How Not to Grow Up Like Your Parents

At 17, I had my heart broken by being dumped by my first girlfriend. I didn’t know what I had done wrong, and having grown up in a twice-divorced family, I had no concept of what made a healthy and lasting relationship. I only knew that I was hurt and angry. One morning before school, I stared at myself in the mirror and wondered: Would I grow up to be like my father?

The stigma of my father’s legacy hung heavy over everything that I did. It was the secret that no one would ever talk about in my family and the reason why, after my mom divorced him, that my father’s face was blacked out in all our family pictures. His name was never mentioned. I knew what he had done, but the unspoken rule I grew up with was to never speak about it.

Time past after my first failed attempt at a relationship and a few years later I fell in love again, made similar mistakes as I had done the first time, and my second long term relationship also failed. All that I had left was an engagement ring that had been given back to me and my heart broken again. I sunk into a deep depression and did not know how to escape. I kept making the same mistakes in relationships and felt lost. I saw the world around me as normal, but I didn’t know how to fix what was broken within me. Worse, I didn’t know how to name my faults or to explain what was wrong with me.

After my father disappeared from my life, my grandfather became a stand-in parental figure. He took me into his home and raised me, but his yelling a lot with my grandmother taught me that an Italian household was filled with bluster and arguing. I learned what I didn’t want my future marriage to be like, but no one taught me how to change or deal with my anger and depression. I wandered the world with a wounded heart looking for a soulmate, thinking that two broken hearts could make one whole.

I went through a turbulent time back in my early 20s and knew that if I did nothing that I would find another woman, fall into a relationship, and the world would eventually fall apart for me again. I understood that I needed to change, but I didn’t quite know how to do that. And that is when I made the decision to go see a counselor who specialized with helping adult children of dysfunctional families. Counseling took time and work. There was no magic pill or 30 day cleanse to “fix” me. I needed to unlearn all the relationships skills that I had been taught in my family upbringing before I could really start living.

I practiced journaling, read more self-help books, continued counseling, and when I looked back at my failed relationships, I realized how selfish, controlling and angry I had been. For near two decades, I had tried to excise the bad personality traits I had learned out of me. I wanted to rip them out with my bare hands and be done with them forever. No matter how hard I tried, I failed. How could I ever destroy the parts of me that I feared?

I remember one summer day when I decided to take a long walk in the woods that stands out as a turning point for me. I walked for miles in an oppressive heat. The humidity and closeness of the day clung to me and I sweated, hoping to find some magical answer to my problems. I climbed up a hill, discovered some abandoned railroad tracks and walked on them until I had to cross over a narrow bridge. Below I could see a small pond from where a local creek emptied. I did not know how deep the water was, but if I fell, I knew that I would severely hurt myself. With my heart pumping fast, I crossed the tracks, looking below at the water that I could see between the rails.

Once on the other side, I stopped and a thought popped into my head. I don’t know if the adrenaline gave me a creative boost or what, but I realized that I had to stop running. I could walk across the globe and would never find what I searched. No knife, no matter how sharp, could cut out the damaged parts of me. The only answer that would work and heal me was so simple, didn’t cost anything, but would take lots of practice, was to fully accept myself—warts and all. I learned an important lesson that day: Instead of hate, I needed to love. As corny and trite as it might sound, I needed to truly love myself.

A visualization exercise that I learned not too long after that walk in the woods helped me heal. Whenever I am stressed, angry and ashamed of my behavior, after I’ve corrected the wrong and made amends, I picture a crib and see me as a crying baby. I pick myself up, hold me close and comfort myself until the crying stops. Yes, I will admit that this technique sounds goofy to some and will be ridiculed, but it works. The only way that I have learned to overcome my faults is to embrace them, own up to them and strive to heal my wounds, and then let them go.

In counseling, I learned that there are millions of people who feel the way I do and attend twelve step groups. Just as alcoholics and other substance abusers follow the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, children who grew up in dysfunctional families have an adapted version of those twelve steps. My healing is a lifelong journey. There is no magic cure where I wake up and have been fully fixed. Yet I’ve learned what triggers my fear and anger, how to protect against that and to realize that only by one day at a time can I succeed. If I can walk this road, then so can you.