Generational Patterns | Sarah Wyland
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What Are Generational Patterns?

“Do you know what generational patterns are?”

My therapist asked me that question early into our sessions together. I told him I had a good idea about what a generational pattern is, but that I had heard them called “generational curses” which is a phrase that can be traced back to the Bible. 

In Exodus, God warns that He is “a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” The idea is that sins are naturally passed down from parent to child. A generational pattern casts the net a bit wider than just biblical sin, but the concept is the same – our parents pass down their behavior and beliefs that they in turn inherited from their own parents.

With generational patterns, parents (and grandparents, aunts, uncles…) (usually) aren’t setting out to put the next generation they’re responsible for at a disadvantage. They are only teaching them the only way they have ever known. And in fact, some generational patterns are healthy such as open, honest communication and displaying healthy relationships. But many are not.

I was a weird kid. 

I questioned everything. 

I drove my mother crazy. 

I asked things like “but how do I know you’re my mom?” The answer was, of course, “because I’m your mom.” But I couldn’t leave it alone. I knew she was my mom, but I wanted to know how I knew to call her ‘mom.’ How did I know my dad was supposed to be called ‘dad’ and Grandma ‘Grandma’ and on and on. I even asked who decided the color of the sky was blue. I wanted to know who got to choose what things were called, who came up with the names of things. How did we know that the color blue wasn’t really green? They were big questions, especially for a six year old. 

My mom’s answer? 

“Because I said so.” 

Eventually, I stopped asking questions. “Because I said so” was the answer and I began to accept that things were the way they were – and called what they were – because that was just the way of the world.

We learn our behavior – and what we call people and things – from those we’re surrounded by. As children, we look to our parents or whomever is responsible for us to teach us the ways of the world. We develop our beliefs and world views from them. We learn how to function in society through them. We learn family traditions, how to communicate, even pick up their addictions.

We learn that money doesn’t grow on trees. That one race is better than another. That marriage should be between a man and a woman. That abortion is a sin. 

You get the picture. 

When I scheduled myself for therapy, it was for help with health anxiety. But as we dug deeper, I started to confess some deep truths. Among them? That I felt a tremendous guilt for not being like “the rest of my family.”

Let me set the scene a bit here. 

When I graduated high school, I was content to follow my mom’s lead. She married my dad right out of high school, had me at twenty-one. She didn’t go to college, worked office jobs her entire life, divorced my dad when I was in third grade. I was under the impression that that was the way. I expected to go out into the world, join the workforce, and have to struggle to make every dime, to live paycheck to paycheck. I expected life to be hard. That was just the way of my rural community. We graduated high school, married our high school sweethearts, and went right to work. My mom wasn’t especially happy, but she made it work and that was what I was going to do – make it work.

But as life happened to me, I started to see there were other options. I stuck my toe outside the county line to see what else was out there. That toe became a step, followed by another, and then another and eventually, a cross-country drive to make Los Angeles home

Los Angeles is a long way from Schuyler, Virginia, and I don’t just mean distance. 

I’ve spent most of my adult life struggling with the push-pull of feeling like I was disappointing someone by moving to new cities, trying new things, not getting married right out of the gate, not having children in my twenties. I knew deep down that I was making the right choices for me, that my friends and family who made different choices made the right choices for them, but that I wouldn’t be happy in the same scenarios. The guilt was real however – and so was the feeling of judgment – and one day in therapy, I laid it all out for him and wrapped it up with, a direct quote here: “and I just want to stop feeling guilty for shopping at Whole Foods, wanting a big house in the Hollywood Hills, and a Louis Vuitton bag to carry all my crap.” 

Because I did. I felt guilt and shame about the things I want in life. Just that weekend I had spent over $100 on makeup and I swore to my therapist I could hear my mom saying ‘I can’t believe you spent that much money on makeup!” He let me rationalize to him why I spent that much money. “All my bills were paid and I have my salary, plus my coaching income, and I did this side project I just got paid for…”

He stopped my rationalization and asked me again why I felt that way. I reiterated the guilt and shame I had around spending money on what I called “luxury items.”

That’s when he told me I was breaking generational patterns. 

He then labeled me a “mold breaker.”

Through experiences and happenstance, I became someone who challenged those generational patterns, who started to see the world differently than my parents and step parents. Sometimes people get a taste of different, don’t like it, or fear gets in the way and they retreat. 

Some people, like me, go full tilt into it the different, smashing through like a bull in a China shop. 

It’s hard to be that mold breaker. 

It doesn’t look hard from the outside looking in. To the outsider, to my family and friends back on the east coast, I’m living it up in Los Angeles, going to the beach whenever I feel like it, talking about the pilots I’m developing, the screenplay I’m slugging through, the coaching business I’m growing. I’m the weird one reading oracle cards and talking about manifestation and spirituality from my balcony on Instagram Live every morning. It’s all palm trees and sunshine over here.

And yeah, there is a lot of palm trees and sunshine – it’s Los Angeles – but there is also an internal storm most people don’t see.

I still struggle with accepting that it’s okay to live my life this way. There are whispers of “you think you’re better than us” or “you forget where you came from” tossed my way pretty often. That’s not it, not at all. It’s that I chose something different – broke the pattern – and that can be intimidating for some, confusing for others. I’ve had relationships damaged and even lost, all for making different choices, for breaking the mold, breaking generational patterns of saying in our hometown. 

You probably have generational patterns in your life. Every last one of us does. Some are helpful. Many – like short tempers, emotional manipulation, gender role expectations, dysfunctional communication, for example – are not. 

How do you break these generational patterns? 

I’m here to tell you it’s not easy and to very much recommend seeking professional help. I would struggle much more than I already do without the help of my therapist. Breaking generational patterns requires revisiting your childhood, exploring moments that you may have tucked away or else moments that are very vivid and painful to recall. Only when you find the root of the problem can you work to break the generational pattern through a lot of self reflection and again, may I recommend professional help?

Breaking generational patterns has helped me feel more free. I’m still working on beliefs I inherited around money and self-worth. Those have been the hard ones, the ones that are ingrained pretty deep. But we’re getting there, thanks to therapy, journaling, and meditation. 

Generational patterns aren’t always bad, but they can be the driving force behind some of the behaviors or beliefs that may not be serving you. Breaking those generational patterns can cause a lot of stress and conflict in the process.

But on the other side? There’s a lot of freedom.

It’s not easy being the mold breaker.

But it is worth it.

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