But day to day, in most practices, such instances are unusual. In the daily practice of helping people who are sad, anxious or in conflict, several phrases that set my teeth on edge do occur to me. I can't speak for all therapists, but the ones topping my own list are:
That's just the way I am.
That's just the way I was raised.
It's my parents' fault because...
I dread hearing these phrases because they tell me that this is a person who may be allergic to new ideas, to the hard work of therapy, to real change.
That's just the way I am is often uttered by a spouse in marriage counseling. It communicates some unpromising sentiments such as "I don't love you enough to make an effort to change behavior that is contributing to our marital problems" or "I'm not changing for you -- so take me as I am or get out!" or "This is not MY problem. I don't have a problem with my behavior. You don't like it? Then you've got a problem."
This pronouncement signals a near certain immobility in therapeutic progress. The fact is, relationship problems are most often fueled by habits and miscommunication by both partners. For marriage therapy to work best, both partners need to be willing to make changes in the way they behave or react to each other's behavior. Both need to want the relationship to work enough to endure the temporary discomfort of changes in attitude, behavior or ways of thinking. Some stall out of fright, some out of anger and eventually come around to making some marriage-enhancing compromises. Those who take a stand and refuse to budge, however, are destined for rough times ahead -- either with conflicts recurring in an endless loop or with the loss of a partner who decides that he or she has had enough.
That's just the way I was raised: While it can be charming to hear that someone was raised to be gracious and thoughtful and giving, carrying on the emotional generosity of a parent or grandparent as a living legacy, that's not usually the context in which this phrase is uttered in therapy. When a therapist hears this, it is usually an excuse not to make a positive change or take responsibility for one's own world view. Too often, it is an excuse for perpetuating some of the least desirable traits of parents -- an excuse for snobbery or racism or toxic pretensions or reactionary thinking.
Once you're in midlife or beyond, you have both experience and perspective. You have some wonderful opportunities to create the authentic, mature you. While you'll always be influenced by your past, you have a choice to sift through what seemed true back then and either embrace it or discard it. You have the opportunity to examine what makes sense in this time and place in your life.
My friend Pat, for example, has come to this point in her life embracing the Catholic faith of her childhood -- faith that meant so much to both her parents as she was growing up -- with greater fervor and joy than ever before -- while, at the same time, being comfortably at odds with her family of origin's political beliefs. She has created her own unique persona by building on what continues to be meaningful to her while questioning the rest.
While it's quite possible to be your own person and share many traits, interests and opinions with parents and other family members, making conscious choices in these areas instead of simply adopting familial inclinations by default can bring more satisfaction and joy to your life in these years.
It's my parents' fault because.... This is a tip-off that a person is not willing to own or take responsibility for behavior that is proving problematic in the present. Very few of us had childhoods that bore even scant resemblance to "Leave It To Beaver" or "Father Knows Best" or the Huxtables. Some of us had alcoholic, drug-abusing, child-bashing parents. Some of us suffered from neglect. Some of us felt the pain of being the non-preferred child in the family. Some of us were children of divorce. The list goes on.
The pain of the past can impact the present in many ways. Certainly, some of the major tasks of therapy include finding ways to soothe that early pain, to help resolve issues that still burn within and to help you move on to new possibilities. But when a therapist hears "It's my parents' fault because..." we're hearing that you don't want to -- or feel you can't -- change the trajectory of past pain to embrace a more promising future. It can be more comfortable, at least initially, to blame your parents' mistakes for all that ails you in the present. But even if they're still living and sorry for the misery of your childhood, they can't change what happened then or what will happen now.
While very few of our parents were ideal, very few were truly horrid, through and through. When we can allow ourselves to stop blaming our parents and to see the shades of gray and moments of happiness in our past as well, we're on the way to healing and growth.
One of the lovely aspects of adulthood is taking responsibility for your own life and taking the chance to re-invent yourself. Sometimes this means being mindful of a painful childhood when making adult choices. For example, I choose not to drink alcohol because I come from many generations of alcoholics. I know the havoc it can cause in one's life and I don't want to tempt my genetic fate. On the other hand, I cherish certain elements of my past -- my father's wonderful story-telling abilities and sense of humor, my mother's warmth -- and choose to emulate these positive aspects of the complicated people my parents were.
The fact is that taking a stand and not budging, never questioning early values or continuing to blame parents for present unhappiness all keeps you locked into behaviors and patterns that aren't working for you right now.
Taking the risk of change can feel scary, but it can bring new life to a troubled relationships and more energy, excitement and joy to your life than you ever imagined possible.