By Terry Real
This article originally appeared in Terry's regular column on The Huffington Post.
Each year at this time, we celebrate fathers, and in doing so we can’t help contemplating our relationships with our own fathers as well as the kind of dads we have become.
In a family, the roles we pass from generation to generation can be like a fire in the woods, taking down everything in its path until one person has the courage to stand and face the fire.
That fire is the legacy of esteem for oneself and for others that is learned from the family dynamic. I always say that the best gift you can give your children is a healthier you. Even the most apparently well-adjusted and gracious families host elements of ill health and disconnection behind their closed doors.
When psychologists talk about learning to live relationally, we refer to picking up a new way of living. That includes doing the work not just to benefit yourself, but for your marriage, your children and your children’s children. That means examining the legacy you bring into your relationships, to heighten the positive elements and redefine the negative ones.
We’ve all heard the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do,” and we all know it’s baloney. The reality is that children do as you do; they learn what they live.
Examining your legacy is a transformative experience aimed not at changing you and your spouse as individuals, but literally changing the course of your entire family. You have the chance to identify the essential messages you received as a child about how to be a grown up, the unspoken cues on how to live. Each of those messages has positive and negative aspects.
WHAT’S YOUR LEGACY?
For example, if you grew up in a family that valued being stoic and uncomplaining, the positive aspect is that you probably became a person who can be counted on, someone who is strong and stalwart. On the other hand, you probably also learned to despise vulnerability in your self and in others.
The positive of that legacy is that you are tough and you can suffer thru a lot of adversity. The negative consequence is that you have contempt for any sign of human weakness; you’re perfectionistic, unforgiving and perhaps even kind of cruel to yourself and others. Some one who has this legacy might think that they are toughening up their kids, but they can be unsympathetic when they do a less than perfect job. They might not mean to do those things, but they would just come out. This type of behavior can lead to depression – in the parent who is never satisfied and in the child who can never satisfy the parent.
Another example is what we call the “Boundary-less Family”. The positive aspects of this dynamic are that the family is very expressive and demonstrative about their love for each other. On the flip side, such families usually yell and scream a lot, often to the point of being abusive. Such persons pass on to their children a sense of entitlement that yelling and screaming is just a means of expressing yourself and that shameless behavior is acceptable. These families usually have a mixture of “ragers” and passive-aggressives who duck for cover and retaliate in more subversive ways.
After examining the core legacy passed down to you from your family of origin, the next step is to take a good hard look at yourself. Determine how you are passing the positive and negative messages you received from your family down to your children.
While you can reap rewards from doing this work individually, it works unbelievably well if you work on this as a couple or as a co-parenting partnership. There is a real turning point that happens when the the light bulb goes off and things that you and your partner have been trying to get thru to each other for 20-30 years finally gets thru. This exercise enables you both to finally “get” what each other has been doing that is off-base and over which you have both been tearing your hair out. This is that thing that you’ve been fighting about for years while neither of you have been able to listen. In the mean time, your kids have been in the middle of your competing legacies, and even worse, they’ve been watching and learning from it.
In a Legacy Workshop, you can experience the miraculous moment of watching your partner get it. And you also have the sobering experience of getting it yourself.
HOW TO FORGIVE AND FORGET
After all of this deep self-examination, there is a big reward. You get a chance to thank your parents for the positive legacy they have given you, and you get to confront them about the costs of the negative aspects you learned. Don’t worry, this is a virtual exercise. (If you choose to do this in person, we have a couch ready to help you get over that trauma!)
There are many ways to undertake this exercise. It can be in the form of a letter, be done in front of a mirror or you can even speak to your imaginary parent sitting in an empty chair in front of you. The idea is to give voice to your discoveries and acknowledge the positive and negative aspects of the legacy. For example, “Dad, you taught me to… As a result, I’ve become a strong, independent, driven person, and I’m able to excel at my career and provide a great life for my family. On the other hand, the negative messages you gave me have cost me the following: I learned that vulnerability is to be despised, and you taught me that anything less than perfection is not to be tolerated. As a result, I’m always striving, everything is not enough and I never feel happy.
Another example from the boundary-less family could be, “Dad you gave me the gift of being able to share my love and affection with my family. My kids know that I love them no matter what. On the other hand, the negative side is that like you, I don’t hold back when I’m angry. I fly into a rage. I’ve made it O.K. for us to yell and scream at each other, and I hate that sometimes I make my kids and my wife cry. Even if I’m not raging, I can act like a jerk and push people away when I don’t get my way.
Once you have taken this step, it’s time to give the negative legacy back to your parent(s). You give voice to your forgiveness, accept the generosity of the positive things you received from them and forgive them (and give back) the negative legacy.
This is a very cathartic experience for everyone who does it, and if it is in the context of a group workshop, the reverberation is palpable, especially in the third and final step which helps you to forge ahead in good health.
HOW TO FORGE ONWARD
It is one thing to come to a deep realization. Once that is achieved, the key is to figure out what you’re going to do with it. We don’t feel like the legacy work is complete until the parents as individuals and as a couple make a pledge to change. This requires giving voice to specifically how you are going to behave differently. Again, this can be done virtually by speaking to pictures of your children. We think it is especially important for your spouse or co-parenting partner to stand beside you in support as you make this pledge.
The pledge might sound something like this: Son, these are the things I’ve been doing to pass on the negative legacy I learned from my parents on to you. Here is one concrete change I’m going to make in my behavior. From now on, I will welcome you when you come to me in vulnerability. If you don’t play a perfect game, I’ll be happy for the great job you did, and if you want, we’ll work on improving your swing or pitch for the next game together.
A pledge from the boundary-less parent might sound like this: Son, from now on I’m going to watch my temper, and I’m not going to act as if yelling and screaming and carrying-on is acceptable under any circumstance. Instead I’m going to give myself a time-out, and I’m going to let you know how I feel in a way that treats you and the family with respect.
Don’t get me wrong. Keeping these pledges is not easy. While we do believe you can teach an old dog new tricks, it takes a whole lot of practice and support to do that. That’s why the very last step of the legacy work is to agree to do one thing to sustain their pledge. For some that might mean getting into regular therapy. For others it might mean joining a parenting group.
The point is to become aware of the legacy you inherited, identify how it is affecting your life at home and at work, and to take steps to rectify the negative and enhance the positive.
In our experience, 60% to 70% of people who take these pledges go home and behave in radically different ways. After a year they report back that not only did they experience an immediate result, but the entire family dynamic had positively shifted and they had achieved permanent results.
So this week, while you’re celebrating dad, think about the legacy you inherited, how you want to live now and the legacy you want to pass on. It’s never too early to be a better, healthier person.
Sign up for an upcoming LEGACY WORKSHOP with Terry Real today.