We Only Think We Are in Charge

Young woman think thought. Portrait of emotional teenager girl looking on empty space deep thinking about idea or question isolated on color blue background with copy space.

How important is it for you to oversee your life? Do you believe you actually are in charge of your life?

We may think we know why we are behaving the way we are and we may think we know how to control our behaviors. I think an important awareness is that, for several reasons, we are only partially in charge of our lives.

Let’s consider the impact of significant trauma in someone’s life. Much of my focus in these blogs has been on the nature and principles of trauma. Those of us with significant trauma histories cannot just snap our fingers and decide not to have those histories continue to impact our current lives. We actually can’t take full control of our lives as much as we might want to or believe we are doing.

For example, there is research that suggests that some of what we do are reenactments based on the traumas we have experienced. Experts like Sigmund Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle said “… the patient is obliged to repeat the repressed natures as a contemporary experience instead of… Remembering it as something belonging to the past. The patient remembers nothing of what is forgotten, but he expresses it in an attempt to achieve mastery over a traumatic situation.”

In a 2019 blog I wrote extensively on the concept of reenactment if you would like to learn more. There I have suggested resources to explore reenactment.

Some of what we do is a result of loyalties to our family’s legacies. Sometimes, without even realizing it, we have strong beliefs about things that are based on attitudes, beliefs and behaviors our family has passed along to us. It can be little things like whether ketchup needs to be refrigerated or toilet paper needs to unroll from the top or the bottom to more significant things like our choices related to religion and politics. We can be unaware that what is controlling our behaviors are these loyalties. A classic book by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy that provides specific details on loyalties is Invisible Loyalties: Reciprocity in Intergenerational Family Therapy.

The cultures we are a part of have rules and norms that often dictate our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Because we are social beings and members of our specific “tribes,” we adhere to those rules and norms. We need to be connected to others and need acceptance and approval. So we tend to conform as a way to experience that connection.

Empathic elder sister cuddling comforting little brother after family quarrel.

We also have transgenerational forces that influence our lives. There is a relatively new science called epigenetics, defined by Wikipedia as, “…the study of heritable phenotype changes that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence. Researchers also believe that there are memories that are transferred from generation to generation that may be explained by epigenetics or some other brain phenomenon not fully understood. Peter Levine’s book Trauma and Memory provides much more information and specific examples of how memories, especially those focused on traumatic experiences, seem to be transmitted across generations.

So how do we know when we are in charge of our lives and our decisions versus those times when we have much less power over these? How do we differentiate between what we think of as our real selves and then all these inner parts of us that cause us to behave the way we behave? How much control do we really have?

We can look for family patterns. For example, I have a friend whose whole family tree is sprinkled with people becoming estranged from each other, sometimes for decades.

Some families have histories of drug and alcohol addiction that may have some biological roots but may also be embedded in transgenerational legacies. Maybe it’s about how a family has learned to cope with pain and suffering.

Drunk parent and little scared son. Violence against children concept. Aggression in the family. Alcohol abuse. Domestic violence

When I think about my own family, I see patterns around anxiety and fear. I think about how my grandmother was orphaned at a very young age when she lived in Ireland and how terrifying that must have been. How much of some of my issues around abandonment might stem from her issues?

We can examine what might be the underlying forces with the way we behave in our families. It can also provide explanations for why others behave as they do. If there are patterns of behaviors that exist for whatever reason, we can do our own research. We can also work on not being a victim of family loyalties and legacies, transgenerational memories, and reenactments if any of these are unhealthy for us and our families, especially for our children and grandchildren. The good news is that we can take more control of our lives if we do the work of exploring why we believe and behave as we do.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Do you and/or family members have what might seem like strange and sometimes unhealthy patterns of beliefs and behaviors? Does this information provide some possible explanations for those beliefs and behaviors?
  2. Are there any specific beliefs and behaviors that you find troubling?
  3. How can you use this information to do more research to empower yourself to work on making changes that put you more in control of your own life?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute