“The way we see ourselves, others, and the world, is shaped in the setting of our family of origin. The views we develop there stay with us throughout life.” Richardson, R.W. (2011) Family Ties that Bind (4th ed.).
Why do I still feel like a child in my family?
As adults dealing with the stresses and pressures of ‘grown-up’ life, it is not uncommon to find ourselves faced with emotional vulnerabilities and childlike responses reminiscent of our past. This can take us by surprise or be an all too familiar scenario, particularly when in the company of members of our original family such as a parent, sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle.
Have you ever wondered why your emotional age drops dramatically when in the presence of the people you grew up with? Family gatherings, especially Christmas, are the perfect opportunity to observe adult siblings playing out the roles they played as children in relation to each other and their parents or caregivers. We slot quickly and easily back into our positions as “the baby of the family” or “the responsible one” and so on despite perhaps having changed considerably outside the family. So why do our behaviours, insecurities, jealousy and resentments from decades ago continue into our adult life when it comes to family?
Children up to around the age of ten usually assume that their experiences within the family are not only normal, but mirrored in other families. Whether they are satisfied or not, children tend to believe that the ways of relating within their family structure are typical, adopting these behaviours and values as their own. Before too long however, exposure to other families and relationships opens up other possibilities. But our early influences are strong and it can be difficult to let go of the messages from our childhood that may not be so useful anymore.
As a first step, it is important to simply recognise and accept that our original family system, also referred to as our Family of Origin has enormous influence over our beliefs, expectations and behaviour as adults, even for those who are estranged or living on the other side of the world.
The reason we sometimes feel like “the child in the room” is because as adults, we actually have very limited emotional autonomy. Our sense of self and identity, along with our ability to navigate relationships with others have been greatly influenced by often unspoken, yet powerful multigenerational factors. Even for adults who have completely cut-off from their family of origin, unresolved issues and patterns of dealing with conflict and stress learnt in early childhood will accompany them into their ‘grown-up’ relationships.
Understanding the influence of our family system
In our fast-paced, individualistic Western culture, much attention is focused on the characteristics and processes within people. We are constantly asking ourselves questions like “am I happy enough, successful, smart, healthy and so on?” The list of individual pursuits and benchmarks is endless yet there are times when it can be overwhelming and we wonder when the vulnerable, inner child will catch up with the ageing face in the mirror.
What is being neglected in our culture, particularly when things start to go wrong, are the multigenerational influences between family members which have shaped the individual. Every member of our family, both past and present, has impacted on the other family members in one way or another.
For example, in order to reduce anxiety and tension within the family, our parents (and grandparents, and great-grandparents before them and so on) adopted patterns of behaviour, belief systems and particular responses for dealing with problems. You may have been told “always be nice and put others first” whilst for others it was “get in first and fight for what you want”. Where did these messages originate? And why are they so different between families?
Regardless of the underlying message, as children, we learnt these messages and responded accordingly, subsequently growing into adults without necessarily questioning the values and beliefs that underpin our views of the world. That is of course until we began to interact with people, particularly partners whose value systems differed from our own, or worse still, we began to recognise that our ‘set in stone’ beliefs and automatic responses are sabotaging our happiness and relationships.
Is it possible to differentiate from my family of origin?
The good news is, families are open, living systems that evolve over time, bringing new types of relationships, energy and challenges. This means that there are endless possibilities for change and growth. Through self-reflection and the exploration of our extended family system it is possible for individuals to continue to belong to the family they grew up in, to be part of it both physically and emotionally yet maintain psychological separateness and the ability to function independently with confidence, even if your attitudes differ. To be differentiated means to maintain close relationships with your parents, siblings or extended family without becoming overwhelmed, overly involved or influenced by their needs, beliefs and evaluations.
If, for instance, parental anxiety, or unresolved anger from previous generations have been unintentionally transmitted (projected) onto you as a child, you can begin to understand those beliefs and behaviours that you have adopted and start to make changes by challenging the messages that have had adverse effects on your expectations of others, as well as on your emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Rather than breaking away from one’s family of origin (cutting-off), you can begin the process of growing away (obtaining emotional objectivity). As a starting point to obtaining emotional objectivity, it may be useful to complete a family tree or genogram, observing the types of personalities that have influenced yourself and other family members. A helpful resource to begin this process is Monica McGoldrick’s “You Can Go Home Again”. Another good starting point is “Family Ties that Bind” by Dr. Ronald Richardson. Both books guide the reader in understanding their family of origin and exploring its influence on their sense of self.
Many of us grow old waiting for other family members to change. We can however, take the first step towards acceptance by looking at ourselves and the generations that came before us in order to gain a deeper understanding of our family’s unique characteristics and how they have influenced each individual within the system. It is possible to maintain a balance between belonging to our past and growing (or differentiating) as an individual. One must first begin to reject the attitudes, behaviours and beliefs of others within the family system that aren’t working for us and more importantly, start to identify and develop the ones that are.
This article was written by Australia Counselling member Narelle Gillies. Please visit her Australia Counselling profile to contact her or to make a booking.
photo credit: gbaku