Something that’s been on my mind a lot lately is the idea of generational cycles of behavior. Probably most of us could identify some cycles in our families – both positive, life-giving behaviors as well as toxic, abusive ones – that seem to get passed down from generation to generation. When I had my son, the idea of generational cycles, specifically harmful cycles, sort of snapped into focus for me as I was considering not only what I want to pass on to him, but even my day to day parenting style. How do I speak to him? How do we go about disciplining and setting boundaries? And even if I have answers to those for myself, what if my husband and I don’t agree?
I was talking about this with my therapist a few weeks ago, and I mentioned how I’m sure I parent based on how I was raised, and her response was “doesn’t everyone?” And I realized that you don’t have to come from a background of abuse to be shaped by your past. And I wanted to challenge some of the beliefs I held close, as well as examine how to break out of abusive and harmful cycles in families. Just like with our physical body, I think we owe it to ourselves and those around us to take charge of our own mental health and try to be the healthiest versions of ourselves we can be. Especially in a world that doesn’t always put much emphasis on, and often stigmatizes mental health issues.
So here are some things I’ve been pondering and working through in my own life, and I thought I would share them here with you.
Generally, what is our definition of mental health?
First off, lets identify what we’re shooting for what we talk about mental health. A simple way to think about MH is the ability to hold opposing ideas in mind at the same time. This ability allows us the cognitive flexibility to handle stress and operate in the world, where many things are somewhere in a gray area, without constantly overwhelming us. You tracking with me? Cool. So, step one:
Identify the cycle.
Before we can set about making changes to harmful cycles, we first need to identify them. This sounds obvious, but if you come from a family that represses feelings (I’m raising my hand on that one, guys. Ever been asked a million times about the weather but never about anything remotely emotional? Yeh) then your tendency may be to shy away from finding problems. Don’t. Look for them. Talk about them. Talk about them with friends, your therapist, your family if it’s safe and you feel it’s beneficial for you to do so. Sometimes it feels like when you talk about abuse, it gives it power. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Talk. About. It.
By talking about a negative cycle, you begin to remove it’s power and the space it takes up in your brain, and you also begin to flesh out your abuser in your mind making them a multi-dimensional being. Why is this important? Remember our definition of mental health? When we can hold both positive and negative attributes about our abuser, it helps us actually separate the emotions we’ve assigned to them as not being negative or positive, but just being. That was a bit confusing, so here’s an example:
Growing up, my father was often very angry. He’s a perfectionist, and when things weren’t done to his high (or impossible) standard, it triggered him to become irate, verbally abusive, and degrading toward us. So, fast forward, now I’m a mom, and sometimes *shocker* I get angry. If I had never taken the time to flesh out my dad beyond just seeing him as “angry”, then it would be easy for me to make the mental conclusion: I’m angry, therefore, I’m like my dad. See where this is going? Instead, I have the ability to hold both anger and love for my son at the same time. I have the ability to allow myself to feel human, and the choice from there on how I handle my anger. Because that’s where the abuse really sits – in the handling of an overwhelming emotion in a negative and harmful way. Feeling angry by itself does not continue a cycle of abuse – it’s what I choose to do with that anger.
Is this getting any clearer?
Lets try the second point.
Don’t Run in the Opposite Direction.
Another reason it’s important to flesh out and separate the abuser from the emotions they experienced is to allow yourself to continue feeling the full spectrum of human emotion. If I have never identified my dad as anything other than “angry” then I might also conclude, that if he = angry, then for me to never become like that, I must = calm. Now we’ve assigned ourselves a limited emotional window to operate within, so that we never cross that imaginary line into “becoming the same as him”. However, lets run on over back to our MH definition. If we’re only allowing ourselves to hold one emotion, or one set of emotions, we’re not actually much healthier than the abuser with the opposite emotion (and please note I said healthy. I’m not in ANY way equating the two, but I am saying that by being afraid and restricting ourselves, we’re limiting our capacity for full mental freedom). When we’ve placed ourselves within very strict guidelines, we have to hold on tightly to maintain control over ourselves, so we don’t slip into an emotion we’ve identified as inherently bad. Abusers can be angry. Abusers can be calm. And what we don’t want to see is a generational pendulum swinging between extreme emotions, because this isn’t true health or freedom.
Give yourself heaps of grace.
Breaking a negative generational cycle isn’t done in a day. It’s a daily practice that leads to good weeks, good months, and good years. So take care of yourself. Find a therapist you trust and talk to them about it. Practice self care, pray, meditate, spend time with people who make you feel strong and empowered. Stay mindful, and you’ll be pretty surprised what you can overcome.
**As always, little disclaimer. I’m not a therapist (yet!) and even if I were, I don’t know everyone’s personal struggles. This is simply an explanation of what has worked in my life, and something I hope can potentially help you in yours.