How can I stop taking after my mother?
July 26, 2007 5:18 PM   Subscribe

What are some ways to actively avoid emulating undesirable behaviors of a family member? (In other words, how do I not end up like my mom?)

Like many women, I have issues with my mom -- I love her and enjoy her company sometimes, but there are some behaviors of hers that drive me up a wall. I hate them. Things like failing to ask for things directly and instead being upset when someone doesn't read her mind, blowing issues out of proportion in a melodramatic fashion, sniping at loved ones, etc. I could go on for hours about all the little things that make her negative, passive-aggressive, disrespectful of her spouse, and just a pain in the ass to be around. (And my grandmother was the same way, and my mom always claimed to hate it.)

Unfortunately, as the years go by, I find myself exhibiting some of these very same behaviors, and it's really upsetting to me. Occasionally I'll realize as I'm doing it, but usually it's in that I-know-I-shouldn't-say-this-but-I-can't-stop-myself way. More often, I'll be reflecting on some spat with a loved one and think to myself, "God, I acted just like my mother would've."

I really, desperately want to stop being like her. I am wondering if there are concrete ways to work toward this goal, beyond just identifying the behaviors and wanting to stop them. These are bad habits acquired over many years, the behaviors often happen before I can control them, and I'm not the most emotionally controlled person on earth (meaning I tend toward the melodramatic at times and have a quick temper, and often act before I think). However, I really am committed to reprogramming myself to not be like my mother. Any suggestions are appreciated.
posted by justonegirl to Human Relations (12 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
It helps to have someone you love and trust that can help keep you in "check". Ask your friends/s.o. to give you a head's up when you're being passive-aggressive, disrespectful, or melodramatic. A simple tug at the ear or something that doesn't make a scene, but rather communicates to you that your rational mind has stopped controlling your behaviors.
posted by parilous at 5:24 PM on July 26, 2007

I learned very fast, very early to be very self aware, and am now completely incapable of headgames. I learned this in an acting class. A serious acting class. We started with the mirror exercise, which is about stopping acting. You repeat random stuff back and forth maintaining eye contact and try NOT to inflect anything artificial. It winds up being so revealing and so challenging there was a lot of tearful drama. Just as an example.

All you really need is to be able to figure out what you're feeling underneath all the layers of socialized patterned responses and behaviors. You need to consistently be honest with yourself, and have the confidence to know that what you feel and what you want are okay just as they are, without spin. (Workplaces are hard.)

That's the actor's canvas, you see. But I tell you, it's easier to clean that canvas bare than to create a new character on it, and so I was a better director than an actor.

I happen to think underneath it all, we're all really good people. Try to stay honest and good, and NEVER neglect to apologize if you know you acted wrongly.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 6:02 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Being aware of these undesirable characteristics is half the battle. The other half is being conscious of your own actions, and realizing you have a choice in the way you respond to people and situations.
posted by JaySunSee at 6:17 PM on July 26, 2007

Therapy helps. Having a partner who will firmly and calmly point out when you display these learned behaviors helps too.
posted by pluckysparrow at 6:30 PM on July 26, 2007

the fact that you are aware of how you don't want to be is a big step. i went through this myself in my mid-late 20s. growing up, i have always been very like my dad—which was not a good thing, from physically looking like him to sharing traits. but whereas he exhibits those characteristics to the extreme, i worked on finding the positive aspects (i.e.: aggressive vs assertive, obsessive vs focused, etc). i also do frequent self-checks as well as making sure my friends check me as well. it does help in catching myself when i feel i am starting to exhibit the negative aspects of these characteristics. that said, i was also in therapy for years and found it immensely invaluable in helping me become the person i wanted to be.
posted by violetk at 6:53 PM on July 26, 2007

I have a slightly similar situation, and in my case, I basically always have a filter on when I'm interacting with others. I (ideally) never respond to someone without at least three seconds between anything they say and anything I say. In those three seconds, if I'm angry, I don't say anything.

The problem, in non-pc words, is keeping your logic ahead of your mouth--id est, not letting your instincts take over--id est, keeping your mouth shut. You have to realize that you should never react to someone else. You should act on your own. If you are reacting, you can blame the other person (and, in a state of anger, you inevitably will.) Their actions will enable your negative behaviors. But if you are acting on your own, realizing that only you control your words, you only have yourself to blame and there's not that heat-of-the-moment striking out flash that gets you in trouble. I sort of look at it like an addiction; there is the behavior, and there are triggers that lead to it. Reacting to something you dislike is a trigger.

Hope this helps.
posted by Phyltre at 7:50 PM on July 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

Occasionally I'll realize as I'm doing it, but usually it's in that I-know-I-shouldn't-say-this-but-I-can't-stop-myself way.

For me, the key has been to recognize that I can stop myself. I've recognized old patterns of behavior and patterns of speech that I inherited from my parents, patterns that feel natural and inevitable, but I'm training myself out of those patterns.
posted by Elsa at 9:00 PM on July 26, 2007

I think Elsa has a point- I notice myself using certain phrases that my mum uses, and I've now got to a point where I clamp my teeth shut if I feel one coming, because they are, as the OP described, usually sniping or passive aggressive bullshit.

Maybe it would help to write down verbal triggers that you want to avoid, or phrases/words that encapsulate the kind of behaviour you're describing.

I have chosen two words that my folks use that drive me nuts, and that I think have a lot of harmful energy around them. Those words are "crap" and "pathetic"- and I have not allowed myself to use them as applied to others, or myself. I heard those words a lot as a kid, and "banning" them reminds me that it's the senitment and attitude behind them that offends or hurts so much.

When I feel myself about to use one of those words, I think, "Yeah, just like mum/dad ay? Is that really what you want to say?"
posted by gerls at 9:45 PM on July 26, 2007

I can completely agree about your concerns! I have a little girl and can sometimes catch myself scolding her too much, the way my mother scolds me. The best thing that me and my husband have done to combat turning into our parents is by sitting down and talking about what our parents did that we agreed and disagreed with.

It opened up my eyes when it came to me being a mother myself and trust me, it is one of the most difficult things to keep in check daily, but when I think of how I want my daughter to grow up and raise her own kids, I definitely do not want her to behave as my mother does.

You did not mention whether you had kids, but I would suggest you write a list of things you agreed with and disagreed with about your behavior that you see is similar to your mother's. Being fully aware of it is the best way to start to change it on your own.
posted by dnthomps at 2:37 AM on July 27, 2007

I agree that you need to realize that you can stop yourself.

With that, however, you also need to forgive yourself when you slip up, because no one is perfect.

More importantly, however, I think you need to develop an idea of the behaviors you want to have instead of the ones you want to drop. It's really hard to actively not do something; it's much easier to actively choose to do something.

So role-play or brainstorm in your head, or with your partner or a friend, the ways you would like to respond to people. Develop phrases or scripts that you'll use instead; maybe "I can't expect you to read my mind, but what I really want is X" or "I feel silly even saying this out loud, but here's what I'm thinking" or (even better) "I would like X." Instead of sniping at people when you're frustrated, resolve to count to ten or take a deep breath or say, "Hey, I'm really frustrated and can't think right now. Can we pick this up in ten minutes?"

It might also help to figure out (if you haven't already) ways to apologize for your behavior that indicate you know what a better behavior is, and you're striving to do that in the future. "I'm sorry I blew up at you and expected you to read my mind. I'm working on being more direct in saying what I want."

Or whatever. Decide on things that work for you, but just decide on positive things you can do rather than just trying to stop yourself from doing negative things.
posted by occhiblu at 7:55 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

As you get older you should be able to view your mother's behaviour a little dispassionately, and it looks like this is already the case. I don't mean that it doesn't bug you, but that you can break down 'your mother' into specific behaviours. I have the same with my dad. I just found that as I developed an enormous fear of becoming him, this helped raise my self-awareness to a level where some sort of internal 'dad alarm' goes off automatically when my unconscious is able to match my behaviour (or upcoming behaviour) with something from it's library of 'things that dad does that i'm not going to do'. I started by writing a list.

I think developing this is only half the answer, and some folk have already touched on the other side of this. It's not enough to want not to be your mother - the really motivating thing is to decide to be someone else, and to cultivate an entirely new set of behaviours that make you into who you want to be.

I'm no NLP enthusiast, but I am convinced that once you reach a certain level of self-awareness, which I think you're close to given what you wrote, not only can you avoid behaviours, but you can get into the habit of new ones. The knack is to improve your internal reaction time so that over time you change from starting to behave like your mum and then changing to another response once you've realised what you're doing, to sensing that a certain behaviour is on the way, and instead behaving differently.

And as soon as you automatically behave the way you want to be, the old mother-like habits start to wither away from lack of use.

I've been in CBT therapy a couple of times for other issues and the stuff i learned there was a help in sorting out the dad stuff in my case. Even looking at a good CBT book could be a help for you. A great idea is to keep a diary and log every time you reacted like your mother. for each one, write down a description of how you'd rather react - this helps an alternative response to be available to you next time it occurs. And the best thing is that the diary will show you how you're changing and improving over time, which is a good motivator.

At the end of the day I think it's just about committing to practice, just like if you want to cultivate any other skill or habit - the method you choose (therapy, diary or anyone else's suggestion) is a way of getting there. Your decision to change is the important thing, so now you've made that, stick to your guns and all the best for the future.
posted by dowcrag at 8:41 AM on July 27, 2007

The problem is not when you recognize that you're about to do what your mom did. It's when you don't recognize it, or when you have to do something (for example, deal with a screaming toddler) and your mom's way is all you can think of to do.

If it's with your kids, remember that your wife or husband is there to help and didn't grow up with your mother spoiling things. Watch, talk and depend on each other.

Also, cognitive therapy can help you identify what cues the bad behavior and how to counter it.

That said, my parent's misbehavior and my inability to get it out of my own head is why I never had children -- I couldn't bear the thought of inflicting on them what I went through.
posted by KRS at 2:07 PM on July 27, 2007

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