We often talk about the traits we “get” from our parents. “I get my eyes from my mom.” “I get my business sense from my dad.” It can be useful to categorize such traits according to the following three criteria: whether they came from our mothers or fathers; whether they are genetic or learned and whether we regard them as positive or negative.

If we were to create a simple grid, we would see that this gives us a total of eight kinds of characteristics we get from our parents. On the nature side, we inherit 1. some genetic features from our mothers which we regard as positive, and 2. some which we regard as negative. On the nurture side, we learn 3. some habits or behaviors from our mothers which we regard as positive, and 4. some which we regard as negative. And then we have the same four categories on our father’s side, yielding eight possibilities in all.

The good, the bad and the ugly

So we all inherit and learn positive and negative traits or characteristics from our mothers and fathers. Over time, we may begin to see some of these features that we get from our parents manifested in ourselves. When these are qualities that we like, and if they come from a parent with whom we have a good relationship, we are apt to be pleased by seeing the similarities. “I love the color of my mom’s eyes; I love my mom and I love it when people say my eyes are just like hers.” “I have great respect for my dad’s business acumen; I get along great with my dad and I always feel flattered when people say I’m a good business person just like he is.”

When the traits are positive and flattering we can regard ourselves as blessed or lucky and enjoy the good fortune. But when the characteristics are not so pleasant and flattering, especially if we have a tense, unhappy or conflictual relationship with that parent, then we have a greater challenge. It is a sobering moment indeed when, after years of fighting with, rejecting and even hating parts of a parent, we are faced with the reality that we manifest some of the same qualities.

The fear and disgust about the resemblance can be so strong that we refuse to accept it. “I hated my mom’s drinking and my dad’s temper and I am not going to be compared to them!” Or, we may go too far in the other direction and over-identify with the negative attributes. “Let’s face it, I’m over-emotional and impulsive just like my mom and passive like a doormat like my dad and that’s why I hate myself.”

Acceptance without judgement

For all of the unpleasant traits and patterns of behavior that we inherited or learned from our parents, a good first step is to work toward accepting the truth as objectively as possible. This means refraining from blaming, judging or hating the traits or behaviors, your parents or yourself. Your feelings, including sad, hurt, angry and disappointed, deserve to be recognized and accepted. But the activities of blaming, judging and hating are counterproductive.

Let’s assume that the genes we inherited from our biological parents will not change, although genetic engineers may be working on that. Even if we inherited a genetic predisposition towards bipolar disorder or diabetes, and we can’t yet change the genes, we can certainly use resources available to cope more effectively than our parents might have been able to do. And the non-genetic parts of who we are that we learned in childhood—the patterns of behavior, ways of thinking and underlying belief systems—can surely be changed by identifying the patterns and diligently practicing new skill sets.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of charmainswart / morguefile.com

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Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.