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The Way We Were: The Influence of Our Ancestors on our Lives Today

Last week’s article: Stop Sleeping Through the Alarm generated an amazing amount of heartfelt sharing which touched me deeply. I think we all intuitively know that we’re meant to listen to our emotions rather than tune them out. But ironically, the whole reason that we struggle with our emotions and with food at all is that we’ve been forced, due to life circumstances and by the mentoring we received from key people in our lives, to tune our own intuition out and to ignore our own authentic and appropriate reactions to situations. We are forced into, or talk ourselves into, buying the opinions, needs and perspectives of our primary caregivers. Our survival depended on it at one point, at least our emotional survival did, and for many others their physical and sexual integrity did as well.

Our own sense of how well-loved and accepted we are in our families gets interpreted as a direct representation of how safe and loving the world at large will be.

If we felt unloved or were often made to feel guilty and ashamed just for being ourselves; for being kids who were learning and growing and therefore making occasional mistakes then we will expect the world at large to be equally as shaming and painful and to feel just as unacceptable out there as in our family of origin. If, in addition to those judgements, we were told we were selfish for not thinking of others when those others were unable or unwilling to take responsibility for telling us directly what they needed, felt, and expected of us and of giving us second chances, then we can confidently state that we have graduated Co-Dependent Basic Training camp, with honors.

As such we have a high level of skill in:

  • Believing that we can’t trust our emotions.
  • Believing that other people’s opinions are somehow more valid that ours. So any difference of opinion means we’re wrong, they’re right, we’re bad, they are good. No wonder we like to isolate and not share much of ourselves with others. No wonder we feel so bad and wrong and misunderstood.
  • Believing that we need the approval of others in order to feel worthwhile or okay about ourselves or our actions (regardless of the mental health and stability of those people). We never got the sense of genuine approval that every human needs from key people in their lives in order to develop solid and high self-esteem. So we continue to engage in the patterns of behaviour we were taught as young people, believing the problem is us and our many flaws, and hoping upon hope that one day we will get it right. And,
  • Believing that it’s all or nothing – no second chances – we have to be perfect, right out of the gate, and all the time. We can’t drop our “Here, let me help you, even if I’m exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown,” “Needs? I don’t have needs” image or we’ll face certain rejection and ostracism. Many of us believe we have solid “proof” of this but what we really have are instances, in relationship with other co-dependents, where we tried to take care of ourselves and were told we were selfish or shamed in some other way because that person, being co-dependent as well, really believed we are responsible for their needs and feelings and that we were, in fact, being rude and selfish etc. because we wanted to take care of ourselves first and not them. With models for relationship like that, while growing up, we did the only thing we could do, become just like them.

If that was your training in the world then you were taught to judge yourself, regardless of what you were doing or how hard you were trying, as not good enough and therefore flawed and unlovable. Even if you received praise there was always the underlying fear that it could be taken away at any moment by some small misstep. This constant egg-shell walking and self-doubt breeds either incredible apathy (depression) or competitiveness (anxiety) but it does not in any way create inner peace or positive self-esteem.

But what if, as you grow and develop and see more of people and of the world, you begin to realize that those folks who trained us up to be good practicing co-dependents weren’t coming from the healthiest space? Well intended? Likely, yes. But healthy?  No. Once you are old enough and educated enough to understand the difference between co-dependence and interdependence, are you still obligated to live by the basic training? Most of you would say no, but your behaviour would say otherwise. And that’s what counts. It’s not what you know, it’s what you do.

Regardless, what matters in regards to your mentors in life isn’t their intention, it’s how you interpreted it and how now as an adult you’re still harming yourself and delivering those old painful messages to yourself throughout the day as though they were the gospel and as though you deserve to suffer repeatedly for the sins of spilling the milk, pulling the cat’s tail, forgetting your manners etc.

The mentoring you received from key people about “who you are” and what’s “right” or “wrong” with you has, if you’re using food to cope in any way, led you to a place of fear:

  • Fearing rejection;
  • Fearing being seen;
  • Fearing judgement;
  • Fearing that they were right and that you are just plain unlovable;
  • Fearing life;
  • Fearing intimacy;
  • Fearing caring for yourself;
  • Fearing your emotions; and overall;
  • Sitting in a place of anxiety, doubting your ability to handle life; and
  • Doubting your that you deserve any happiness, peace and success you do create.

That’s the culprit, that old mentoring in how to view the world. And, folks, if you’re reading this, something in you knows that it’s time to shake that old albatross loose!

I’m sure that even if you absolutely love and admire your parents you’re able to see a few of their own thought processes that don’t quite make sense or that are more rigid than necessary. Well folks, love ‘em to bits (as hopefully ours will us!), and acknowledge that  these were your role models for how to think, feel and behave in the world and towards yourself and other family members. Their own approach to emotions and life stress, no matter how much it hurt you or how much you didn’t like it, was handed down to you through the natural human developmental process of learning by observing and experiencing, just as it was handed down to them by their caregivers and so on back through time. Now, that would be absolutely fantabulous if those little heirlooms coming your way were life-enhancing and led to a solid sense of self. Unfortunately, most of us received a different form of education. And, as many of you have likely guessed, that would be Co-Dependent Basic Training.

But why? Why would our parents teach us such harmful skills and treat us with such seeming disrespect or lack of regard for our feelings? In order to answer this question with more than just the standard  “Because that’s what they were taught,” let me take you on a little journey to explore the history of humans as a society. Ultimately we may come back to the same place of “That’s what they were taught” but with something many of you don’t have now, true understanding for them and therefore, for yourself.

In order to truly understand why we experienced what we did with our parents, we need to consider the historical and continued impact of some of society’s greatest traumas, such as war, famine, disease, abuse and homelessness on the development of the individual human and society at large. Of course a proper exploration of this subject would take a book. We could draw from any period from the dawn of mankind to now and find a generation who was touched by one or all of the above traumas, either through their own direct experience or from behavioural repercussions on the part of their traumatized parents and grandparents before them.  For example, just ask any second or third generation survivor of the Holocaust whether, even though they didn’t live through it directly, they were affected by their parent’s traumatization from it. The answer will be a resounding YES!

To put it more succinctly and to bring the point home to you specifically:

In preparation for this article I was unable to find any historical data speaking to a time when there was not a war going on somewhere in the world.

And closer to home, the longest period of time that the United States of America has not been at war with someone is 33 years (the period between the Civil War (1865) and the beginning of the Spanish American War (1898). In Canada, between our internal wars with the First Nations population and our Sovereign Nations (France and Britain), as well as the war of 1812 where the British (that included us at the time) battled with the U.S., and many entanglements abroad including of course World War I and II, the Boer War to name just a few, we have been involved in some form of military activity almost continuously as well. In fact it seems that since 1947 the Canadian Military has been involved in 72 International missions. That’s approximately 1.2 missions per year. And we thought we were a peaceful country? As a side note, I found it interesting to see that the names given many of these 72 missions were quite cheery:  Operation Support; Operation Unison; Operation Assist; Operation Harmony and Operation Good Will to name a few. There were also some not so upbeat code names such as: Operations Friction, Scalpel, and Grizzly.  I’m not so eager to be a part of those operations. But Operation Harmony sounds good. Incidentally that was the title given to Canada’s involvement in Croatia. But, I digress!

The point is: War is traumatic and as a race and as a people, even if you didn’t know it, you’ve been influenced by it.

The threat of homelessness, starvation and possibly death creates a fairly chronic state of P.L.A.*, I would say. And when humans feel anxious for long periods of time either because of the threat of something happening or from an actual event in their lives, they begin to experience many common symptoms. They get depressed, they experience diminished self-esteem, they often gain weight because of heightened level of cortisol (the stress hormone), they begin to experiment with drugs, alcohol, sex addiction, and other self-deprecating, numbing activities. They will have a greater tendency to act out their anger and fear on others verbally and physically and overall have little patience, feel overburdened, and have very limited ability to attend to all but the most basic needs of their offspring (put food on table – clothes on back – roof over head – job done).

You might say, Yes, Michelle, but that’s just war. But my point is, war bleeds into everything else. The fear based approach to life that so many develop from their experience of a war; the sense of scarcity of resources, of money, of people; the desperate need for external approval in order to create the greater likelihood of generosity from others and ultimately of one’s survival were all natural by products of living in desperate times. These coping strategies/adaptations to living during war time served a purpose.

For example, many of you were either raised by kids of the Depression or grandkids of the Depression. During the Great Depression, eating everything on your plate would be mandatory because there may not be anything coming your way again for a while. Also, parents would have endured great emotional and physical stress to provide basic necessities for their family. Dropping out of school to get a job and help support the family would be expected and not acknowledged (typically) as a hardship for the child. It was the way it was. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t traumatic.

Just because people didn’t have the time or space, due to desperate times, to acknowledge a loss physically or emotionally, doesn’t mean it isn’t a loss.

Think of the time of the Black Plague for example and how traumatic a time that would have been. We can see that clearly and our heart goes out to the millions who lost their lives and the many more who were left widowed or parentless in the blink of an eye. While I’m sure people cried and there was understanding of their pain, there would have been an expectation and a necessity that you would “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Everyone was grieving, resources were non-existent, and time was of the essence. Survival was paramount. But again, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t traumatic for those people. Those experiences would have had a lingering impact on how those survivors saw the world and how they coped with its harsh reality. There was simply to place to address that trauma and the feelings of fear and overwhelm that it would have triggered. So, it got stuffed and manifested itself in a variety of coping strategies, alcohol, raging, blaming, and shaming being among the most common.

Also, we all know that, even now, when there is an abundance of food in our part of the world, when we’re tired, hungry, and/or stressed about money, we’re a lot less balanced, things seem so much bigger and scarier and more overwhelming and if we are capable of yelling or striking out with our words or actions those are the times that we’ll do it.  Yes, we can certainly grow to a place of consciousness where we appreciate, in the moment, why we’re feeling unsettled and react with greater respect for ourselves and others but most of us need to be shown how to do that, it wasn’t our training. Nor was it our parents’. That’s my point.

The simple fact is that because of the impact of war and its many lingering tentacles, most of us were not raised by people who had a lot of modeling in being very grounded, open minded, respectful, or boundaried. Again, this is not because of any conscious ill intent but because of the genuine tooth and nail existence most humans have been living for most of their evolutionary history. Leading to an end result where most of us were not raised by parents who valued emotions. Historically for many humans there just wasn’t time, they were too busy surviving. As such, it’s highly likely that talk of needs to our parents would generate a comment about selfishness or a mini-lecture about how hard they work etc. either because they themselves were struggling with their own reactions to trauma and/or because that’s what they experienced themselves as children. The old adage “children should be seen and not heard” really came from a time when child raising was seen as a burden and not a joy, in large part due to the many stresses faced by parents historically (and today, if we’re honest, although those stresses look a little different). It was a societal agreement to disregard the child’s own wisdom as to what they needed and felt in favor or a more one size fits all approach to parenting, in large part because the emotional and social resources to attend to the specific needs of each child just weren’t available. It had nothing at all to do with what was truly best for or needed by the child.

Even if our parents really wanted to be open minded and grounded, their own modeling and training in life, just given the evolution of humanity and society at large, was such that they would often be unable to truly see that, instead of being open minded and grounded, they were actually quite stuck in their own rigidity and flawed thinking.  However, compared to their own parents, they very likely were open minded and grounded and respectful. In other words, given their role models, they were likely an improvement, unaware of how much there was left to be desired in their approach.

Thus, given that society has for the most part been flying by the seat of its pants and therefore our ancestors along with it have been struggling for their very survival, it makes sense that their approach to life would be laden with fear and fatigue. There would be no room whatsoever in many of our ancestors for things to not go as they planned; for any more needs or demands to be placed on them, even if it was just our need for a little affection or attention.

Instead, the instinctual human response to being overwhelmed is anger.

When we feel threatened by the burden of life, we strike out in defense. So, when we unwittingly added to our parent’s already maxed out load (either because of real or imagined stress on their part) we were often shocked and blindsided by the negativity and intensity of their reaction. We were asking a simple question it seemed, not a major request, but to them it was one too many things, added to their own parenting training and voila, you have a reaction that is out of proportion to the stimulus (us and our request for hugs, a drink of water, a broken window, etc.).

This is very confusing to a child who can sense that the reaction they are getting isn’t appropriate for their behaviour but can’t put that into words and don’t have the power to influence the other person to see that, acknowledge it and apologize.

Humans, like other animals, learn about life through the feedback that our environment and our families provide. Even though it feels bad a times and doesn’t entirely make sense, we still aren’t able as children to really understand that the way we’re being parented is confused or downright harmful. To us it just is the way it is. It’s all we’ve ever known, we have no other frame of reference and so, even if it feels unfair and wrong and terrible and makes us feel bad for existing, we believe it, we buy it, and we take up the stick and begin to beat ourselves with it too – just to be sure we got the message.

When you understand that your caregivers were simply offering their best given their modeling and their emotional, physical, psychological and financial  resources at the time it becomes much easier to see them as people, not all seeing, all knowing gods: We can see them as typically well meaning but misdirected because of their own confused training in life.

When you truly understand this piece something miraculous happens.

You begin to ask yourself if perhaps your perspective of yourself as flawed and unlovable, and of the world as overwhelming, scary and guaranteed to reject you, is perhaps also skewed. Ah ha! A crack has appeared in the door, the toughest piece of all has just been accomplished: A willingness to allow for the possibility that your current perspective on the world, and that of your primary models for life, is not accurate and therefore needs a tweak.

The rest of the process of change and healing goes quite quickly in contrast to how long and how hard we fight for this first key piece of awareness.

There is a reason that you do what you do with food and for why you feel as you do about yourself and about life. And, when you begin to see that those behaviours and feelings that you carry are built on flawed logic and erroneous assumptions that stem from the past trauma and subsequent emotional and physical coping strategies of your parents and their parents back through time, you learn to see yourself and the world in a more open and balanced way. Your need for food to cope falls away, and your sense of chronic anxiety is replaced with peace and confidence.

Our role (Michelle’s, Sarah’s, and the CEDRIC team) in your life is to facilitate this shift as quickly and easily as possible. That’s what we’re experts at. As long as there’s a crack in the door and you’re open to the possibility that your perspective on yourself and on the world may not be entirely accurate, you will be successful with stepping free of food and any other coping strategies that don’t serve you such as alcohol, drugs, tv, isolation, workaholism, procrastination, anger, and co-dependency (to name just a few of the common ones).

So, we can sit here now, from our vantage point and comfortably state that our parents and their parents and their parents before them were taught ways of thinking about themselves and the world and of interacting with it that were laced with all or nothing, fear based, the sky is going to fall any day mentality, because for them it often really could, and did.  We can see that, understand it and completely empathize. But are we willing to take the next step?

Once you’ve truly understood where the key people in our lives were coming from in their own life experience and education the next natural step is to ask yourselves:

“Where in my life to I continue to perpetuate any of those behaviours in myself or towards others?”

No matter what your justification for using those behaviours yourself, and their impact on your life, can you allow yourself to become fully conscious that you do those things and that they have an impact that undermines your overall happiness, just as it did theirs?  Once you’ve explored your own history, should you find any of those subtle little heirlooms, it is important to acknowledge that you are still playing out some old roles and actions in your life that you did not, until this very moment, realize were just learned behaviours and not genetic; not “who you were.” Those ways of being were established in your family as a means of coping with trauma.

That little tidbit of information may have been forgotten, or never fully understood before now. Instead you may have heard things like “We have a history of Alcoholism in our family;” or “We have a history of Schizophrenia in our family;” or “We have a history of suicide in our family.”  Fill in the blank with depression, anxiety, overweight, mental illness, physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc. etc. and you see quickly how things that have a very logical and real cause come to be these things that we “just have” in our family and therefore we can’t expect to overcome them and leave them behind. “It’s just how we are.”

Not true, actually. It’s how your ancestors developed in response to trauma in their lives and until now there haven’t been the time or the resources to stop, breathe, and look at those patterns to see clearly that they are just learned behaviours and not “who we are.”

You get to define who you are. You get to choose what you believe and how you behave towards yourself and to others. Many, many generations of humans did not have that same privilege. Each of those generations contributed to the patterns of thinking and behaving that you have now. But you are blessed to live in a time of personal freedom and exploding awareness the likes of which the world has never seen. We are now encouraged to grow and heal and look within; to express our emotions full and authentically; to communicate directly; to say no! (unbelievable); to let go of guilt; to not shy away from taking responsibility for our actions; and many more actions that would, not so long ago, have had many of us hung or burnt at the stake.

We can’t change the fact that our ancestors were traumatized and handed down some stuff that doesn’t work so well in today’s world. But, we have absolute power, now that we know that, to identify those old learned behaviours and thoughts in us that we would like to change and move swiftly beyond them to live a life full of passion, happiness and peace.

I’m ready when you are!

Love

The CEDRIC Centre - Michelle Morand

*FYI    P.L.A. = Permeating Level of Anxiety, a term I use to describe that constant state of disease that we feel within that something is just not right, that we have left something undone or are about to be blamed for something.

Posted in: 2010, CEDRIC Centre, newsletter

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2 Comments

  1. Julie October 30, 2010

    Wow Michelle, This has really helped bring some cohesiveness truth to my scattered mind. I’ve been feeling like I’m in a balloon of captivity and have over the years stretched it out reaching for freedom only to be pulled back inside. I’ve pulled up my bootstraps and accomplished some great weight loss and self care(about 8 times I’ve lost 15 – 25 pounds.)I’ve done some real soul-searching to find freedom and tasted it only to find myself defeated and back where I started. I’ve given up trying because I doubt there is any real freedom…the cycle will just continue as it has always done so what’s the point. I feel like an immature child who is no longer able to pretend her needs aren’t important. I’ve had to say no to some people in my life lately who aren’t used to me saying it. I’ve been terrified and hysterical after the fact. I feel like standing up for my needs now is life or death. The rest of my life will be hell if I don’t do it so I have to and I am. Now I need to know how to look after myself and move forward. I’m afraid of the cycles I’ve lived in for so long and them not changing. I’m standing on the edge. Thanks so much for what you have shared here and how clearly you have stated it. Sometimes it seems that no one around me sees there is anything wrong. “Why are you unhappy and always dissatisfied? You should count your blessings”..blah blah blah Anyway, thanks for a place to lay it out and for your great insight and website.

    reply
    • Michelle Morand October 30, 2010

      Thanks Julie! I am so glad to hear how this helped to validate and organize your thoughts. We all need someone to point the way and help us to understand why we feel the way we do so that we can get off our own case and instead, set about the task of lovingly identifying and meeting our own needs. I distinctly remember, early in my healing days, feeling completely defeated and overwhelmed just at the thought of trying to meet my own needs. I truly believed they were endless and that if I opened the door to taking care of myself as much as i needed to I would be an insatiable, demanding, being and become a slave to myself. The exact opposite is what’s actually true. Just like a child who becomes self-reliant and happy and peaceful and loving when their needs are met, I too have become that way within and instead of feeling immediately overwhelmed by knowing I have a need, I naturally, immediately attend to it and often, within just seconds, feel a greater sense of peace and ease within myself and greater confidence in my ability to care for myself with love and respect. So, hang in there! Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should be thinking or feeling. Know that there is always a reason why you think, feel and behave as you do and seek to understand yourself. You’ll be surprised how easy the solution often is and how quickly you start to feel more peaceful in life overall. This of course has a profound impact on your need for food to cope making it a relic of your past and not at all the old knee jerk reaction it had come to be. Love Michelle

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