Being Our True Self in Our Family

By Melissa Moore

I was fortunate to have been with my father on the day he died. He was going in and out of hallucinations and was hospitalized in Columbia, Missouri. They were transferring him to a new facility where he would be put on hospice care about an hour away.  I was crouching on his bed, and he looked up and asked, ‘who are you?’ “It’s me, Melissa.” Then, very sweetly, he said, “Oh? I have a daughter named Melissa.” Hearing that, I waved my arms to tell him, ‘it’s me, Dad.  I’m here; I’m here!” He then regained his consciousness enough and responded sharply, “I know who you are, damn it!” sounding angry that I thought he was confused. 

Therein lies, our entire relationship encapsulated in a two-minute scenario.  I never felt met as an adult by my father, and that has always gnawed at me, and I’ve examined the question sincerely; ‘Why do we readily regress to a child state when in the proximity of our parents? Around my father, I turned into a fourteen-year-old, that or the hurt and moody eight-year-old he had known as a child. 

The key to growing up in the eyes of our family is an unflinching daringness to act like an adult when we are around them. That may mean we need to bring awareness to the inconsistencies as they are occurring in the present moment. For example, once, I dared to say to my father, “I don’t need your approval or your permission; I am an adult.” I was fifty then, and I’m sure I was angry when I said it. My father didn’t speak to me for at least six months. My Dad punished me for speaking out, and I admit I wasn’t skillful.  I guess it played into the adolescent acting out so etched already in his mind.  

Acting like an adult is easier said than done when we carry a strong desire for our parent’s approval. I admit that I was dependent on my father’s approval and sought continual confirmation that he loved me. In hindsight,  I think I was expecting more than he could give, and he expected me to be more like him than I actually am. 

As an older adult, I now recognize how we show up in our families is a highly conditioned habitual pattern.  It’s natural because we spend our developmental years around our parents or their substitutes.  These are the people with whom we shape our habits of heart and mind. 

According to Contemplative Psychology, our developmental years occur from zero to age eight, when our mental formations develop. Mental formations are called samskaras in Sanskrit, which are highly habitual mental states that become repetitive habit-forming. Mental formations; such as desire, anger, pride, passion, jealousy, and ignorance. There are also benevolent samskaras such as faith, awareness, discipline, humbleness, and non-violence. There are 51 or 52 samskaras (depending on the school of Buddhism) that we habitually land on again and again. 

Through meditation and strengthening our awareness, we can change our mental formations - our habits of mind - but it takes tremendous mindfulness-awareness to change them when we notice they are up in the present moment!  That is why… even though I became a Buddhist teacher, moved to Europe, and traveled the world teaching Contemplative Psychology and Buddhism – I still regressed to age 14 the minute I was in the proximity of my father. And he would treat me in kind with all kinds of oppressive advice and scolding. Even though I was highly aware of it while it was happening, I couldn’t change the pattern. I think doing so would have taken a considerable amount of vulnerability that neither my father nor I were prepared to get involved in. Being vulnerable was not in the script, and neither of us was willing to take the risk of changing the narrative. I regret not doing so to this day because there are conversations I would have liked to have with my father as an adult. 

Meditation practice increases our awareness of what is transpiring in relationships in the present moment; it’s as if we turn on a light in the mind that shines on the inconsistencies in our relationships, especially with the people we love the most. Training the mind to come into the present moment and wakefully see what transpires is only step one. Once we develop the strength of awareness, then we have a choice; whether or not to act on the awareness takes another level of bravery and skill.

We are imprinted early on with our parent’s projections, whether these are spoken aloud or not. Early on, we integrate our family’s notions of who we are, and individuating has a lot to do with finding out who we are in adulthood. Sometimes we never individuate from our parents and end up complying with or rebelling against our family’s projections of who we are. 

Eventually, we may learn how to invoke our adult awareness when we visit our families, but that can be a very advanced practice. 

Habitual patterns around family become especially entrenched if something difficult or traumatic happens in our developmental years. Unfortunately, for many of us, traumatic things happened!  In my family, there were lots of traumatic imprints, with divorce, multiple marriage partners, and half-siblings involved. By the age of fourteen, I was acting out with both my parents and, in my mind, their dysfunctional relationship toward one another made my bad behavior excusable!  The problem is that it has taken most of my adult life to undo the adolescent and provocative reputation I once had about myself within my family. 

Holding ourselves along with our family members with loving kindness and compassion is a practice in and of itself. Taking time to meditate on our parents’ and siblings’ lives, what matters to them, and how they were formed is a worthy activity if you want to change the habitual tendencies in how you show up in your families.  Sometimes it means asking our family members to tell us about themselves which can open a door, and we can learn things we never could imagine. 

Being our true selves in our family raises our gaze enough to see the whole human beings our family members are (outside of the family), the pain and glory they have endured, and celebrate in their lives. We can develop a new lens on who our family members are, and this activity alone could create a crack in the door for our family to recognize us as adults!  Of course, this exercise has no script or written instructions, as each family relationship is unique to those who inhabit the roles. However, allowing the humanness of our family members to emerge is the first step and something that can grow over time. 

Karuna Training is all about developing nuanced awareness and skillful means of communication within our essential relationships. We use a cohort model to wake up to the habitual patterns we reenact in all of our relationships. Within the cohort, we learn to name the nuanced feelings we are having in the present moment. We learn to take responsibility for our emotions in the present moment. We train this way so that when we are in the presence of people in our lives where we are highly chronic, we can maintain awareness and learn to name what we are experiencing without shame or blame. In Karuna Training, we are practicing to become empowered in our speech in our lives with the people who matter.  

Article written by Melissa Moore

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