The Inheritance of Dysfunctional Thinking

A Bracing Walk on the Cliffs, Filey, 1963

A Bracing Walk on the Cliffs, Filey, 1963

The photo above was probably taken some time in 1963. It shows (from left to right) my mother’s parents, my mother, my younger brother (in the pram) and me, all apparently out for a “bracing” walk on the sea cliffs. A book that I’ve recently been reading caused me to think about how I “inherited” unhelpful ways of thinking and reacting from my parents, without even realizing it.

Based on the background details, the location of the photo definitely isn’t Scarborough, and in fact I believe it’s the nearby town of Filey. Given that he doesn’t appear in the photo, I assume that my father was behind the camera.

At that age, I could never understand the attraction of these walks, in cold and windy weather. If you must go walking on a cold day, then why not at least choose a sheltered place in which to do it? Why walk along the top of a sea cliff? I went along only because I was given no choice in the matter. Now, of course, in retrospect, I see the exercise value, and understand the fact that my parents and grandparents appreciated the clean seaside air, which must have been such a contrast compared to that of the dirty industrial city in which they’d grown up.

As is probably the case for all families, the scene of calm in the photo above hides all manner of inter-personal tensions and frustrations, many of which were never even discussed, let alone resolved. It wasn’t until I myself became an adult that I began to realize that I had unconsciously inherited some of my parents’ dysfunctional ways of interacting with the world.

The Dysfunctional Parents of H G Wells

Wells Aspects Of A Life: Cover

I’ve just been reading the book H G Wells: Aspects of a Life by Anthony West, and biographical details in that book prompted me to compare the dysfunctionality in Wells’ family with that in my own.

West, who was Wells’ illegitimate son by author Rebecca West, goes into considerable detail concerning the lives of his father’s parents. Although I knew the broad outline of their history from other biographies, it is clear from the additional details in this book that both parents not only had serious personal shortcomings, but also that their marriage was a complete failure for most of its existence.

Wells himself found it necessary to defy his mother’s wishes, knowing that, whatever direction he took, she would be unhappy with him. His mother was quite determined that he was not to “rise above his station” in life, and tried to force him to become a draper’s apprentice. She did nothing to support his efforts to forge a career in teaching, and then in writing. She remained unreasonably critical of him, even after he rose to international fame.

Our Parents Made Us in Their Image

I’ve come to realize, over the course of my life, how we all inadvertently tend to inherit both successful and dysfunctional coping mechanisms from our parents. We all grow up assuming that the way that our parents behave is the way that all adults behave (because what other reference do we have?), so we tend to adopt their approaches to problems, without even being conscious of what we’re doing.

Nobody is perfect, of course, and that’s as true of ourselves as it is of our parents. The problem here is that, by unquestioningly inheriting our parents’ ways of dealing with the world, we may unnecessarily condemn ourselves to repeat their mistakes and frustrations.

I suspect that this inheritance creates many problems that are sometimes claimed to have a genetic basis, when in fact the children simply learn the flawed responses from their parents. For example, is a tendency towards optimism or pessimism, or to “addictive” behavior, really genetic, or is it just learned behavior, based on observations of our parents?

This Be the Verse

The British poet Philip Larkin, who spent much of his adult life in the Yorkshire city of Hull, described this phenomenon very succinctly in his well-known work This Be the Verse. For the most part, the parental curse is by no means deliberate; as Larkin says, “They may not mean to but they do”.

City Hall, Hull, in 1981

City Hall, Hull, in 1981

A Ray of Light

This may seem like rather a downbeat topic, suggesting that we’re all trapped by the shortcomings of our parents, but it really shouldn’t be seen that way. Surely, the key to breaking the chain of “inherited dysfunction” is first to realize that that’s what is happening.

Once you realize that you’re automatically copying your parents’ coping mechanisms, instead of considering whether there may be alternative approaches that would work better, you’ve taken the first step to escaping from this trap.

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