My relationship with my father has often been a contentious one. I’m neither special or unique in this, in fact it seems to be a common theme among first born children and parents of their same gender. Just the other day I was watching an episode of Criminal Minds where the shows protagonists were creating a behavior profile, like they always do, for some crazed serial killer who was abducting and murdering families. They mentioned the eldest son holds the most animosity towards their father and I suppose that’s true. But why? Maybe it stems from us holding our fathers (or mothers) to a highest esteem. My thought is that when another child comes along they have an older sibling to look up to, another actor in the scene of life to learn from, someone else’s bullshit to buy; whereas the eldest has one less prominent player to idolize.
When it comes to our parents we see how they act, notice their behaviors, observe and emulate their strengths and weaknesses. It’s why those Progressive home and auto commercials are actually funny, because there’s an element of truth in them. We also take on our parents pain, insecurities, and fears- the sources of these things- and make them our own. Precisely the reason why the scars of the past reappear so frequently. After all, why is it that addiction and mental illness have such consistent recurrences among families.
It’s the central debate behind nurture versus nature. Are they the result of some fundamental need going unmet, are they learned, or are they precoded in our DNA? Do they come from some- possibly even subconscious- imitation of the world around us or are they innate? Neither of my parents drank, no one around me consumed booze with even the slightest bit of regularity, and no one did drugs. My late grandfather was an alcoholic, although he quit later in life so his drinking had virtually no impact on me as a learned behavior, and while alcoholism occurs with frequency in my dad’s family it wasn’t part of my reality.
Here’s my dumb, oversimplified take. Self-awareness, a pillar in our emotional growth, is achieved when we recognize the faults in our parents. It’s the reason why I find it unwise to idolize a parent, to see them as heroes for too long. For most, this process occurs naturally, taking place during the high school years. Probably the reason behind why rebellion is so common for kids around this age- a symbolic growing pain into adulthood- where we recognize our sense of self, our own capacity for control. A person can’t fully perceive the less desirable traits of a parent if the parent’s on a pedestal. As teens, we begin to understand how we externally stimulate the environment around us, we become accountable for our responses, and emerge self-determining. You can no longer idolize a parent after recognizing their shortcomings, an idol has no shortcomings.
And now for one of the greatest paradox life might throw at you. The next step away from addiction and mental illness is to become cognizant with our own faults, and recognize that just like our parents we aren’t meant to be idolized. In doing this we must specifically recognize how and where the exact drawbacks of our parents manifest in us. I believe it’s common for issues to arise when we hold too much resent in our hearts. When we allow bitterness to fester, perhaps holding a grudge for some perceived- probably bullshit- slight, and say to ourselves, “I’m nothing like my father!” Oh the irony! As we end up turning a blind eye to exactly the same deficiencies in ourselves that brought about resentment.
I’m not a psychiatrist or doctor of any sort, nor do i have even the slightest ounce of training in psychology or mental health. But I’m pretty sure this is at the root of addiction as well as a significant number of other mental illnesses. I’m oversimplifying a bit here once more, but we like to call the process of recognizing our parents shortcomings in ourselves as ending rationalization. The result is a higher level of emotional intelligence, the ability to see beyond one’s self, an outward mindset.
In short, we achieve significant growth in the form of self-awareness, which I speculate occurs when we recognize the faults in our parents. Similarly, we attain the next level of growth by developing an outward mindset. Accomplished when we recognize the faults of our parents in ourselves. Think of it like a double helix, two sets questions with mirrored answers, and it’s what causes the sins of our forefathers to resurface. I assure you that recognizing this and using these tools removed the obsession to use for me.