When Joseph was about to sin with Potiphar’s wife, a vision of his father popped up into his mind, and he suddenly felt he had the strength to ran away from the temptation. He could not break the holy chain which tied him to his father and the Jewish people.

Indeed, our ability to face difficulties and resist temptations has a lot to do with our parents. When parents live their lives with values, and act with integrity, compassion and self-discipline, then their children are more likely to possess these qualities themselves. Thus, when a child gets a poor mark on a test, tracks mud into the house, is insolent, or fights with a siblings, well-parented parents are likely to respond with calm dignity and logic, saying, “We’ll find solutions. You are safe with me. I care about you, not the dirt or the marks.”

Our ability to face difficulties and resist temptations has a lot to do with our parentsBut what happens to the children of parents who were violent, panic-stricken, depressed or living in an addictive fog? Their “attachment style” is totally different. Instead of focusing on solutions, they are likely to be flooded with feelings of failure, anger and anxiety when a stressful event occurs. If there is no memory of how it feels to love or be loved, then dysfunction feels normal. The desire to be calm and loving competes fiercely, and often unsuccessfully, with the urge to revert to old patterns, such as “Get the strap and hit the brat!” or “I can’t face the pain without booze (sweets, chips, Internet, etc.).” Thus, while trying to cope with external difficulties—bills, grades, messes or insolence—the poorly parented parent must also battle with intense emotional baggage which clouds his vision and logic. This parent might hear an inner voice saying:

  • “I told you that you’re an incompetent failure! You can’t do anything right! You should never have had kids. Why should your kids listen to you? They don’t respect you because they see that you’re a big zero. I always said that nothing good would come from you.”
  • “I told you never to trust people. People always hurt you, take advantage of you and betray you. So don’t get close to anyone. Protect yourself by attacking, blaming, criticizing or withdrawing.”
  • “You have to be willing to tolerate abuse to make a relationship work. If people don’t like you, it means you haven’t done enough to win their approval.”
  • “You don’t deserve love because you’re defective! You’re simply not good enough—not pretty/organized/brilliant/talented/sane enough. You’re not submissive enough, and not enough of a go-getter.”

Their obsessive self-criticism keeps people distant, since they feel unworthy of loveThese negative narratives are engraved on the mind before a child has any choice in the matter. Like a festering infection, they create inner anguish and lead to harmful behaviors that exacerbate the pain. Children who blame themselves for being rejected adopt an “I’m-not-good-enough” attitude. Their obsessive self-criticism keeps people distant, since they feel unworthy of love. They might think, “I’m totally alone, struggling to survive in a harsh and uncaring world.” What happens to people who want love but are scared to be abandoned and rejected? They may become people-pleasers who will do anything to win people’s approval, from lavish gifts and plastic surgery to martyring themselves and tolerating abuse. In contrast, children who blame their parents for their misery become chronically grouchy and nasty, distancing themselves from people by criticizing or ignoring them, acting like they don’t care whom they hurt and alienate. They find it impossible to compliment others, and scorn those who try to so hard to please them. Sadly, these two types often marry each other, with the first battling for crumbs of attention and affection, and the second wondering why those crumbs aren’t satisfying enough.

Another distancing tactic is called “anticipatory anxiety,” which keeps a person in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. It is hard to be happy when thinking, “The painful events that happened in the past will certainly happen again in the future.” This is a survival mechanism which keeps us safe and teaches us, “When I touched fire last time, I got burned, so I better not get too close.” When applied to human relationships, the expectation that one will be hurt, betrayed and rejected makes it impossible to trust. The feeling of agitation is familiar to women who have had many miscarriages and are afraid to get their hopes up, or singles who have been on hundreds of dates and expect the next date to flop as well. The brain wants to protect us by preparing us for the future, but keeps us wary, suspicious and distant.

A third defense mechanism is repetition compulsion, i.e., the tendency to repeat painful events from the past because that is what feels familiar and comfortable. For example, many abused children marry abusers, hoping to get love from the same type of person who hurt them in childhood. Research shows that about 80% of children of alcoholics marry alcoholics, even if they promised themselves never to do so, and even if there is no hint of an alcoholic background when they first meet the person. A woman with a cold and domineering mother might not see that the charismatic go-getter she is about to marry is a control-freak type who will criticize her just as her mother did. With her own children, she is unconfident and passive. And the woman whose mother was often depressed and dysfunctional is married to a man who gives her endless excuses as to why he cannot work at a steady job or keep to a schedule. The children think it is normal to be irresponsible.

The children think it is normal to be irresponsibleNegative narratives seem logical in view of their life experiences. It takes time and practice to learn how to recognize them, dispute them and overcome them. The only way to do this is to become aware. For example:

  • “I used to get angry whenever my children misbehaved, or when my husband didn’t pay attention to me. Now I see that any hint of rejection triggers memories of childhood, when my father suddenly abandoned my mother, saying he no longer loved her. At the age of three I lost not only my father but also my mother, who was too grief-stricken to care for me. I am now trying to change these harmful patterns. Instead of panicking when I feel hurt, I am learning self-soothing tactics. I tell myself that they have no intention to hurt me or abandon. In this way, I can focus on solutions and act like an adult instead of an enraged child.”
  • “My mother was an unstable, explosive borderline, whose mood changed on a dime. She would be upbeat and loving one minute, and then suddenly start throwing things and screaming at us for some major sin, such as making a mess or being noisy. Outsiders thought she was a saint, always ready to serve the community, but our home was filled with fear. We never knew what might set her off. I felt like a failure for not being able to win her love or protect my siblings from her. When I had children, I wanted to give them the love and security I never got. I barely slept, because I couldn’t let them cry. As they got older, I was scared to discipline them because I was afraid they would hate me. Having grown up with so much rage, I was terrified of conflict, so I gave in to their demands and felt guilty if they were unhappy. To me, being assertive meant being a mean mommy. It took time to learn how to set limits with love. This helps me feel more self-respecting. I’m no longer trying to be a superstar mom. I love myself as I am, as an average and imperfect person.”

Become the kind of parent you wanted your parents to beWe speak the “emotional language” of our homes as naturally as we speak our mother tongue. If the language spoken in your home was of fear, despair and anger, your brain might be still addicted to these states. The good news is that with effort and lots of practice, people can change these childhood patterns! How?

  1. Imagine having an M-16 and shooting down your “I’m-not-okay” messages. Notice, for example, if you are trying desperately to please someone, win their approval or suffer their abuse. Keep replacing the old messages with news ones, such as, “I don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love. I just have to do my best. I am worthy of love as I am, whatever my limitations.”
  2. Accept your limitations and feelings. Don’t be ashamed of feeling sad, lonely, overwhelmed or confused at times. You are an “emotional orphan.” The lack of a wise, stable and loving mother/father figure is a handicap.
  3. Become the kind of parent you wanted your parents to be. With effort, you can train yourself to be compassionate, reliable and responsible. Adopt a self-care schedule that helps you feel stable and sane. For example, have regular meals. Eat healthy foods. Sleep at least seven hours a night. Exercise daily. You must be very proud of your smallest efforts.
  4. Avoid critical people. Make friends with people who are reliable, trustworthy and responsible, and who will encourage your growth.
  5. Allow yourself to be average. Don’t try to be exceptional, as perfectionism creates tension and drives all the joy out of your life.

The Torah teaches us, “Be holy!” This means that no matter what we experienced as children, we can train ourselves to act with love and to practice self-discipline. In fact, the very effort to give others what we did not get pushes us to reach great spiritual heights.