Reacting on Autopilot: When Good Intentions Fall Short
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
Julius was a 34-year-old married veterinarian with two children, Tyler, age 5, and Luke, age 2. He was a well-liked, good-natured man with an easy sense of humor and quick wit.
When Julius was growing up, his parents were successful doctors and provided a home with the trappings of normalcy for him and his brother. However, Julius witnessed and was dragged into ugly scenes resulting from his father’s temper and his parents’ battles, which frequently left him feeling powerless and despondent. His dad’s rage and disparagement was inescapable — randomly and unpredictably foisted onto any one of them, including Julius.
In the aftermath of explosive episodes, everyone in the family retreated in silence to their separate quarters. Julius found himself isolated and in a state of confusion with no one to help or settle him. He remembers staring at his image in the bathroom mirror, drawn to the sadness in his reflection, eyes red and swollen from crying. Overwhelmed by helplessness, repressed “unfelt” anger, and sense of unending despair, Julius’ alternated between wishing he were dead and wishing his parents were dead. At times he acted out his feelings by tormenting his younger brother. This cycle left Julius feeling bad, ashamed and guilty.
As an adult Julius struggled with periodic bouts of anger, mostly toward his children but occasionally toward his wife, Elizabeth. During these incidents, Julius projected a superior and critical attitude and became entrenched in rigid, prefabricated ways of thinking and acting. He exhibited an impenetrable certainty that he was “right” and was convinced that others deserved what they got and needed to be taught a lesson — a way of thinking and behaving reminiscent of his dad.
Julius recounted the story of a Father’s Day outing to a park with his wife and sons. He became impatient with Tyler for taking so long to leave the park after he had repeatedly told him to get ready to leave. Julius became frustrated and mad and left the park, waiting for Elizabeth and the kids by the car. When Elizabeth prepared to leave, she noticed that Julius was gone. She then quickly looked for Tyler, who also appeared to be missing. Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth found Julius by the car, but saw that Tyler was not with him. She panicked. Meanwhile, Julius had already spotted Tyler happily playing nearby, oblivious to all of this.
Uncharacteristically, Elizabeth was furious, vehemently reproaching Julius in the car. In response, Julius suddenly turned around to Tyler, yelling at him, “What’s wrong with you — what were you doing off by yourself? This is your fault. Thanks for ruining Father’s Day.” Tyler began to cry. The silence in the car the rest of the ride home was deafening. Everyone was frightened and deflated. Later, when Tyler saw that Julius felt bad, Tyler said, “Don’t feel bad, Daddy, I made you a Father’s Day card… I’m not sad.”
Julius could see, after the fact, that his reactions to Tyler were extreme — but they were reflexive, and felt as if they were driven by an uncontrollable force from inside him. He was also painfully aware that this incident and others like it were an exact replay of what happened in his own family growing up. Wanting more than anything to be a great dad, Julius felt disappointed in himself, demoralized, and regretful.
When his own experiences as a child were activated in his relationship with his son, Julius was unable to see Tyler accurately. From birth, we encode feelings, perceptions, memories, and behaviors. Our experiences generalize to form templates which shape our minds and act as lenses through which we see and react to the world. A process of internalization occurs through implicit memory, a type of nonverbal memory which exists throughout the lifespan and does not require conscious awareness of what is encoded (Seigel & Hartzell, 2003). When such invisible and unconscious templates are activated later on in adulthood, we are not aware that something is even being evoked or remembered, giving the evoked experience even more power over us (Seigel & Hartzell, 2003) . Instead of responding in the present, a drama from the past is reenacted, with our children or spouse as stand-ins for the original players. When such a process is set in motion, parents become unable to see their children’s true intentions and what is really happening.
On Father’s Day, Julius reacted instinctively, on autopilot, clinging to the conviction that he was justified — unaware that he was reliving something from his past. As a child, Julius unconsciously learned to bear the burden of responsibility and blame for his parents’ unhappiness, leading him to internalize a feeling of badness, shame, and powerlessness as part of his sense of himself. When these feelings were triggered (which primarily occurred in the context of family), Julius instinctively got rid of them by transmitting them to Tyler, through the same psychological process which occurred between him and his dad. In the incident on Father’s Day, Julius felt bad about himself and ashamed when confronted by Elizabeth. Julius’ shame instantly and seamlessly morphed into anger without even registering, and was quickly projected onto Tyler, who then took on the feeling of badness instead.
One evening Julius found Tyler and Luke in their room, with Luke’s hair soaked with milk. Tyler was laughing and having fun as he shook his sippy-cup and watched the milk spill onto Luke’s head. Luke, in his innocence, seemed content and oblivious as his brother danced around and giggled. Julius was furious to see this. He yelled at Tyler, frightening him, “What is wrong with you? You should know better. How could you do something like that to your brother? You should want to be nice to your brother and not hurt him.” Tyler cried and looked ashamed.
Here Julius’s compartmentalized experience of tormenting his brother when he was a child was displaced and remembered later — emotionally and behaviorally — in his emotional reactions to Tyler’s relationship with Luke. Terrified that Tyler wanted to hurt his younger brother, Julius was blind to his son. Instead of seeing Tyler and his playfulness with his brother, he saw the part of himself who hurt his brother, and reacted to his own guilt and fears by admonishing Tyler.
But why did Julius continue to fall prey to these episodes of hurting Tyler even though he wanted so badly to be a better dad and seemed to have insight into why he was acting this way?
Though in some ways Julius appeared to have insight, his understanding was intellectual and compartmentalized. Even though he was generally aware of the unmistakable and dispiriting similarity between what was happening now and what happened to him as a child, Julius’s story had holes in it and lacked emotional depth.
Julius superficially explored his past in therapy sessions, but was curiously unable to remember or imagine how he might have felt as a boy, and often instinctively derailed these discussions by focusing on his parents’ “good intentions” and feeling sad for them. With limited capacity to bear feeling, Julius remained split — avoiding getting close to the deep shame and loneliness he felt as a boy. If Julius were to own the emotional truth of his experience as a boy, he would be implicating his parents, challenging his family’s construct of reality which was adaptive to incorporate when he was growing up.
But as long as Julius was unable to hold in his mind his authentic feeling experience as a boy, this compartmentalized aspect of himself sought expression — and was resurrected through his son. Julius’s episodes with Tyler only began to diminish when he became more frightened of the harmful effect of his behavior on his son than of relinquishing the protective shield he held for his parents and being “disloyal” to them. Julius began to recognize that protecting his dad from accountability unwittingly fed the abusive side of himself which was modeled after his dad. This realization helped him let go of this defense, opening the door to find and know the split-off part of himself — the frightened boy frozen in time, who had come to be represented by Tyler.
The goal of therapy was not for Julius to be mad at, implicate, or hurt his parents, but rather to reclaim the truth of his own emotional experience and understand what really happened to him. This process involved holding in his consciousness an awareness of this part of himself from an open, curious, and compassionate frame of mind. Julius was able to do this by thinking of the boy inside him as his own son.
Also, being conscious of how he treated himself when he was disappointed in his own behavior allowed a new template to form which would come into play in his relationship with Tyler. This new paradigm required Julius to bear the truth and maintain accountability for his feelings and actions, without being punitive, providing a model for how to be with Tyler. Julius also utilized behavioral strategies to manage his vulnerabilities with Tyler. These included: learning to recognize the beginning signs of anger and cooling off, backing off, or delegating responsibility at these times. In addition he resolved to mistrust his conviction and judgment as a matter of course when angry – learning to go against the instincts he developed growing up.
Traumatic events alone are not what is most damaging to children — it is the concurrence of frightening and confusing events, along with no one to comfort or provide a context which would allow the child to make sense of and integrate what happened (Seigel & Hartzell, 2003). Julius’s painful experiences growing up were never articulated or validated. His feelings were ignored, denied, or made out to be something else by his parents. Julius was literally drawn to looking in the mirror when distraught as a child — absorbed and comforted by physical evidence of his sadness, as if to make up for the lack of reflection being provided amidst such chaos — in an attempt to know and connect to what he was feeling.
Children develop the capacity to recognize and manage their feelings by internalizing their parents’ capacities to know and regulate their own internal state, and from the impact of these capacities on how parents react to their children. When emotions are articulated, validated and placed into a perspective where they are understood, rather than just absorbed and left in their original primitive form, they are able to be contained. Experiences which are processed explicitly become part of our conscious experience rather than in an orbit of their own, ready to emerge and take control of us.
Research has shown that regardless of what happened in the past, we can heal and grow and be good parents. Findings in neurobiology further suggest that whether we heal or continue to pass on our pain is determined by our capacity to know and integrate the truth of our experience into a cohesive story — emotionally and interpersonally, past and present (Seigel & Hartzell, 2003).
Seigel, D.J. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out. New York, N.Y.: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
Margolies, L. (2016). Reacting on Autopilot: When Good Intentions Fall Short. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 16, 2017, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/reacting-on-autopilot-when-good-intentions-fall-short/