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The Psychological Hand-Me-Down 

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Those who grew up with an older sibling, especially one of the same sex, will be very familiar with the hand-me-down problem of physical items such as clothes, books, toys and so on. But the psychological hand-me-down is darker, invisible, and potentially more damaging.

It is the passing on to the child of the life tools, sense of self, aspirations and beliefs of one or both parents, and that depends on if they sought each other out because they had similar views or because they were different. Perhaps less strict. Or stricter. 

And it will almost always be the dominant one (there always is a dominant one) who hands on to the child the life lessons they know are correct.

The hand-me-downs we are looking at here can govern the whole of an individual’s life without them having the slightest inkling that they are doing so. If they lead to success and fulfilment, all well and good, but they too frequently lead to a feeling of somehow missing out on all the good bits that others are getting.

The thing is, most of us only learn how to be parents by being children, learning what must be done and said in the process of “growing up”. This is not about smacking or discipline; those areas are disputed often enough that they are frequently challenged. It is about a general “way of being”, an attitude to life and living – and what the child learns, they will later pass on to their own children. 

The child whose parents laugh if they fall down will later laugh at their own children’s mistakes. The one who constantly feels as if they are somehow different from “the others” will later ensure their own children feel as if they just don’t fit in. The one who is jeered at will jeer at their own children.

The one who grows up knowing they are inferior to others will feel inferior to others when they are adults, and their children will observe this and understand that if their parent is inferior, then that’s the way you are supposed to feel. And will jolly well make sure they do.

The reasons for this repetitive “generation game” are simple – the young imprint on their elders from the moment of birth – after all, the elders have survived long enough to become elders, so they must know what’s what, right? So, let’s just do what they do, so we can one day become elders.

It’s purely an inherited instinctive pattern of behaviour, so deeply imprinted that it’s seldom questioned, and once we’ve learned how to be, we’re very reluctant to change since how we are has led to where we are. We have survived. We are safe.

Now, of course, you might be an exception. You might have been brought up in the house from hell but realised the lessons were invalid and somehow transformed yourself into a thoroughly good egg. Congratulations if so, for you have broken the chain, and you can start a whole new genetic inheritance. If it’s not too late for that, of course.

But what if you’re one of the unlucky ones and this article is making you feel either decidedly uncomfortable or, at the other end of the scale, downright angry? Livid, even?

Well, you can do what you’ve been taught to do and just keep on following the same pattern. In time, you’ll have forgotten that you read this and dismissed it, and your whole self will drift back into the safety of familiarity. 

On the other hand, you could decide to make a determined effort to discover and sustain the best version of yourself it is possible to be. Unfortunately, there is no self-help process that can quickly achieve that and sustain it; after all, your subconscious has believed for ages that you are already doing the right thing and will have you making all sorts of excuses as to why it wouldn’t be a good idea. 

But there is a brief exercise that will help you recognise how it might feel if things had been different while you were learning how to be an adult. 

  • Step 1: Decide to let go of any anger or negativity you feel towards either or both parents, since they were only doing what they were taught. You can hang on to it as long as you like if you really want to, but that will change nothing, and it’s worth recognising that no matter who did what, when or why, you are the only person who can sort it out.
  • Step 2: Imagine how you might have turned out if you had had the perfect upbringing. You might stand taller, perhaps be smilier, exude confidence, and maybe look like somebody of consequence, somebody who makes a difference. Be realistic (no super heroes!), see it vividly and store the image somewhere in your mind.
  • Step 3: Now get an image of you in your mind as you are now, the one that was stopped from developing into your “best self”. Make it as real as you can and as though you’re looking at yourself from the outside.
  • Step 4: Now imagine turning the light off so that everything is completely dark, and you cannot see a single thing.
  • Step 5: Count five seconds, then turn the light on again and see your ‘best self’ looking as if you are bathed in a spotlight, looking absolutely wonderfully alive and fantastic.
  • Step 6: Search in your body for where you actually feel this best version of you before repeating the exercise from step 3, but on step 5, count only four seconds, then three, then two and when you’ve counted just one second, continue from here to the next step.
  • Step 7: Ask yourself what stops you from being that ‘best self’ that you created – because it is possible, or you could not have created it. 

You don’t need to do anything with whatever you find in step 7, because it will be automatically weakened every time you do the exercise, so resolve to do the exercise every day and it won’t be long before that ‘best self’ starts to become your current self.  

Nobody has to remain in a negative state, feeling helpless or ineffective – the right sort of psychological therapy can make a real difference quickly. Discover more at BWRT Professionals. And look forward to rapid change.




Terence Watts is the creator of Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT).

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