“She has her mother’s nose”
“You sound just like your father”
“He takes after their side of the family”
From birth it seems the entire world tries to place us in a system where our identity incorporates those who came before us. If you have read the Harry Potter books you will know that several vital plot points rest not on what Harry does but on the fact he “has his mothers eyes.” We are very used to the idea that we resemble people who we may not even remember, or who we only know as elderly, while others still picture them as young, seeing past the wrinkles which dominate our memories.
It’s not just eye colour and dimples we inherit however. Families also pass on ways of being, codes of behaviour, values, attitudes, and they can have as huge an impact as Harry’s green eyes on the plot points of our lives.
It may seem obvious to point this out, of course families teach us how to act, however its often not about the formal teaching of right and wrong, but those informal methods, the things we absorb, without consciously saying -this is the right way to be. The fact these are unconscious messages often makes them far harder to unpick, and far more damaging as motivators. If we know why we make a certain choice, or behave a certain way, its a lot easier to change our behaviours, if we are not aware however, it can be as if we are a passenger in a car, being driven by an erratic, out of control driver.
Just like your mother?
Often this is one of the most frightening statements someone can hear, about either parent. As we grow we get to see two adults (assuming the average nuclear family) more intimately than perhaps they realise. We see the strengths, and the weaknesses of our parents, and it is a rare person who does not want to avoid the weaknesses. In the case of an abusive family background this can be an overriding priority.
However, because the messages are unconsciously absorbed, as well as consciously taught, not being like our parents is a lot tricker than it may seem. Especially if we are in some way rebelling against our image of our parents, of the messages we think they taught us. I am as you know, a keen archers fan, and two of the best drawn characters, in my opinion, are Jennifer and Kate. Jennifer appears to be the picture of all that is respectable. Certainly at the peak of Ambridges’ social life now, her concerns seem to focus on what kind of marble tiles to have in her kitchen. Kate on the other hand sees herself as a “free spirit” a rebel, particularly against the values her mother represents. Unfortunately this seems to come out as a series of ill thought out business ideas and romantic relationships, as well as creating a wedge between Kate and her own daughter.
Kate has built an idea of what her mother is, respectable, conventional, only concerned with outward appearance, and her prime motivator seems to be to be nothing like her mother. Except this view of Jennifer ignores that she was a single mother, at a time when illegitimacy was still, in the minds of many, an unforgivable sin. She faced down that prejudice to be where she is today. In more recent times she agreed to adopt her husband’s love child, again facing down those who would sneer or judge, and shows Ruairi love and support where many would struggle. Yes, she may have dedicated herself to being the best mum she could, but, given where she started, that in itself is an act of rebellion.
When our motivations are unconscious, be they to be nothing like our parents, or to please them by fitting to what we believe were their values, we are that passenger, sometimes in a driverless car, a very scary place to be.
Imagine if instead of trying not to be her mum, or her created image of her mum, Kate realised how much in common they had? Perhaps she would finally be able to embrace adulthood and be the driver, not the passenger in her life.
What were your messages?
Everyone has family sayings, stories they retell, legends trotted out across the years. These all go into forming our early beliefs about what is, and isn’t, acceptable. If your Dads favourite saying was look before you leap, you dont need to be told that risk taking isn’t something he praises. If its always your mum who takes time off work to attend parents evening, school plays, or when you are sick, you pick up ideas about whose work matters the most. When you are still being driven by these messages you can end up attempting to live up to them, or rebelling against them, rather than being the driver in your own life. The title of this piece comes from a comparison I have made in the past with clients, its like we are in a desert island, with messages in a bottle washing up, but no real knowledge of what the sender intended to happen with the message. One of the most important steps to taking control over your own life is to identify which messages are motivating us. Some we will want, others we may need help to disregard, but once we have brought them into the conscious mind, we are moving towards being the driver, not the passenger.