“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn…”
Repetition Compulsion: we are compelled to repeat the patterns of our early relationships, regardless of how unhealthy this might be. We repeat these patterns in our friendships, our romantic relationships and even in our working relationships.
This concept comes from the psychodynamic perspective in psychology, where childhood determines our adult personality and behaviour. While many Freudian assumptions have been dismissed as baseless fantasy, misogynistic or scientifically unfalsifiable, we should not dismiss an entire school of thought. In many ways the ideas of the psychodynamic perspective have been reformed and re-stated to fit into new psychological paradigms.
According to the tenets of sociology our primary socialisation occurs within the family. It is where we learn how to behave towards other people, and how they will behave towards us. In psychodynamic psychology, the relationships we have with our parents define our personalities, our needs, desires and how we respond to others as adults. Our childhood is our destiny, and we consistently repeat the patterns we learn as children with all other people we encounter. Unconsciously we reproduce emotions and patterns of behaviour with others, and we receive similar feedback that reinforces these responses. In this we move from the psychodynamic approach to the behaviourist. We can also get a little bit cognitive here. Cognitive psychologists might argue that what we have developed are relationship schemas- expectations of how events will occur based on our previous experiences. In this case the patterns of our expectations are reinforced because we only really pay attention to the evidence that fits in to our expected patterns. They colour our interpretation of someone’s behaviour towards us, and if something happens that doesn’t fit, then we might adjust our schema. However, it is more likely we will reinterpret until it matches our schema, or simply dismiss it. It will not be remembered. From any of these perspectives the lesson is that we will replay our family relationships like a Mobius strip.
While we might love our parents, appreciate them and feel secure in their affection, we must remember that parents are people too. They are not perfect, they have made mistakes or perhaps simply done something very normal, but incomprehensible to a child, that left you at times feeling rejected and abandoned. Perhaps it was the time they first left you at school and you didn’t know they would return to pick you up because they had never left you alone in a room of strangers before, or it could have been the time you were ‘lost’ in the supermarket and when you found them again they shouted at you for running away; when you knocked over your glass of orange juice and you were shouted at, even though it was an accident. I hope that there are not more deep seated reasons for your inner child to scream and shout its feelings of abandonment, but we all have those moments. For me, the moment I recall happened on GCSE results day. My results weren’t good enough. The A I got in History was evidence of my lack of application- yes I got an A. But it wasn’t an A*. This crystallised a nagging fear I had been carrying with me since I was very small- without my academic achievements I was not worthy of love and affection. Now my parents weren’t abusive at all. But they were ambitious for me, and education was hugely important to them- for my dad he was the first person in his family to go to university and he had a quality of life and income that had been undreamed of by his parents. Conversely, my mum hadn’t valued her own education at all, until, she felt, far too late. They were both determined I would benefit from the education available, and everything they could do to support me. They built my cultural capital, they bought me all the books, and they hired a tutor when it seemed my primary school wasn’t teaching the maths that their friends’ children were learning. When I was academically successful I was rewarded with smiles and hugs. I never really failed academically, but the fear of failure loomed large. And with this came pressure and perfectionism. This is something that I have carried with me throughout my life; often an unrecognised and unacknowledged burden. A burden placed with the best of intentions because my parents came with their burdens and experiences.
It means that when I feel that I have fallen short of expectations, if I am not judged as perfect, then my world starts to fall apart emotionally. It means that the standards I set for myself are much higher than those I set for anybody else; when I would offer others compassion and understanding, I only give myself criticism and dismissal. While I clearly recognise this potential strength, and potentially dangerous weakness in myself, I must recognise that others cannot see my inner self. We all hold the illusion of transparency- that people can see much more of our internal thought process than is possible, and we expect them to behave accordingly. However, they can’t. We can’t. They know nothing of our psychological triggers and we are usually unable to recognise theirs. It means that in our working relationships we may well be abusing someone’s inner child unintentionally, and their reactions will be unconsciously reminiscent of a screaming toddler, unable to communicate their hurt and anger to what we have just said or done.
This doesn’t just happen in our personal relationships, but in our working relationships. When we interact with colleagues, we are not two value free Vulcan like automatons, but people who have our schemas, our learned responses and an abandoned and angry inner child. All of these things will colour our reactions and responses. In schools, I think this may be particularly true. We work within a very clearly defined (and often patriarchal) hierarchy. This is familiar family territory. Our parents (SLT) tell us what to do and what not to do. We conform or we are punished. But, SLT were fucked up at some point by someone else, so they too hug their inner child very close and hope that each interaction will not hurt it, will not trigger a tantrum.
What can we do? Recognise our own schema, understand why our inner child cries and check our learned responses. Are any of these appropriate anymore? Understand that we might be the trigger for the tantrum in someone else and try to reflect on our behaviour accordingly.
The Middle Triptych: Who the fuck are you to tell me what to do?