Your Life and Your Family of Origin
In my psychotherapy practice, whether its individual, couple or family therapy, I have seen the benefits of developing a clear and coherent understanding of one’s personal and family history – one’s family of origin.
One’s family of origin is one’s nuclear family and the generations that preceded it. Understanding one’s family of origin is more than the “who’s who” of your family, it is understanding the underlying dynamics of family life through the generations that have impacted one’s personal life. Through an understanding of one’s family of origin, individuals develop clarity about the circumstances of their personal lives and experience and couples and families can reconnect in new ways that allows life to unfold positively forward.
As people develop clarity about their family origin and early life experience, individuals are able to makes sense of their lives and develop a through line connecting past, present and moving forward into the future. They can see how the past is in the present in the patterns they are living out and can do the healing work to live in ways that support their happiness, connection and vitality.
Most often people are unaware of their personal and family history and how it currently impacts their functioning and capacity for love. This is both developmental and a choice. As infants and children, we are not aware of the circumstances behind the stresses and traumas that we and our family members have to contend with. As an adult, we may compartmentalize the stresses into “something that happened in childhood” ignoring its implications on the present. Further, as adults, we may altogether forget the challenges of childhood and early family life. We may choose not reflect on the pain of earliest years fearful of what painful emotions may surface. Yet, the unresolved pain can continue forward in the form of patterns of living.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” -Carl Jung
Family stress and trauma can crystalize into intergenerational patterns which escape the awareness of those who are living out these patterns. Life can become stressful and dysfunctional, and family members can be left with the question “why?” regarding the circumstances and family difficulties. The unfortunate side effects of this can leave family members living unhappy, disconnected lives unaware of the source of their pain. In fact, the origins of dysfunctional family patterns can be lost unless their is willingness and desire to become conscious of them.
The greatest gift that we can give ourselves, our family members and the generations that follow is to develop a clear and coherent story of the facts of our personal and family history and do the necessary healing work.
Family patterns find themselves living in each one of us. It is in the healing of these family patterns, as we find them in our personal lives, that will disrupt the dysfunctional generational pattern. The healing work can take form through individual, relationship and family healing.
When we recognize that a family pattern is unfolding in our lives – whether it be co-dependence, substance abuse or dependence, anger, sadness and loss, etc – we have an opportunity to heal and realign that pattern to one that is loving and empowering. This is by no means simple work. It requires our awareness, intelligence and compassion. Outside support is helpful too.
Becoming aware of these patterns allows each of us to become a significant link in the chain of family generations. Healing even one wound has the potential to decrease the burden on the following generations.
Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu write in their book, “The Book of Forgiving”:
When we know our stories and make sense of what has happened, we get connected to the larger story of our lives and its meaning. We come more resilient, we are able to handle stress, and we heal. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel explains that the best predictor of how well a child will be attached to his or her parents – have positive, loving relationships – is whether the parents have a clear and coherent story about their lives and the traumas they have experienced. In other words, if you are able to talk about your life and the joys and sorrows you have experienced – if you know your story – you are much more likely to be a skillful parent. Your unhealed, unforgiven traumas will not rear their ugly heads, as our disowned experiences so often do. If we cannot seek forgiveness and healing for our own benefit, perhaps we can seek it for the sake of our children.
This is wonderfully illustrates how our awareness and healing of intergenerational patterns is intimately intertwined with the people that are closest to us. Clarity of our personal story and family of origin and healing our wounds, helps not only ourselves, but those around us too. Through compassion, forgiveness, and understanding we open the doors for love to enter more fully into our lives and those that are closest to us.
Individual and Family Experience
In my psychotherapy practice, I see how much family of origin work is both a personal and family experience. We cannot determine to what degree other family members may be ready to look at their personal and family story and how it develops into personal patterns. It’s possible that others close to us may not even be a willing to look at the patterns continuing through their individual life. Yet, the residual effects of doing so for oneself can ripple across the cascade of family life and touch the lives of others outside of our immediate family, and when they are ready, family members can be inspired by your efforts for clarity, healing and empowerment. At a certain point, what becomes most important is each individual’s commitment to their path of healing and empowerment and having faith in one’s choice to live a conscious and loving life.
Often people get in touch with their personal and family story that requires healing in two ways. Firstly, it is often the pain of life circumstances and the unconscious patterns that force people to become aware of these patterns in order to move beyond them. The patterns can rear their head and can create dramatic change to circumstances and connection among family members. Often the symptoms and stress of these circumstances and patterns can bring people into therapy.
Secondly, a pro-active choice is made to make gradual changes through conscious therapeutic engagement prior to life stressors initiating the process. This can be an extension of the first process mentioned prior. Through the intention to live with joy, love and freedom, individuals, couples and families bring awareness to intergenerational patterns to create positive changes in the present. Changes are made more naturally and gradually without the intensity of acute stress. Regardless what brings us to become aware of the facts and impact of our family of origin, there is an opportunity for healing that will allow personal and family life to move forward with clarity, connection, purpose and love.
A Personal Choice
The choice to become aware and doing the healing work related to our family of origin is a personal one. We all must make the choice for ourself to make the connection between our personal lives and experience and understand its connection to the larger family story. In doing so and doing the healing work, we become a conduit for the best of our family heritage to live through our individual life and into the generations to follow.
Experiencing more joy, love and freedom in our personal and family life and for the generations that follow – this is the benefit of developing a clear and coherent personal and family narrative.
Questions to Consider:
- What impact has the prior three generations of my (and/or spouse’s) family impacted my well-being and development?
- What choices have I made that reflect larger patterns in my (or spouses) family?
- To what degree do I understand my personal and family story integrated into the larger story of my family?
- What family patterns (strengths, vulnerabilities and dysfunction) do I see active in my personal and family life?