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.