Changing Family Realities

A fascinating experiment compared children and young monkeys in a problem-solving task. They were shown a transparent puzzle box that yielded a treat when certain levers were pulled. Although there was obviously one lever in front that would release the treat, the experimenters first demonstrated a series of useless moves, pulling levers that did nothing, before finally pulling the right one. Even though the children could plainly see that only one lever released the treat and that nothing happened until this lever was pulled, they followed the experimenter’s lead and first pulled the nonproductive sequence of levers as they had been shown. The little monkeys, on the other hand, quickly sized up the situation and disregarded the experimenter’s demonstration. They went straight to the right lever and got the treat immediately.

We might think the monkeys were the smart ones, but this would be true only in simple situations. When things are more complex, humans have an enormous advantage. Children’s willingness to learn from older humans, even when the evidence of their senses says otherwise, opens them up to a vast storehouse of adult experience. Humans have progressed because of their children’s readiness to learn a culture, even if it seems counterproductive or silly. With their uncritical and trusting minds, children can absorb in a few moments what their forbearers took centuries to develop.

Human groups can go anywhere in the world and thrive in practically any environment because their children learn survival tactics and social customs so quickly. This primal urge to learn makes children believe their family knows the only right way to do things. The tragedy is that this early learning may be applied across the board to every new situation even if it does not fit. Nevertheless, people do not think to question these early premises. Instead they think the problem is the fault of their new environment or the new types of people they encounter.

We all are raised to believe that our families have the corner on reality. This is especially true in the ways we learn to handle emotion and to interact with other people.

Our old learning is so automatic that it feels like reality. Once you are convinced of a certain emotional reality, you assume others should agree with you. We can see this distortion easily in other people, but we are less likely to see how our family emotional style from childhood can undermine our happiness in adulthood. Even if we may have observed firsthand how destructive a parent’s behavior was, we may have unconsciously come to believe that this is a necessary form of interaction for any family.

As adults, we may apply old family emotional distortions to our new lives. Then we are surprised when others react negatively. If teasing and putdowns were amusing in our families, then we may be confused when our spouses don’t get the humor. If a parent was a workaholic, we may see nothing wrong with neglecting our families, as long as we bring home the paycheck. If we grew up with family members who coerced each other with emotional pressure, we may do the same when a little extra power is needed.

But none of us is condemned to repeat childhood emotional situations over and over. All we need for change is the consciousness that our early emotional learning was the best we had, but not necessarily the best we want for our adult relationships.

Emotional intimacy with others in adulthood depends on what we learned as children about how safe it was show our deepest feelings. When we can share our true needs and express our feelings to a loved one, we feel a security and relief that bonds us strongly to each other. When we can accept another person’s feelings without criticism or anger, that person will want to open up to us more. Such relationships of mutual openness give us a sense of well being that boosts our energy levels. We can have more rewarding relationships in the present if we analyze old family habits with fresh eyes.

We become more adaptable and successful when we are curious about learning new ways of doing better. We actually change our brains, not to mention our relationships, when we cultivate a childlike openness to learning in new situations. It is not good for us—or our children—if we pretend our parents and grandparents closed the book of life once they were done writing in it.

We do best when we are willing to be changed by new ways of seeing things. It is a dead-end life mission to try to prove that our family’s view of reality was the only right one. Unlike the monkeys who see only the obvious, we can sit back and watch carefully in case there is something new here we have missed. We can become the kind of people who enjoy understanding instead of rushing to judgment.

Our human heritage means that we have the power to reflect on what is happening and how it affects us. In the great puzzle box of the heart, we can be willing to watch and learn. When we learn new ways to deal honestly with our emotions, we then may discover a deeper, truer reality than we were originally taught.

Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. Reach her at 757-490-7811.

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