From the first time we open our eyes we begin imitating our parents. When our caretakers smile at us we learn to smile. When our caretakers get frustrated we learn frustration. When we meet other children, especially in early elementary school, it is often comical how much they act and talk like their parents. Like little birds they parrot what they commonly hear their parents say.

As children age, they develop their own personalities and identities, but inevitably they take on roles that their parents modeled for them. A child that is very giving comes from an environment with a parent who acts this way. At the same time, a child who is a bully to others learns this behavior via personal experience.

Through adolescence and into early adulthood, most of us begin trying on additional roles we observed during our childhood. We experience our first romantic relationships and try on what we’ve been taught about relationships for the first time. For some, this means love and companionship, but for many these roles follow the scripts of neglect, abuse, clinging, off-again-on-again, needy attachment, etc. It is extremely common for young adults who were abused by their parents to end up in abusive relationships.

It is unfortunate how few people have truly good role models growing up, especially in the romance department.

Not only do we begin imitating the relationships we had or observed as we enter adulthood, it is also common for us to follow the same path academically and professionally as well. It’s no surprise when children go into “the family business” or go into the same types of careers as their parents.

It is almost cliché to mention the child whose parents want them to take over the family business and the inner battle and identity conflict that ensues as the child makes the decision to take a different path. We all experience these inner battles, most often on a smaller scale, each time we take a step back, observe our lives and our options, and choose to step off the well-worn path to follow a new one.

The silver lining here is that we all have the CHOICE to learn from what we experienced as a child, rather than continue to repeat the patterns and roles we were taught.

One of the areas we can see the influence of our own childhood the most is in the expressions of our own children. There are two common outcomes when someone becomes a parent: either they fall automatically into repeating the roles of their parents or they go to the exact opposite extreme. Sometimes the person who was abused continues the trend and abuses their children as well. Other times a person who was neglected by their parents becomes incredibly loving and sometimes even over attached to or controlling of their children.

It takes a conscious decision to choose a different path—to break the patterns of our childhood.

It takes an even more enlightened decision to thoroughly observe ourselves and our history and choose what type of parent we want to be. Ideally, we take the parts we value from what our parents taught us and leave the rest. Each generation, if they make the careful and conscious decision to do this, improves on the last.

When living on unconscious autopilot, it is easy to see how one can fall into patterns and roles learned during childhood. Simply taking time to reflect on our childhood experiences and our perspectives on them gives us a tremendously powerful opportunity for growth.

By bringing our past into the light, we can transmute the darkness into our most powerful assets.

The following activities can be a great starting point for bringing the light of our consciousness into our understanding of who we are, where we came from, and who we want to be.

Who we are:

Our parents offer distinct viewpoints on life. The contrast from which we come forth gives us a unique perspective on life. The following activity offers a tool to evaluate why you may be who you are and who you want to be.

Make a list of your caretakers’ positive and negative qualities and be specific. Caretakers can include parents, family members, or others who cared for you or had a strong influence on you while growing up. For most people this is two or three people.
Now go back through this list and circle the qualities that you can see within yourself. Consider which caretakers influenced your current personality and demeanor the most and why.
Make a list of your caretakers’ beliefs about life (meaning, roles, political, or religious beliefs, etc).
Circle any beliefs that you have taken on as your own.
Put a star next to those beliefs or views that you have not adopted.
Take a moment to consider where your caretakers differed from each other on their views of life. Ask yourself if or how you have accommodated both viewpoints or developed your own beliefs somewhere in between.
For each major caretaker, ask yourself what you would say his or her life “purpose” or mission is. What were they passionate about? What did they seem to be trying to accomplish in the world?
Now, ask yourself in what way the missions of your caretakers inspired your current ambitions and values? Did you feel drawn to grab one of their torches and carry the flame? Or, did you feel the need to snuff one out and ignite a new, brighter fire?

How we parent:

Answer the following questions:

What aspects of my parents’/caretakers’ parenting strategies do I feel were effective?
What aspects of my parents’/caretakers’ parenting strategies do I feel were ineffective?
In what ways am I parenting my child(ren) in the same way I was mentored (positively or negatively)?
In what ways am I parenting my child(ren) differently than I was parented?
In what ways would I want to see my own child(ren) parent differently than I am or have?
What changes could I make going forward that would make me the parent I truly want to be? (It is never too late.)

The type of relationships we create:

Have you ever caught yourself reacting to a romantic partner as if you were talking to your parent or the way one of your parents reacted to the other? If you haven’t, you just weren’t paying attention because we all do it. It is incredibly important to become self-aware and to learn to differentiate between our unconscious reactions and our true self’s response to our partner. The theory behind Imago Therapy by Harvil Hendrix suggests that our unconscious mind takes the qualities of our caretakers, as we discussed above, and combines them into one identity, called the Imago. This Imago is a blueprint that our unconscious mind seeks to find within our romantic partners.

Most of us have experienced romantic partners who have some of the distinct qualities of one or more of our caretakers. Girls marry their fathers, right? Well, according to Imago theory this is by design. When we meet a prospective new partner, our unconscious mind automatically picks up on the energetic blueprint of this person, evaluates it against the Imago and the positive and negative traits contained within it, and determines whether they are a match. This is a an important explanation for why experiments have shown that when those placed in a room with 100 people who meet their criteria for being “attractive” they will only actually feel attracted to one or two. It’s because their unconscious mind recognizes the reflection of their Imago within them.

It’s important to note that the negative traits of our caretakers, especially if they were extreme, have a strong influence on this Imago. This is why it can be so hard to stop attracting the “same person” over and over again. So, why would we be hard-wired to seek out partners who mirror our parents, even if it means re-traumatizing ourselves by living with a partner that triggers all of our old wounds? Well, to heal our wounds of course!

We Need to Ask Ourselves:

What qualities from the list above do I see currently or previously in the partners I have been attracted to?
Are there any qualities I continually seem to attract? If so, are they are qualities I do not want? If so, what could I do stop this pattern?
Can I see progress throughout my relationships? Have I used my experiences as learning tools for healing? Am I attracting partners now who have more of the positive traits of my caretakers, and less of the negative?

We are all reflections of our childhood until we look ourselves in the mirror and bring awareness into our lives. Regardless of whether you are without child, currently have children, or are an empty-nester, take care to be conscious as you pass the torch to the next generation. The fire lies in you.

Author's Bio: 

Natalie, Publisher of Transformation Magazine, has worked with thousands of people seeking to live a life of purpose and genuine relationship with their true selves, others, and their world. She is the former Director of a counseling center for teenagers and their parents. She is also a public speaker and leads workshops and retreats on Practical Spirituality, Finding Joy, Discovering Your Purpose, and Enlightened Relationships.