Why Do I Repeat My Parents’ Hurtful Behavior with Others?

Father and adolescent child lie on bed, heads on their arms, having a conversationMaddy: “I hate myself. I’m just like my mother. She always bossed my father around and was so controlling with me and my brother. Now I do the same things with my husband and kids. I don’t know why I can’t stop myself from always telling them the right way to do everything. I’m her all over again.”

Frank: “I feel like a terrible person, no different than my father: so rational and unempathic. Ugh! I hated that about him; how can I be just like him? I don’t like myself when I’m that way, especially with my wife. I know it’s hurtful, but I don’t seem to be able to change.”

Ellen: “I can’t believe I’m doing to my son exactly what my mother did to me. She made me crazy with her anxiety, and now I’m doing that to him. He just graduated, and I insisted he go to a close-by college. I was so worried. I know that was selfish and not best for him. My mother’s worry always limited me. Why didn’t I stop myself from doing the same to him?”

Maddy, Frank, and Ellen are bewildered when they find themselves repeating relationships with their parents that had a negative impact on them. Consciously, these behaviors feel unwanted and dysfunctional. They don’t wish to inflict the hurt and pain they experienced in their childhoods on their significant others. They recognize the repetition and seem puzzled and unable to understand why they feel helpless to stop.

Ambivalence About Giving up Repetitive ‘Bad’ Behaviors

Each of these individuals consciously expresses self-hate when they recognize they are hurting loved ones in the same way a significant other hurt them in childhood. They identify that their own hurtful behaviors make them feel like bad people, out of control and/or hopelessly mean. Yet they also express ambivalence about changing these behaviors. When we explore and try to make sense of their resistances to change, each person, in their own way, embraces the behaviors of the parent who offended.

Maddy: “I don’t want to be this way, but honestly, it’s hard to imagine giving up control. I really believe I do many things much better than my husband and kids. In the end, I think it’s to their advantage to do it my way.”

Frank: “I know I’m an awful person because it’s so hard for me to appreciate my wife’s feelings. But she’s so irrational. Really—does it make sense that she’s so beside herself when her friend gets annoyed with her? It drives me crazy. I know I should be more caring and understanding, but I really think she needs to get more control of herself.”

Ellen: “I know it’s selfish and wrong that I’m such a worrier and my son has become a worrier. But I’m relieved he’s extra careful and cautious in his life. He said he wanted to go away to college. But I know him, and in my heart I believe he was relieved when I said he had to go to a local school. I think he feels taken care of when I worry.”

These three individuals reflect about their actions in similar ways. Rationalizing, they believe their behaviors are acceptable. At the same time, they attack themselves for repeating with people they love in the present what was hurtful to them in the past. The contradictory notions about the effect of their behaviors make change difficult to embrace.

Even though they rationalize and describe positive outcomes from repeating the behaviors of their parents, they experience bad feelings about themselves when they hurt and create conflict with loved ones. More than experiencing themselves as hurting people they love, the idea that “I’m just like my parent” is anathema. The idea of being “just like my parents” is not simply the feeling of “similar to.” Rather, it feels like “I am my parent.” This unwanted and intolerable experience of self can interfere with feelings of self-confidence and self-esteem and can play a role in the development of anxiety and depression.

With the unending pushes and pulls (between rationalizing and self-attack) to both enact and avoid repeating these old family patterns, stuck-ness in the repetitions and conflicts is solidified.

The Role of the Unconscious

These folks are not aware of any unconscious dynamics that may be keeping them anchored to their untenable positions. But if change is to occur, an understanding of the role of the unconscious in resisting change and perpetuating early parent-child relationships is essential. The aim is to uncover the unconscious meanings of holding onto the status quo and how repeating these behaviors serves each person (even when, consciously, that doesn’t make sense to them).

I will focus on my work with Frank to describe how we explored and became familiar with his unconscious and how that helped him with his conflicts and the repetitions of his early father-son relationship.

When Frank walked into my office, I sensed a man in conflict. He was assertive and self-assured but also vulnerable and defensive. He came into therapy concerned he wasn’t cut out for marriage but wanted to work on making the marriage work.

“I love my son,” he told me. “I suppose I love my wife, too, but I don’t know about me and marriage. If only for my son, I want to make it work. It’s hard to think of her needs. I get contemptuous when she doesn’t do or see things my way. I can be mean. I hate that it makes me feel just like my father. I could never do anything right—right meant doing it his way. He was a bully. I don’t do that with my son. But I bully my wife and I can be condescending with my colleagues at work. I feel horrible when I behave like my father. He made me feel like I was nothing, and now I keep doing it to others.”

If change is to occur, an understanding of the role of the unconscious in resisting change and perpetuating early parent-child relationships is essential. The aim is to uncover the unconscious meanings of holding onto the status quo and how repeating these behaviors serves each person (even when, consciously, that doesn’t make sense to them).

Frank and I spent many sessions talking about his relationship with his father. He was close to his mother, who was also bullied and couldn’t protect him from the onslaught of demeaning and destructive behaviors he encountered. Frank had some ideas about how, because of his father, he became tough and resilient:

“I probably was about 6 and I remember telling myself I would never let him get to me. I’d never cry or give him the satisfaction that he hurt me. I never asked for anything. I left home when I graduated high school and moved to another state. I stayed in touch with my mother, who would always talk about my father. I guess I stayed curious about him. I hated him, but I never stopped wishing he would be nice to me or give me the feeling he cared. On one rare visit, I told him I was doing really well and was getting a CPA, but he didn’t say much. [Sigh.] I wish I could have made an impression on him. He died right after I got my CPA. I hate to admit it, but I never stopped wanting him to be my dad. It’s too late now.”

Frank and I became aware of how conflicted his relationship with his father was. He hated him but appreciated how his behavior drove him to seek recognition by becoming strong, independent, and ambitious. Fundamentally, Frank’s strongest feelings resided in his abiding wish for his father to “be my dad.”

When I asked Frank what “being my dad” meant to him, he was thoughtful, then tearful: “I wish he was a dad like I am. My son knows I love him. I listen to him, praise him, show him affection. I play with him. He knows how important he is to me. I never had any of that.”

The more we talked about Frank and his father, the more in touch Frank became with his longing for a father—a dad. We puzzled over what made it difficult for Frank to let go of the hated father in him. Frank began to wonder: “You and I talk about my unconscious. Maybe my unconscious believes if I hold onto my hated father long enough, I’ll get the dad I so badly want. With my son, I’m not my father, I’m a dad. Now maybe I have to let go of the father in my unconscious and be the ‘dad’ with the people I care about in the world. I sort of get that I’m struggling with this, but I don’t know how to pull it off. Maybe if I could be more of a loving dad with the people in my life, I could let go of the bad dad inside me. Then I might feel better about myself and feel recognized and appreciated in the world. How do I get there?”

Frank was well on his way to getting there when he had the profound recognition of his holding onto his father as a way of trying to experience the dad he had longed for since early childhood. It is not unusual for repetitions of hurtful early parent-child relationships to be repeated in adulthood with the unconscious wish to transform a negative or hated significant other into the idealized parent that the adult continues to long for. The holding onto the destructive parent, by taking on the parental behaviors and repeating them as one’s own, feeds the unconscious wish for having the parent under one’s control, but it doesn’t provide the wished-for, idealized parent.

When one can recognize, as Frank did, that the perpetuation of the hurtful parent doesn’t and will not provide what was missed, it is easier to let go of the repetitions and embrace a more positive role model in one’s own behavior. As a result, more positive self-feelings emerge and facilitate more loving relationships.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, Individuation Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Benji

    October 17th, 2016 at 7:35 AM

    We can all tell ourselves that when we have our own children we won’t do things the way that our own parents did. But the truth is that old habits are hard to break, even when they are not your own, and if this is how you were treated as a child it is hard to not do your own kids the same way. I am not saying that it can’t be done but I think that we have all found ourselves in a situation where we say or do something to our kids and we automatically think oh man, that is exactly what my mom or dad used to do to me, even though I swore that I never would.

  • Ann

    October 17th, 2016 at 10:04 AM

    So most of us still came out ok with the parents that we had. There doesn’t always have to be something that was wrong with them, just maybe different than what is more acceptable today. I got spankings and was put on restriction and hey, I survived.

  • Trey

    October 17th, 2016 at 5:57 PM

    I don’t have kids yet so I can’t say what I will or won’t do with them but I do think that there are times with my work peers that I will hear myself saying things and doing things exactly like my dad would have.. It’s like this is so ingrained in you that for better or for worse it can be hard to shake.

  • Kaylee

    October 18th, 2016 at 2:05 PM

    like it or not this is who most of us get our role models from

  • Cherith

    October 19th, 2016 at 10:32 AM

    My parents would think that it was some sort of rebuke against them if I did not raise my own children the way that we were raised. I don’ know that they would feel great about that, so… there I am.

  • Scarlett

    October 21st, 2016 at 10:38 AM

    There is no one who is ever going to be perfect. If you don’t like the behavior that you are modeling then you have made a great first step in being able to recognize that. You can’t just ignore that this is happening so why not acknowledge it and then make a conscious decision to change it? It might be hard, after all this is what you have always known, but that is no excuse for not looking to self improvement when you have the ability to do that.

  • merritt

    October 24th, 2016 at 10:44 AM

    It is usually those things that we swore that we would never do that we find ourselves doing automatically

  • Rogelio A

    December 1st, 2017 at 9:38 PM

    The reason is that, whether you decide to be exactly like your father or the exact opposite of your father, in both cases you’re putting your father in the center of your life. Even though you’re saying with words that you don’t agree the way he is, you’re giving him enormous importance and power (at least in your own life, which is what we’re talking about here). Sometimes we’re not aware that “to hate” someone (or simply not agree with) is a challenge, that is not easy (the risk is to become what we hate). And, since I’ve given to him so much power and importance, chances are that I may follow some of his steps. And sometimes we don’t repeat patterns with ourselves, but we find someone with similar patterns, and we marry that person. And that’s ok. Couple relationships are a way, too, to confront us with our own unsolved problems… I do believe that repeating a pattern is a sign of an unsolved problem, of a lost battle.

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