The Uninvited Guests from the Unremembered Past?

‘You’ve made your bed so you’ll have to lie in it.’

‘Life isn’t a bed of roses’.

‘Well, you know what thought did…he followed a muck cart and thought it was a wedding.’

You’ve probably heard the first two sayings before but the third? Really? Did someone just make that up?

No, I promise you – that was one of my mum’s favourites! It usually came out in response to me saying something like, ‘I thought I’d do it (the washing up/cleaning my shoes/tidying my room etc) later.’

Over the years, I’ve often reflected on the ‘sayings’ that were part of my upbringing because, on the sly, without us noticing, they influence us hugely, for better and for worse.

Let’s take my first example. This is clearly about personal responsibility and accepting the consequences of our actions – good. But it’s also about inflexibility, putting up with situations that we could change and being bloody-minded – bad.

And what subconscious associations might I have about beds, given the first two messages? Beds don’t seem to be being associated with rest, recuperation and good times, do they?

As for the ‘muck cart’ one – yes, it’s a spur to action but where does that leave periods of thought and reflection? Or taking time to consider our actions?

Fortunately, my mum was also keen on W.H. Davies’ lovely poem, ‘Leisure’:

‘What is this life, if full of care

We have no time to stand and stare…’

W.H. Davies

so I didn’t end up completely bug-eyed and driven!

In CBT, such family sayings would be seen as contributing to our core beliefs, in Transactional Analysis, they might be seen as Injunctions, in Pesso Boyden Therapy, they would be called ‘Voices’ and in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, possibly as ‘uninvited guests from the unremembered past’ 

Whatever the therapy, messages from our families are usually seen as very important.

For reasons we do not yet fully understand, some psychological problems are passed down in families. Modelling is a factor, of course: in a family where the father is never seen to cry, boys will often grow up finding it almost impossible or unbearable to cry, their sons may have the same difficulty and so on throughout the generations. Closely related are family sayings, such as mine. A quick Internet search suggests that the ‘muck cart’ one is an old Lancashire saying; my mum came from a village near Preston. Her mum probably said it to her (they lived on a farm where all the children were expected to help) and her mum to her and so on. Such sayings tend to confirm the values the family holds dear.

The net result? Well, let’s look at my three examples. If those are the family sayings, what sort of family will result? I’d suggest one that is hard working and full of activity, with little time for reflection or contemplation. Life is seen as quite tough – but that will partly be our own responsibility.

I hope you can see the link to your own and your family’s well-being. Out of our awareness, we have powerful messages influencing our lives and not always for our good. It’s an interesting exercise to list all the ‘sayings’ that abound in our households and to reflect on them. What’s healthy about them and likely to be good for our mental and emotional well-being? And what’s not so good? Are there any we’d like to stop repeating? Or any we’d like to bring out into the open and discuss with our families? 

It’s interesting to see if there are any mixed messages going on too. In my family, my dad was keen on telling us that if we got up late, we’d ‘missed the best part of the day’ and I still feel slightly guilty if I don’t get up early – but I was dimly aware that he didn’t always stick to his own rules and could often be found watching football late at night! 

Recently, I called out a man I know for remarking of a fictional character who attempted rape that ‘he got to the point where he couldn’t help himself.’ He argued that it was ‘just an expression’. I argued that if we keep repeating such ‘expressions’ we continue the toxic narrative and belief that men don’t have full control over their sex drives. What we say and what our brains hear is powerful and important. Our minds are always listening to what we say so the more we say these things, the more we will reinforce them, not just in our listeners but in ourselves. And what we say and what we model doesn’t just affect our own children’s well-being but can affect future generations too.

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