, siblings, nannies, grandparents, and other caregivers.
Yes, we infuse the personality traits of people who raise us—both the positive and negative.
Think about what this means for a second.
Your beloved father, caring and attuned, exists in you.
Your feared father, screaming and hitting, exists in you.
Your adoring mother, cuddling and nurturing, exists in you.
Your angry mother, emasculating and rejecting, exists in you.
Your protective brother who always looked out for you, your jealous brother who competed with you, your loving sister who supported you, your…..all exist to some extent in your personality.
One of the main tasks of human development is lifelong integration of all these different aspects into a coherent self with a positive life story. This is complicated by the fact that none of us particularly wants to see or acknowledge the negative parts of our family that now live in me.
There’s a branch of study called Internal Family Systems (developed by Richard Schwartz) that is based on people containing many subpersonalities, family members among them. Lots of other researchers and therapists from Carl Jung to Fritz Perls to Roberto Assagioli have advanced similar constructs. Central to everyone’s approach is the idea that we have a core authentic self who needs to take responsibility for our many subpersonalities and integrate them into a mature whole.
The worm in the apple of these elegant approaches is reflected in Karen’s “How dare you!” reaction to Steve’s, “You sound just like your mother.” We don’t want the burden of unattractive family traits that are now me. Not only that, when we start acting badly, we tend to avoid self-awareness—as in denial (“I’m not being contemptuous!”) or defense (“You’re damn right I’m sick of you being an idiot!”)
But facing and accepting who we are is exactly how we liberate ourselves from repulsive or scary inner aspects and turn them into strengths that help us understand and deal with our own and other’s selfishness and violence. We need to see our defensive traits, feel them, acknowledge them, and help them mature and grow. Many of us will never see family members acknowledge how they hurt us, and we can’t do it for them (Karen is not going to change her mother’s selfish meanness). Such work has to be done by the person herself.
All of us can perceive, accept, and integrate what exists in us, and we have a responsibility to do the work or else suffer the consequences of hurting people we love the way we were hurt.
Several sessions down the line, Karen tells me, “I know I get nasty like my mother did and I hate that part of me.”
This makes me smile and nod approvingly, “Good work! You can feel how that habit lives in you, and you want to do something about it to not hurt Steve. Your job is to manage your contemptuous self the way your mother couldn’t.” Seeing Karen’s confused look, I continue, “We don’t erase reoccurring personality patterns, we integrate them. If you can hear the mean tone and feel the angry attack, you can catch it, apologize to Steve and better understand how you sometimes get dismissive when you’re hurt or frustrated. How would it have been if your mother had done that?”
Karen’s eyes narrow, “She never apologizes.”
This makes me laugh. She looks surprised, “What?”
I get more serious, “You see how you’re still so angry you don’t want to even imagine her kinder? I’m not saying you’re wrong. People like your mom who refuse to self-examine and change can stay stuck in horrible habits their whole lives, but that’s not you. You can heal that contemptuous-mother part of you with acceptance, compassion, and assertion with yourself—don’t let yourself use dismissive tones with Steve, and look for deeper understanding. You could say, “I’m sorry” when you attack him. Steve can help. He’s a good guy when you’re not trashing him.”
Karen nods thoughtfully. “He does say I have trouble apologizing, and I have to admit things go better when I do.”
We can all make such strides if we look for the positive and negative aspects of our family members we’ve absorbed, and commit to accepting, healing, and integrating all of them—even the hard ones. Try it yourself. Listen to your voice today. Observe how you think about and relate with your partner, family, and friends—see if you can monitor your thoughts, words, and tones.
Notice the caring and the hurting, the loving and the rejecting, the self-aware and the clueless. Who from your childhood acted similarly, and how did you feel about them when they did? You’ll probably resist such awareness, but—if you can hold on to immature and negative traits with acceptance while directing yourself to caring and assertive thought and action—you’ll make progress doing what some family members might not have been able to when you were small, heal old wounds and turn violence into love.
More importantly, as the conductor of your inner chorus of selves, you’ll keep everyone moving towards sweet harmony.