Occasionally we are surprised when our behavior resembles memories of a parent behaving similarly. A vocal inflection, a mannerism, or a personality quirk may resonate with the likeness of a parent or someone in your past. Your own undesirable behaviors could remind you of the behavior of parental figures you had experienced as a child. However, despite traits that are reminiscent of our parents or other people who were meaningful in our lives, it is impossible that we are actuallylike them.
The most striking example of mistakenly believing we are like a parent, or primed to behave similarly, occurs in people who have been abused as children. Those who have suffered from childhood abuse often fear they are likely to abuse their own children or they may anticipate repeating the behaviors of their abusive or negligent parents. Some maintain they should not have children so that they do not repeat what they had experienced, as though badness is genetically passed down. In actuality, adults who were abused as children are no more likely to abuse their own children than are other adults their age. In a study published in the journal Science, researchers repeatedly followed up with adult children who had abusive parents and found that their children were no more likely to be abused than others their age.[i]Similarly, in a review of the research literature regarding adults who were abused as children, it was found that, at most, only one-third of the individuals who were subjected to child abuse and neglect were likely to repeat these parenting patterns towards their own children.[ii]Although adults who do mistreat their own children are more likely to have grown up in an abusive family environment where the use of violence and aggression was a means for dealing with interpersonal conflict,[iii]the inference cannot be made that people who grow up in an abusive atmosphere will take on that behavior. We do not necessarily replicate the parenting we received, even though occasionally we may fear identifying with what we have experienced.
Commonly, adults impose on a child or adolescent an identity or characteristic belonging to someone else. This identity-matching may involve anything from physical characteristics to specific personality traits. A child’s smile may resemble Aunt Jessica’s smile, but that doesn’t mean she is going to be like Aunt Jessica. Similarly, an adolescent may emulate his Uncle Ted’s comedic style, but it hardly touches the depth of who Uncle Ted really is, or who the adolescent will become. However, children do not always realize that personality development is complex and has little to do with the likeness or imitation ascribed to them.Nevertheless, emulating others and adopting superficial characteristics involves emotional meanings that are experienced at the moment. Thus, assimilating the behavior of someone into who we are is based on our emotional attachments to them, yet who we become is far more than these qualities alone.
A personal history is not just a composite of facts and information about our past involving our biological predispositions, social roles, and the system of assumptions or beliefs that we inherit in our culture. Those facets of our history are potentially shared by family members and others. The synthesis of who and what we have emotionallyexperienced has, for the most part, uniquely shaped who we are now. Thus, our personal history is not just about data, but about the incidents in which we experienced intense emotion.[iv][v]
The emotions we experience in the present have past histories. Our lifetime of responses to our emotions script or automate our behavior in different ways. All of our experiences where emotions were triggered, and how we responded to them, are compiled in our brain as scripts that contribute to forming the set of rules by which we live.[vi]In essence, these memories are compressed into mini-theories which help us make sense of regularity and change in our lives, and provide information concerning ways of living in the world.[vii]Thus, what’s unique about usinvolves the events, situations, and interactions with others in which we have experienced intense emotions, and how we’ve learned from them. This history is the wellspring of the fundamental qualities that make us unique, our essence, the sum and substance of our beliefs and ideologies, and our personality traits.
We did not experience the same past as our parents, including responding emotionally to events, situations, or other people as they did. As a result, we also learned differently from what we have experienced. Thus, we are fundamentally different than they are. Depending on how well we learn at present, our own scripted responses can either help or hinder us as we interpret, evaluate, and make predictions in our experiences.
[i]Wisdom, C.S., Czaja, S.J., and DuMont, K.A. (2015). Intergenerational transmission of child abuse and neglect: Real of detection bias? Science, 347, 1480-1485.
[ii]Oliver, J.E. (1993). Intergenerational transmission of child abuse: Rates, research, and clinical implications. American Journal of Psychiatry, 150, 1315-24.
[iii]Kwong, M., Bartholomew, K., Henderson, A., and Trinke, S. (2003). The intergenerational transmission of relationship violence. Journal of Family Psychology, 17(3), 288-301.
[iv]Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
[v]Gary F. David, Ph.D., personal communication, March 2019.
[vi]Tomkins, S.S. (1995). Script Theory. In E. Virginia Demos, Ed.,Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. New York: Cambridge University Press, 334.
[vii]Tomkins, “Script theory,” 290.