The way you see your own family of origin may be affected by your unique genetic temperament as well as by your childhood experience. In studies of identical twins, genetic temperament has been shown to influence the choices made in life. Your life journey began with your parents or primary caregivers, and your childhood experience of gifts, hurts, and disappointments: these became the very foundation of your ideas about love and pain. What do we mean to suggest by this?
"Gifts" are those things that you appreciated most about your parents. Your gifts may include qualities or attributes that you chose to acquire from a parent. Often, they are what you appreciated about a parent when you were between the ages of three and twelve. The gift may be a characteristic that you remember fondly, something that your parent modeled. This was most likely a duality or characteristic or behavior that made you feel cared for and loved.
Now let's walk through a process of identifying the gifts from your parents. (If stepparents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or foster parents were your primary caregivers during your formative years, you might want to give separate answers for each of them; for now, choose your two primary caregivers, whom we'll refer to as mother and father.)
Try to let your answers come from a place of openness -- what in Zen Buddhism is called a "beginner's mind." Even if your memory of a parent is primarily unpleasant, let your thoughts come from an open, beginner's mind. We're looking for something positive about your parents, even if it is sometimes hard to see at first.
Think about a time from your childhood, when you were between the ages of three and twelve. Think about the house you lived in, your mother's room, where you had supper, where you felt safe. Try to recall or imagine your mother's face, the clothes she wore, how she smelled, how she felt, and how you felt loved.
In your mind's eye, let the years roll past. There's no need to analyze anything; just close vour eyes, see the images, and feel whatever you feel. You may have a single memory of a brief moment with your mother, or repeated memories of something about her.
Take a quiet moment to reflect on your mother; then fill in the blanks.
My mother's gift to me was:
Now take a look at your father's gift to you. Again, think about a time from your childhood, between the ages of three and twelve. Think about the house you lived in, your father's room, where you had supper, and where you felt safe, loved, or cared for by him. Avoid using the generalizations "love" or "survival." How did he demonstrate that he loved you?
Try to imagine your father's face, the clothes he wore, how he smelled, felt, and loved. Now try to recall what you appreciated the most about your dad. If more than one answer comes up, summarize these qualities into one or two gifts.
My father's gift to me was:
What we appreciated most about our parents when we were children is what we now tend to emulate. What each of us chooses to emulate may also be influenced by our genetic temperament; nature and nurture combine to give us our gifts. Temperament might explain why siblings often discuss their childhoods as if they all had different sets of parents, and why each of them recalls different gifts! It could also explain why identical twins tend to see life through a similar lens and to choose similar experiences, even when they are separated at birth.
Take a look at how your parental gifts define love.
I know I feel loved when:
I know I am loving others when:
How do these answers relate to my parental gifts?
Of the two gifts I received from my parents, the one that I cherish most is:
How We Love and Feel Loved
People tend to be attracted to individuals who seem to offer gifts that are similar to those from parents.
Past relationships with others are retained within the mind and these residues shape the anticipation and often the actual perceptions of present and future relationships.
-- Harry Stack Sullivan
This way of viewing present situations through the past can be conscious or unconscious, and is usually a combination of both. We tend to demonstrate our affection for others by offering them the same gifts that we appreciated from our parents. Our parents' gifts of love are now our gifts of love. They represent how we wish to be loved and how we show love to others.
Sally loved her children by being there for them, organizing her work schedule to be home when they got home from school and staying home evenings with them. And she listened to them when they told her about their day. Her gifts were "being there" and "listening."
The upside of your gifts from parents is that they now become the gifts that you have to offer to others. The downside is that if someone does not give you these same gifts, especially the one you cherish most, you might feel that they are not being loving. Your definition of love can therefore be very limited and static. Love from another person might be available, but you may be missing it if it is not the face of love that you have learned to recognize. The way your partner expresses love may not be your way.
Here's an example of such a situation:
"I love my wife by offering her my most cherished parental gift of freedom, while what she actually seeks from me is the same closeness she received from her father. So when I give her space, she seems to interpret it as a lack of caring. And when she wants to demonstrate her love for me by being close, I feel suffocated."
The experience of love can get lost. It is offered, but not received as an expression of love. Neither person gets the love they're seeking. When any of us uses the word "love", we imagine that others share the same definition. Yet the aspects and qualities of love are infinite.
It's not unusual to take a perceived absence of love personally. "Why am I not lovable?" we may ask, "What is wrong with me?" We might blame ourselves as well as the other person. Since we were given a particular form of love in childhood, we often assume it to be our birthright. This sense of entitlement can give rise to irrational expectations and major disappointments.
Seeing Your Life Through New Eyes,
by Paul Brenner, M.D., Ph.D. and Donna Martin, M.A.
About The Authors
Paul Brenner, M.D., Ph.D., is an obstetrician/gynecologist and psychologist widely known in the medical community as well as in the self-help field. He directs the SafeReach Institute, an educational center promoting the understanding of addictive behaviors. He lectures extensively throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Donna Martin, M.A. is a counselor, therapist, trainer, and consultant from Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. She has worked in the field of alcohol and drug addiction for many years.