Recently, I stumbled across an art project where you purchase a well-loved framed art piece from a thrift store, take it home, and use your own paints to color over the original product to create your own. Creative options are boundless: you can leave parts of the original shining through, track precisely but use entirely new color schemes, create an abstract rendition of the underlying concept, or paint something entirely different.
But beneath it all, the one thing that remains, and cannot be erased is the original template.
Similarly, we follow blueprints primed by our parental figures as we evolve into adults. Genetics aside, environmental influences are undeniable; just as a child first learns to write their letters by connecting the dots, one of the ways we learn to relate to others is by “tracing” the models we observe in our parents. We are carefully attuned to how they react to both stressors and pleasant experiences. We mirror the way we interact with others and ourselves partially by how we perceive them doing the same.
One of the goals of therapy is developing a sense of self-sufficiency. As Alice Miller points out in her book “The Drama of the Gifted Child”, if our “autonomy is not genuine” (i.e. our own, and is instead a pure replica of our parents sense of self), “it soon ends in depression”.
We learn which emotional experiences are “acceptable” based on our parents reactions to our attempts to color outside the lines. In other words, if our experience is such that certain feelings are intolerable to our parents, and we must rely on them for a sense of love and security, our only choice is to ward off those emotions. Ultimately, we start to see the world as having those same expectations, and so we chose the same color palette and stylistic patterns over and over again.
If we aren’t consciously aware of this tendency, we remain imprisoned from becoming the artist of our own life. Once we uncover and explore the original template, with compassion both for ourselves and our parents, we are finally free to create our own masterpiece.