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Are Illness Coping Mechanisms Learned From Parents?

Photograph: Roger Bamber

How far do we travel from our parents’ patterns?  A question psychotherapists and their clients have been wrestling with for decades.

We can’t escape the parental imprint.  Some of us may not want to.  But those of us who did hope to be different often find ourselves in our 40s or 50s unexpectedly leaking parental behaviors or attitudes we thought we had purged ourselves of in our 20s.

I sometimes hear myself saying to Richard, my partner, as he heads out the door for his Tae Kwon Do class, “Be careful.”  He has a second degree black belt and has been studying for years.  He is always careful.  My admonition is a spillover of my father’s anxious voice warning me to be on the lookout for endless, unnamed dangers hiding in plain sight at every turn.  Other times I see myself tighten up like a fist when something I thought I had control over twists in an unpredictable direction.  It is not my jaw that clenches in agitation; it is my mother’s jaw, on my face.

How our parents do or did illness is a powerful pattern.  Did they suffer in silence, while allowing no one to offer tenderness or help?  Did they submerge into illness and allow it to define who they were?  Did they use illness to control and manipulate?  To get attention?  Did they remain engaged in living and loving?  Did they learn from illness to become more fully who they were?  Did they become nastier to each other?  Or sweeter?  And finally, did they take care of each other — physically and emotionally?

My parents, who kept each other at a distance when well, became even more separated when ill.  They went so far as to resent each other for their increasing incapacities.  It was not pretty.

There were times when I was in the thick of my pain condition, that I isolated and withdrew from Richard.  But more often, I allowed my pain to teach me to reach out for comfort and connection.  I had to.  For me, the voice of pain was more powerful than my parents’ example.

Dealing with illness can be a consuming job.  When you find yourself behaving in ways that don’t create the kind of bridge to your partner that will help lighten the load for both of you, pause and ask yourself:  “Am I playing out a pattern that doesn’t really belong to me?  Whose voice am I speaking with?  Can I do it differently?”

How did your parents deal with illness?  What did you learn to do and not to do from them?


Barbara Kivowitz is a psychotherapist, business consultant, and book author. She blogs regularly at In Sickness And In Health.

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One Response to “Are Illness Coping Mechanisms Learned From Parents?”

  1. Marielaina Perrone DDS says:

    Oh I defintiely believe these mechanisms are learned from parents to a certain degree just as dental phobias are learned as well.

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