When we consider traits passed down through our family tree, we may think of big beautiful blue eyes, a good jump shot or a natural talent for painting. Unfortunately, it’s not only positive and influential habits or traits that can be handed down generation to generation — so can destructive perceptual lens or relationship patterns that we are likely blind to. But the good news is they don’t have to be. Even if you’ve experienced or exhibited destructive habits or perspectives, you don’t have to continue the cycle of passing them on to your children.
What is a Generational Legacy?
A generational legacy is a thought, perspective and/or belief that is emotionally or culturally passed down from our families. It’s the lens through which we see the world that is shaped by our parents, grandparents and key influencers and can also be influenced by culture, ethnicity and events. We pass along through words, actions and attitudes – consciously or not – what we know, or what we believe to be true, even if it’s not. Unfortunately, a generational legacy is the gift that keeps on giving, unless we can raise our self-awareness.
In so many words, clients often tell us that they don’t want to be like their parents. They don’t want to drink as much. They don’t want to constantly worry about money. They don’t want to speak to their children the way they were spoken to. Once we dig a little deeper into what they don’t like about how their parents treated them, we often find that they are in fact navigating the world in the same way, but are completely blind to it.
A Family Affair
“Brittany”, the mother of a four-year-old, recognizes the fact that her daughter is an anxious person. Her mother and grandmother also suffered from anxiety, so Brittany believes that anxiety is a genetic issue that runs in her family. She feels powerless to change it, and naturally, she thinks her daughter will end up anxious as an adult as a result of this hereditary trait. But perhaps part of the reason the anxiety exists is because Brittany had thoughts, concerns and fears that were passed down from her mother which in turn were passed down from her grandmother. Brittany is having the same thought patterns her mother was raised with, and if she continues down that path of the same thoughts, her daughter will no doubt end up anxious. After all, thoughts create moods, which in turn drive behaviors.
What Brittany must do is to break the generational legacy by systemically changing her own thoughts. The impact is exponential. Changing her core thoughts will lead to changes in her mood states (including those negative ones of anxiety and worry), her behavior, the results of her actions, and finally her relationship with her daughter. Once Brittany achieves the self-awareness to make that change, she will be able recognize when her daughter begins to exhibit those same thoughts and moods and can soothe her child. She can help her daughter reframe those fears and worries and guide her to think differently, therefore breaking the chain of anxiety in her family.
My Own Transformation
I can speak to breaking a generational legacy because I’ve lived it. At a very young age, I realized that I had two parents who, each for different reasons, lacked the capacity to be good role models. My mother suffered from acute mental illness, and my father was an alcoholic, who was inconsistent with his behavior, mood and capacity to be present. While other kids were outside playing, I was busy doing laundry, cleaning the house, paying bills and cooking dinner for my parents.
I was only in elementary school when I realized I didn’t want to grow up to be like them. So, I turned to television to build my value systems. I watched the families in the sitcoms carefully and began the process of defining who I wanted to grow up to be. I often say television raised me, but the reality is that I took accountability to raise myself. Even during that difficult childhood, I was able to define the type of person I wanted to be and the type of life I wanted to live. I knew I didn’t want what my family provided me through its generational legacy.
Most people feel that they are simply the product of their environment, their history and their successes and failures and their childhood; that they are tethered to generational legacies and family dysfunctionality. But all of that can be overcome if you realize the problem and work to change it. It is possible to curate a new future and powerfully transform your life by reframing your thoughts and retraining your brain. You had no control over how your parents treated you, but you do have power over whether you repeat the cycle – or not.
The Link between Parenting and Child Behavior
Children are like sponges. They can easily pick up on good and bad behaviors and mimic what they learn at home. If a child is brought up in an environment full of tension and hostility, it’s likely that their future households will exhibit the same conflicts later in life.
A research study on the correlation between parenting and child behaviors found that children who grew up with parents who were involved and authoritative repeated their parents’ positive behaviors in their lives. Conversely, children with overly authoritarian or permissive parents expressed more negative behavior.
Steps to Shatter your Legacy
Most people aren’t even aware they are navigating the world through the lens of their generational legacy. But this unconscious bias hurts you, and until you become conscious of it, it’s impossible to make any changes. Here are five steps you can take to stop the pattern in your family:
- Become self-aware
You need self-awareness to examine your thoughts and your perspectives. Talk to your parents and your grandparents. Learn about your ancestry. Take a hard look at your family and determine what is the generational legacy that is being passed along and determine where it came from. You may find that facts actually supported the kinds of beliefs and perspectives that are passed down at one time.
“David” is worried about money. Looking to the family tree, he learned that his father was also constantly stressed about money because his grandfather lost his fortune in the Great Depression. Since his family once struggled financially, they adopted the belief that it’s prudent to hoard money. That may have been the case in the past, but it’s no longer true today. David is now a powerful CEO worth millions. Even though he has plenty of money to live comfortably, he never feels like it is enough. And no matter how many more millions he makes, he’ll always feel like he needs more. This is an irrational fear that must first be identified through self-awareness before it can be systemically changed.
- Take ownership of your belief systems
Your belief systems inform how you interpret the world. You’ve been forming these actions, attitudes and emotions your entire life and they continue to be shaped today. While your belief systems are influenced by a number of factors, they also influence the way you approach life.
For example, if you think you are a terrible public speaker because you flubbed a speech you gave in high school, later in life at the office you will likely shy away from opportunities to present your ideas to your team. Because you never give yourself a chance to practice your speaking skills, this perpetual fear becomes true in a vicious cycle. To assess whether your belief systems are helping or hindering you, ask yourself why you respond in the way that you did in a particular situation? What thoughts were going through your brain at that time? Take responsibility for how you are looking at the world and determine whether your generational legacy is serving you in a positive way. If not, it’s time to remove it from your belief systems, and by doing so, you are removing the barriers.
- Travel and experience the world
One way that generational legacies are easily broken is by exposing yourself to more of the world. People who travel often become more aware of and open to other customs, social norms and ways of thinking.
Arranged marriages may be common in India, but in other parts of the world, customs around marriages and relationships can be profoundly different. Once your family is presented with another view that contradicts your generational legacy, weigh the pros and cons of your belief. While there may be benefits to continuing the legacy in some cases, a wider lens into other perspectives helps you evaluate whether or not it continues to serve you or if it needs to be broken.
- Forgive and move forward
Forgiveness is an important part of breaking the cycle of negative energy that can hold you back from fulfilling careers, relationships and lives. It also allows you to heal and move forward, which is important when considering family relationships.
Forgiving isn’t so much an act as it is a process. First, you must understand that by forgiving, you aren’t forgetting. You are not condoning the aggressive, offensive or abusive behavior you’ve experienced. Rather, you choose to acknowledge and accept what happened and to move on with your life.
- Become a model to the next generation
Remember that wherever you have come from and whatever patterns you have learned does not hold the power to define your today or tomorrow. Your generational legacy may have been a prevalent factor for your family in the past, but it’s time to start a new chapter. You have the power to create what you desire to pass down in the lives to follow, whether that is your children or others’ lives that you impact in other ways.
One of the approaches we use with our coaching clients to break generational legacies is MindMastery™, our proprietary blend of powerful training, personalized coaching and innovative technology. When leaders practice MindMastery, they learn to identify their core thoughts and how to quickly and efficiently shift out of their difficult mood states to optimize their performance. Our day-long workshop will immerse you into your thoughts, beliefs and moods to increase your results, both professionally and personally.