Most of us are familiar with the idea of receiving an inheritance. Most often, an inheritance refers to what is passed along from our parents. The inheritance generally comes from our parents’ abundance. It may be in the form of land, money, collectibles, family heirlooms, etc. In some situations, the inheritance may come in less desirable forms such as debt or storage sheds of unattended-to chaos.
In the counseling world, I see evidence of a different type of inheritance that is passed along from one generation to the next… the emotional inheritance.
When a parent does not deal appropriately with their emotions, the “responsibility” (of dealing with the emotions) generally gets picked up by someone else within the family, typically a child. Children recognize when the family is out of balance and desire peace just like we do.
Here is where the difficulty lies…the child is not equipped to deal with the emotions because they likely have not been appropriately trained to do so AND because the emotions do not actually belong to them. Therefore, accomplishing the task of achieving the desired state of peace becomes one that often feels out-of-reach. Even if the child does accomplish the task of momentarily manufacturing peace, it certainly feels unstable to them…sort of like placing masking tape over the hole in the bottom of a boat, feeling confident for a moment, and then wondering when the water is going to come flooding back in, once again disrupting the peace of the passengers.
While an emotional inheritance could be any emotion on the spectrum of emotions, I most often observe it in the forms of anxiety, anger, and persistent unhappiness.
If you are reading this article through the lens of being a parent, I want to pause you before you get lost in a shame spiral believing you have permanently damaged your children. These thoughts are unhelpful and will likely just lead you to a deeper place of believing you are incapable of appropriately dealing with your emotions. Remember that children are amazingly resilient and full of grace and that our brains are miraculously capable of learning new patterns of seeing and responding to situations.
While I am certain to talk more about learning to appropriately cope with emotions in future articles, I want to at least boldly clarify that we as parents are not expected to be perfect. In actuality, our children do not need to possess the expectation that perfection is the goal. There’s a whole slew of other problems that come from this line of thinking! What our children do need is for us as parents to take ownership for what is ours. For me, this means that when I am grieving, I let my children know that I am having a hard day thinking about my father. I let my boys know that it’s okay that I am grieving, that I would love a hug, but that they do not need to feel responsible for making the grief go away. And then…I do the personal work to deal with my grief.
For me, it also means that when I am feeling anxiety over facing a new situation, and my children pick up on my shortened patience or my distracted presence, I let them know that there is a new experience that is creating some anxiety for me. I let them know that sometimes this happens when we face challenges and that I am working to remind myself of my value regardless of the outcome of the situation. And then, I do the work to actually do just that.
Having these types of conversations remind our children that we are responsible for our emotions just like we expect them to become responsible for their own emotions.
If you are reading this article not through the lens of being a parent but through the lens of being the child, I want to pause you before you get lost in a resentment spiral of thinking your parents have permanently wrecked your life. This line of thinking is also unhelpful and leads to feeling powerless. If in fact, you have already received an emotional inheritance that is undesirable, let’s face the facts that you unknowingly accepted it and that now it is your responsibility to find ways to appropriately deal with the emotions or figuratively (or quite literally) give the task back to the person to whom it originally belonged. Doing so frees you so that you might be equipped to pass along a new emotional inheritance to the future generations.
When we lean into the process of facing our stuff, there is such healing that awaits. Let’s not lose sight of this. While we are capable of passing along an undesirable emotional inheritance, we are just as capable of passing along an emotional inheritance full of beauty and life. I see this evidence as I look at my own children.
My oldest is incredibly confident and excited about life. My youngest is full of humor and loves people deeply. These aspects are part of the desirable emotional inheritance. The undesirable items…they are there as well…and we are a family in process…working to take back the unattended to stuff that is actually ours…sort of like the storage shed of chaos that deserves our attention before our children believe it’s theirs to bring back into order.