If you are studying to become a family therapist, you learn in class that family patterns go back seven generations. This means that when we try to change ourselves and the ways we love and work, we are attempting to override multigenerational habits. We know from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit that habits become a neurological imprint. We cannot “unlearn” a habit, because it is imprinted, but we can substitute a different habit. That is why it is so easy to revert to unwanted habits if we are not paying attention.
Ways of relating are habits. Ways of relating to ourselves are habits. They are habits in the sense that they are mostly automatic, and we do not necessarily recognize what we are doing. We don’t notice the implicit ways of relating to ourselves and others. They seem normal. Much like anthropologists say “don’t ask a fish about water,” we do not always recognize the “normal” we are used to.
So there is a way of going at living a life that has to do with making effort and pursuing growth. It has to do with seeking a deeper experience of this one and only life. It entails continued practice at becoming aware of the water we are swimming in so that we have freedom to make different choices instead of thoughtlessly following what is familiar. We work at recognizing the habits we are used to and deciding deliberately whether we want to keep them or do something different.
There are many ways of going at this task of making ourselves free, each with different focuses and different effects. Mindfulness meditation makes us aware of the moment. Physical disciplines like Tai Chi and Yoga bring our awareness to our bodies and how they function to contribute to our subjective experience. Depth psychotherapy helps us examine our habitual ways of understanding the world and define and choose different ways of doing that.
An interesting effect of these persistent efforts at growth is that they change our patterns, and, by extension, the patterns of the people around us and in our families going forward seven generations. This is remarkable. Having been a psychotherapist for many years, it is increasingly clear to me that every effort we put into personal growth benefits not only ourselves, but also those around us and those people in the future who will be affected by us and by those around us. I see children who have now grown up and who have energy and curiosity about what is possible in their lives because they saw their parents break out of narrow perspectives.
What we are doing is demonstrating the possibilities of living a reflective life, of working toward a deeper experience of our lives, and of the action of practicing what is important to us. Those possibilities, as well as the example of seeking improvement, become a resource for ourselves and for those people we care about. As someone said, “It’s kind of a twofer.”