Taking the Road Less Traveled
By Jodie Elder, PhD, LPC-S, LMFT | March 21, 2019
During our frolicking in South Texas visiting family and having fun over Spring Break, both kids got the flu, and of course, I did too. Go figure!
After leaving medicine instructions with my husband and assuring the kids I would be back as quickly as possible, I raced off to the clinic for my own appointment to beg for a Tamiflu prescription. Just in case of construction or traffic problems, I used the Waze app to map my route. Much to my surprise, it instructed me to take me a completely different route than what I was accustomed to taking.
Instant quandary! My head said to go the route of the app, because it might know something I don’t about the road up ahead and how to best get to my destination. However, my gut said to go in the direction I’ve always gone, the route I know best, the route I’ve gone my whole life. In a rush and feeling pressured, I pulled the wheel in the direction of my usual route and turned off the Waze app.
After arriving on time by the skin of my teeth, I realized that what happened in the process of getting there is what happens to us much of the time. How often do we ignore our head to go another way because it’s the way we’ve always gone? In the counseling world, the term for this is “familiar love.” We sometimes choose certain relationships or act certain ways in relationships that may not be the best for us, but we do so because it’s familiar, it’s what we know, and therefore in a strange way, it’s more comfortable than stepping out, trying something new, and making healthier choices. Where does this “familiar love” come from?
Whether healthy, unhealthy, or a mix of both, early family relationships ingrain in us the way relationships are “supposed” to work. We learn rules and ways of interacting with others that become part of our hard-wiring, and when we are under pressure, our responses are at times automatically guided by this hard-wiring, rather than by our heads and what we know may be better for us.
For instance, I know that staying connected to my husband and talking out our differences is what is best for our marriage. Because of my training as a counselor, I also know the “right” words and phrases to use. However, when conflict occurs, my hard-wiring often hijacks the best of my intentions, my “fight- flight-or-freeze” response kicks in, and I find myself withdrawing and shutting down. It irks him to no end, and it is actually very frustrating for me too. Despite my best efforts, I find it incredibly difficult to stay level headed and engaged. Why is it so hard to talk it out when I know the ‘right way’ to do it? Easy answer — Because of my hard-wiring, which taught me early and taught me well that conflict was not safe. ‘Duck and cover’ will always be my gut response. When I do that, I know what to expect, and it’s familiar. In a strange way, it feels safe, even though at times it has threatened to destroy our marriage.
It’s so difficult to re-wire my brain, our brains, to fight these ingrained responses. The good news is that change is possible. The bad news is that it requires some serious soul searching. We must dig deep and peek into the past to find out what relationship rules we learned in our early childhoods. We must then observe whether these rules even apply and how they are working in our current relationships and choose which ones to keep and which to revise. Finally, we must be courageous. We are called to try something new and scary in order to become the healthiest version of ourselves.
I firmly believe this soul-searching process is the key to personal growth. Looking back helps us gain insight so we can make conscious decisions about our current reality, rather than allowing ourselves to be blindly controlled by ghosts from the past. Our hard-wiring influences all our relationships, but especially our choice of partners and how we parent. We all dearly love our precious ones, but sometimes we unintentionally hurt them out of our own past and pain. Loving them the best way possible demands that we are the best version of ourselves. Being healthier one generation at a time requires asking hard questions and being gentle with ourselves when we find difficult answers. This journey of self-discovery and growth can certainly take us on new, unfamiliar, and sometimes scary paths, but making it to the final destination of a place of health, wholeness, and love is well worth the journey!