What Did Your Parents Teach You That You Had to Unlearn?

Saw this question on reddit yesterday and thought about all the things my parents and other adults in my early life taught me that I’ve tried to undo with varying degrees of success. Here are some of them.

People are bad and are to be kept at arm’s length – I still remember my aunt telling us that there are bad people everywhere (出面/世界好多壞人), that you have to watch out for them. While today I can’t really say whether there are bad people everywhere, I do know that keeping everyone you encounter in life at arm’s length and assuming that they are bad people has more drawbacks than benefits. This is one of the lessons that I’ve successfully erased from my default behaviors.

I can understand why my aunt would tell us there are bad people everywhere, but what I would do differently is tell children that there are all kinds of people everywhere, including good people. There’s probably a large number of people who are in between. Don’t let dealing with bad people be the only way you know how to deal with all people.

Everyone else is competition/we are better than them – this one is really difficult to unlearn. It’s also a lesson that, unlike the one above, was not explicitly taught to us as children. It was learned through the adults comparing us with other kids (including cousins, classmates, and friends), looking down at them for superficial (and ridiculous) reasons such as what schools they went to, what neighborhoods they lived in, and what languages they spoke. While I now consciously know that these comparisons are wrong and that I’m not better than anyone else, a lot of times my first reaction overrides that knowledge. For example, often when I meet someone new, my first instinct is to think of them as competition. In my mind I’m either on the attack or on the defensive, and only rarely am I simply neutral and non-judgmental. I’m not, by default, looking at them as an opportunity to learn or to cooperate. It’s very frustrating. The other sad thing is, I do this for people of all ages, including children. Just the idea of an adult comparing him or herself to a child is preposterous, but that’s what I saw growing up (and sometimes still see today).

I remember one time in high school, I had my friends over to play video games after school. As we were prone to do we ended up playing longer than expected so they stayed for dinner. Well, I was served steak, while my friends were served ramen. At the time I thought it was normal, but looking back I can see that perhaps a different course of action could have been taken.

Even today, there are members of my family who have “friends” that they do things with, but once the activities are over the behind-the-back shit-talking begins. Each of the friends even has a derogatory nickname. Once, I called this out and asked why they would want to spend time with people whom they deemed to be so inferior. They didn’t answer, but claimed that it was normal to have nicknames for friends. I then asked them why they didn’t call the friends by their nicknames when they were present, and an argument ensued. To this day, none of these “friends” knows that they have the nicknames.

Another side-effect of all this comparing is the pressure that’s placed on children to live up to being “better” than everyone else. Although I can’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up with accepting parents that saw the value in all people without judging them, I can imagine that it’s probably a lot less stressful. I imagine that it completely changes your mindset as an adult, and that the my current competitive mindset is not present at all. One is pleasant, the other is torment. If I ever have children, I know which one I’ll want to instill in them growing up.

Behaving histrionically means that something matters to you – here’s another one that I’m still working on. Somehow, if you’re really passionate about something, the way to show it is to raise your voice and make a big scene. When you’re angry, break a TV or a VCR to show how seriously angry you are. In my time, I really have broken a VCR by throwing it on the floor (and here’s another example). I’ve jumped up and down like a madman screaming at the top of my voice when trying to get a point across. As children, this is what we learn when we see our parents (and their parents) doing it. We think that it’s the only way to deal with that certain problem or emotion. Well, luckily for me, I realized before driving the people I care about away that there are other ways to express myself. While I still raise my voice and still feel the urge to break something when I’m angry, I’ve learned to restrain that urge because I know it will do the opposite of what I’m trying to do, which is to get my point across. Still, there’s always that fine line between restraint and destruction, and I must always be careful.

It’s amazing how much of our original programming stays with us. While I’ve been trying to deprogram as much as I can, a lot of it is like the difference between reading about shooting a basketball and actually doing it. For example, I can read self-help books on anger management, but if I’m not always angry, then I can’t actually practice dealing with it. As a result, I’ve noticed in many situations that if I’m not actively and consciously thinking about what not to do, I automatically revert to these bad lessons that I learned growing up. So, the key is to keep reminding myself, especially if I anticipate entering into situations where the above apply.

These parts of myself that I don’t like formed over childhood and adolescence, and reinforced themselves in young adulthood. They can’t be undone in a short time, but based on the results I’ve seen so far, I’m hopeful that one day my default behavior will be what I want it to be rather than what’s been programmed. Good night!

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