If there’s one promise an unloved daughter makes to herself—and I am willing to bet that it’s universal since so many women, including myself, have alluded to it—it’s that she’ll never treat people the way her mother does. I think I was no older than seven when I made this pledge to myself. So I understood the absolute horror and urgency of a private message I got from a reader the other day which read: “Help! I think I’m turning into Mom. I said some things that sounded just like her. TO MY HUSBAND AND KID! What do I do?”
It can and does happen—that awful moment when you hear yourself saying something your mother might say or did say to your spouse or partner, a friend, or even worse, your own child.
Imagine this scenario: You’ve spent days researching contractors, designs, and costs for the planned kitchen renovation and your husband suddenly doesn’t want to go forward. Did you really just tell him that his refusal to consider renovating the kitchen was typical of how cheap and controlling he always is?
You get home from work dead tired and realize you have to do the laundry no matter how beat you are. You do it and all your clean laundry is covered with white flecks of paper because your kid left wadded-up tissues in three pairs of jeans. Is it really your job to check a pre-teen’s pockets? Did you really just call her lazy and a bad kid?
This is what old emotional baggage from the past—the unexamined kind—can do to the present. Triggers—feeling devalued by your mother or unappreciated by everyone in your family of origin— can set off a cascade of reactivity and emotions that effectively hijack your ability to think and process emotion. In that moment—when your husband ‘s words sound like the put-down that was the daily fare of your childhood and you feel put-upon just as you did when you were a girl because Mom treated you like a maid—you’re just hot with anger and the words fly out of your mouth. Quite literally, the prefrontal cortex of your brain where higher reasoning lives is shut off. In their book Parenting from The Inside Out, Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell call this “low-road processing.”
It’s low-road processing that can make you sound and act like the woman you’d swore you’d never emulate, Mom.
What Siegel and Hartzell call “high-road processing” is what we all aspire to and need to make part of our daily lives. It originates in the prefrontal cortex and involves reflective thinking, awareness of our reactions and the triggers that set them off, and measured and controlled responses to the situation at hand.
Staying off the low-road can be done. Remember that it’s the triggers—those reactions or actions in the present that flood you with the same feelings you had in childhood because of how your mother treated you—that put you on the low-road to begin with. Staying sensitive, in the present, and alert to those triggers as well as being in touch with your feelings are key.
Let’s go back to the scenarios I described at the beginning. The minute it becomes clear that your husband is backing down from his promise, you feel yourself getting angry and upset, and maybe even literally hot. It’s at this moment that your thinking brain has to shout stop, look, listen before it gets hijacked by that flood of feelings. (The stop, look, listen is advice I got from a therapist years ago. If you do it enough, it actually can become a reflex when you feel the cascade begin.) For the moment, don’t say anything until you can get your feelings under control. If necessary, excuse yourself and go into another room so that you can start sorting out the legitimate feelings—“What a waste of time and energy doing all that research” and “He really has to be more upfront with me about his hesitations”—from the reactivity that was triggered from old experiences. This isn’t easy but it can be done. The same advice goes for the laundry scenario with a child although it should be said, since children are actually damaged by a mother’s low-road processing, it’s really important that you concentrate your efforts on how you stay on the high road with your kids.
And there’s nothing wrong with apologizing for your bad behavior and then calmly discussing how your husband’s and daughter’s actions were less than perfect as well.
Parenting is a learned behavior and the more conscious awareness we bring to the job, the better we’ll be at it. As long as you keep track of that old baggage and its effect on you, there’s no reason you can’t stay on the high road most, if not all, of the time.
Photograph by Dimitri Ratushny. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
READ: Siegel, Daniel M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed. Parenting from The Inside Out. New York: Tarcher Penguin, 2003.