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It Didn’t Start With You

Can we talk about generational patterns? We enter this world with a blank canvas. We might have our own unique personalities as newborns but beyond that everything is uncomplicated. Then we start to grow into our families and that canvas starts to gain more colour, shape and texture. We consciously and subconsciously start to learn a lot of culture, tradition, habits, perspectives and “how we do things”. Children are like sponges; absorbing both the good and bad behaviours and cultures in their environment. It’s only when we grow older that we start to notice the things that seem to “run in the family”.


What are generational patterns? We inherit much more than just height, physique, the shapes of our faces and features from our parents. Our thoughts, beliefs, habits and perspectives on life are often not our own; they are what we have adopted from watching our family. A generational pattern is an attitude, perspective, belief, habit or behaviour that is passed down from one generation to the next. This occurs through learned behaviours.


“A pattern is used for imitation. It teaches us about repetition. It’s repetition that we use to learn.” -Melissa Hladek, Generational Pattern Changing Sometimes, these patterns serve the kind of person you want to grow into for instance: business acumen, hospitable and kind nature, problem solving, charisma, empathy, generosity, being a self-driven go-getter and so forth. Other times, these patterns are destructive and pull us further away from the version of ourselves that we want to become. When we reflect on the times we have talked or contemplated about the many things our parents and generations before them are and do that we don’t want to become. Sometimes it sounds something like this:

  • “I don’t want to be as promiscuous as my father.”

  • “I don’t want to be as careless with money as my mother.”

  • “I don’t want to use abusive language with my kids like my parents did with me.”

We may never say these things as directly as the examples above but; in the many conversations we share with friends or therapists or even with ourselves; in the many scribbles in our journals, at the core of it all, we are becoming aware of patterns we want to break. How are generational patterns built? A story is told about a young man that went to visit an army barracks. Inside, he found two soldiers standing at attention next to a bench. He asked the soldiers what they were doing and they said, “We were told to guard this bench.” He asked them why they were told to guard the bench and they said they were just following the Captain’s orders. So this young man decided to investigate. He asked the Captain why the bench was being guarded and the Captain said the Captain before him had left the instructions to guard the bench. The young man found the former Captain and asked him why the bench was being guarded. He got the same answer, “The Captain before me left the same instructions.” The young man tracked down as many former captains as he could and asked them why the bench was being guarded. They all gave the same reason; they had been left with those instructions. The young man kept searching until he found an old retired captain who when asked why the bench was being guarded said, “You mean the paint on that bench hasn’t dried yet?”

Are you following instructions, culture, norms with no clue what the original purpose was? Image by Will Paterson on Unsplash

This is how generational patterns are sometimes built; out of necessity to serve a specific purpose. Sometimes you’ll understand the why behind a habit, perspective, belief or culture. Sometimes you won’t. But at its core, it was meant to solve a problem and bring order to chaos. This is all fine and good but if a generational pattern no longer serves a purpose and only brings pain, harm and destruction then it’s time to drop it. “Maybe it served a purpose then but not now, not anymore. It might not have begun with you but let it end with you.” -Brandy Wells, Breaking Generational Cycles of Trauma Other times, there is no purpose behind a generational pattern. It’s simply:

  • a cycle of hurt people hurting people

  • a legacy of fear being passed on from one generation to the next

  • a habit of avoidance

  • trauma passed on from one generation to the next

What generational patterns can look like? Sometimes a generational pattern can look like alcoholism that runs through a family lineage. But it can also look like continuing with a tradition or belief system whose roots, basis and purpose you don’t understand and yet continue to blindly follow. Sometimes generational patterns can change forms:

  • Physical abuse in one generation turns into verbal abuse in another and absenteeism in the next (abuse in different forms)

  • Alcoholism and alcohol abuse in one generation turns into being a workaholic in the next generation (avoidance in different forms)

How to break generational patterns? Generational patterns don’t have to define what your life looks like and who you become. The cycle can end with you. You can break the shackles that have held your family back from experiencing true happiness, fulfillment, affection and connection. Like everything that is worth the time and effort, breaking generational patterns is hard work. There might be some tears. There might be some resistance. But this work is important. 1. Self-awareness


Reflect on who you are, what you believe in, how it has affected your relationships and the role your family’s role in this. By recognising these patterns in yourself, you give strength to the rooting it out of “who you are” It’s also important to reflect on who you want to become. And ask yourself whether the person that you are right now aligns. 2. Ask questions, explore your family heritage Get curious about your family beyond what you see. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you’ll find out about your family. Learning about who your ancestors were will shed light on who are right now. Ask questions like:

  • How were your parents like when they were young?

  • What did your grandparents do for fun?

  • How did your ancestors earn a living?

3. Take ownership and responsibility for your actions and beliefs The excuse, “this is just who I am and everyone must accept it” does not fly. Our words and actions hurt people. Even though harmful generational patterns did not start with you, learning to take responsibility for the part you plan is an important step in moving past it. Understanding the harm these patterns cause helps motivate us to break them. 4. Get out of your bubble Travel, experience other cultures, listen to other people’s stories. Becoming more aware for other customs, cultures and norms helps us gain an appreciation for what the world looks like outside your own. Listening to stories of other people’s lives will help you get out of your own head. The bubble of privilege restricts our life experiences to what we know. Being open to learning about other realities of life, beliefs, cultures, and perspectives can help you realise the flaws in yours. 5. Get out of your own head Breaking generational patterns isn’t something we do only for ourselves. It’s a journey we embark on in order to find balance and community with the people in our lives. Maybe you want to have a family one day and don’t want to carry on toxicity to your children. Doing the work of breaking generational patterns and being committed to it is one step towards that. “I am no good to anyone if I’m no good to myself.” -Brandy Wells 6. Forgiveness Yes, you have been hurt because of how much these patterns have caused in your life. The same grace you hope will be extended to you because you’re unlearning and relearning beliefs, cultures, attitudes, and habits, is the same grace that you should extend to your family even though they were the source of your pain. Extending forgiveness will help you heal and move forward. 7. Model new patterns Because generational patterns hold us back from achieving fulfilling lives, relationships and even careers, it’s important to adopt new patterns that build you. Start with your thoughts; affirm the new version of life you want to build and work tirelessly towards that. How?

  • Join communities that are already ahead in the game.

  • Get an accountability partner who will check in on you and your progress judgement free.

  • Journal if possible and read through your past entries to see your progress.

  • Mentorship can help lead you because you get to witness a better path for yourself.

  • If therapy is accessible to you, then what are you waiting for?

8. Adopt new coping mechanism One of the ways to adopt new coping mechanisms is to change the lens with which we see the world; affirm something new about your world. Colour your world with more light, joy, hope and trust. Even though your triggers may not disappear, changing how you see the world can help you break the generational patterns that have held you back for so long.

How you’ll feel when you start noticing generational patterns

One last thing, remember generational patterns are not always bad. You don’t always have to change them, sometimes they can affirm the good in you, like Julietta Achieng mentioned in Finding Home: In your Roots.

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