My dad was emotionally unavailable and non-communicative. He neither talked with my brother and I nor played with us. He was cold, grouchy, moody, and impatient. He had grown up with an abusive father and coped by living his life inside a protective bubble.
And so when I became a dad, I had no good role model to draw from. How would I get rid of emotional baggage, learn from it, grow, and move on so my kid would have a stable father figure?
When we do what comes to us naturally — without thought — I call this our “cruise control.” For better or worse, it is when we allow ourselves to react to situations automatically and unconsciously in ways that were imprinted in our childhoods.
When my toddler son asked, “Dad, do you wanna play cars?!” the first thought that came into my mind was, “Why in the hell would I want to get down on the floor and play with little cars?”
That was my cruise control. That was the voice of my dad.
But I had decided long ago that I was going to be a better husband and father than my dad. So I seldom allowed myself to let my cruise control direct my behavior. Instead, I stopped and asked myself questions like, “What sort of dad do I choose to be?” or “What sort of dad would I have wanted?” or “What sort of dad does my son deserve?”
What my little boy heard was, “Sure, Buddy!”
I got down on the floor and chose a tiny car. At first, this felt awkward. As a child with a brother who was 10 years older than I, I pretty much played alone. But before long, the awkwardness faded and I was engaged in playing with my son.
My son grew up with the dad I chose to be, not the one I was trained to be. I took it out of cruise control and switched to manual. It takes more effort to stop and make decisions intentionally, but we don’t all grow up with healthy, loving families. All of our neurotic behaviors happen in cruise control, without thought or intention. We can train ourselves to delay those automatic reactions long enough to ask ourselves, “What sort of spouse/parent/sibling/friend/professional/employee/person do I want to be? Can I react in a way that makes me feel good about myself?”
This post originally appeared on Quora.
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