Family of Origin
What is Family of Origin?
Family of Origin refers to the family that you grew up in (as opposed to the people you live with now) and includes your siblings and parents. It can include a grandparent or other relative or step-parents and step-siblings who lived with you during any part of your childhood. The members of our family of origin and our relationships with them and the family as a whole profoundly influence who we become. Family of origin is the place we learned to be who we are, for better and worse.
What are Family of Origin Issues?
In our family of origin we learned how to communicate, interact, deal with our emotions and get our needs met. We also learned most of our beliefs and values from our parents. We derive our sense of self (our concept of who we are) from our family upbringing. If we were loved and felt safe most of the time, then we develop a strong and stable sense of self. If safety and love were generally unavailable, then our sense of self can be fractured and unstable.
It is important to have help in identifying family of origin issues–an experienced therapist is your best bet. While you may be familiar with the fact that various events or issues from your past somehow cause problems or conflict for you in adulthood, having the support and assistance of a competent therapist makes all the difference.
Some Examples of Family of Origin Issues:
- having grown up in family where there was substance abuse/addiction
- witnessing domestic violence
- having been severely bullied and teased in school
- having lost a parent through death or suicide
- having an absent parent or being emotionally abandoned by a parent
- being adopted
- being a child of divorced parents
- having been raised in a highly chaotic and conflict-filled household
- having had step-family or step-parent issues
- being a survivor of childhood neglect or emotional/physical/sexual abuse
- having a parent who had a severe anger or rage problem
- having had a family member who was mentally ill or had a personality disorder
- having been brought up with a strict religious orientation
There are many other family of origin issues of varying types and severities. Even something as simple as having a parent who was critical or judgmental influences and shapes us. These issues, which everyone has to some degree, impact and affect us deeply. The purposes of looking at them and facing them are:
- to come to terms with these past experiences and resolve them
- learning to relate more effectively with their family of origin today
- to interrupt generational patterns
- to provide a more healthy marital and family system for your own children and grandchildren
- increase awareness and gain new perspectives on old dysfunctional patterns we tend to re-enact in adulthood
- to improve our functioning in relationships
It’s Not About Blaming
Many of us feel loyal to our parents and don’t want to blame them. Identifying and addressing family of origin issues is not about placing blame, it’s about facing what happened–taking an honest look at things. The hardest part of solving many of our present-day presenting problems (relationship problems, substance abuse, fear, anger, anxiety, depression) is because they are heavily influenced by unresolved family of origin issues-stuff we haven’t looked at or wanted to look at or think about for a long time. It can be difficult and we may resist facing and confronting the ways in which our childhood has contributed to our current suffering and difficulties.
It is our parent’s responsibility to meet our basic material needs, make us feel safe and give us love, attention, and affection. No parent is perfect, but in some cases they fall WAY short on delivering these essentials (likely due to their own family of origin issues!). To the mind of a child this can be frustrating, even terrifying. The child may conclude something like, “if my parents can’t keep me safe or make me feel loved, then the world is a chaotic, unsafe, dangerous place.” A child will then, in an effort to avoid experiencing the terror of realizing their parents are bad or flawed, take the responsibility on themselves to try be “good” or “perfect” and thus “earn” their parent’s love. Needless to say, because it is virtually impossible to be good or perfect all the time, and because the child’s behavior is not at all the cause of the parent’s failure or inability to love and nurture, this approach does not work (or at least does not work well). What it does is shape (or skew) a child’s personality and view of themselves. For example, no matter what the reason or circumstance, severe abuse or neglect in childhood usually leads to serious, persistent difficulty in many aspects of adult life. People often seek the help of a therapist to overcome present-day emotional distress associated with neglect, or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in the family of origin.
Family of Origin Work
It can be scary examining our upbringing, since it is the source of much of our core knowledge about life. Still, such examination is critical for healing. Because we tend to unconsciously recreate the old dynamics from our family of origin, the same old issues get played out again and again, either in romantic relationships or parent-child relationships, or sometimes in friendships and work relationships. Discovering and understanding these patterns helps you see your role in perpetuating them in present-day and allows you to interrupt these cycles by consciously changing the way in which you respond. When we chose not to face and deal with our family of origin issues, we keep the cycle going, hence the expression, “Deal with your issues, or they’ll deal with you.”
Addressing and dealing with your family of origin issues helps unravel and reveal the mechanism of how that process occurs. Family of origin therapy usually involves unlearning and/or relearning–analyzing and discussing family values, traditions, significant events, messages, communication styles, and ways of expressing and dealing with emotions. By taking a focused look at these things, we are better able to see why we do what we do, have particular beliefs, make certain choices, and experience certain emotions. We are then able to change our thinking and incorporate new (more realistic) perspectives into our views of life and of ourselves. Working through these issues is a process and takes time but it helps us face and overcome fears, frees us to pursue dreams and goals, and helps us achieve peace and clarity.
Family Systems, Roles, and Homeostasis
Growing up, we are all part of a family system, our “family of origin”. What occurs in our family of origin never quite happens to just one person in isolation from the other members of the system. Rather, every member has some reaction and adapts and deals with things that happen over time. Each family member has a particular function in the family system, a role each person plays in maintaining equilibrium in the system. Family theorists call this homeostasis–the tendency of a set of relationships to perpetually strive, in ways that are self-corrective, to preserve the organizing principles of its existence. For example, in families where active addiction exists, the members organize and adapt around the addict (alcoholic, drug addict, workaholic, sexual addiction, etc.) and other family members play roles such as hero, scapegoat, lost child, mascot (clown), child-parent (role reversal), and so on. Simply stated, the principal of homeostasis explains why when one member in a dysfunctional family attempts to change their role (i.e., detach, disengage, get healthier) the family usually responds by trying to change the person back or pull them back into their old familiar role.
The theory of homeostasis is highly relevant in understanding and explaining present-day relationships and attractions. We are usually attracted to people with whom we, perhaps subconsciously, can re-create homeostasis (familiar order and organizing principles of the family of origin). And so “falling in love” usually involves finding someone who offers or provides that old familiar dynamic (no matter how painful or difficult or conflicted) with whom we can “work through” our family of origin issues. For many of us this process is subconscious–but there is a familiarity–often a strange but powerful attraction to certain people-and sometimes along with the attraction is an irresistible desire to stay with a certain person even if things are going horribly wrong. Embeded within our perception of and attraction to that certain person lies the hope and promise of resolution of a life-long family of origin issue we carry. Our subconscious mind wants to work it out.
The way this generally works is that we tend to attract and choose a person who is either just like or radically unlike a particular member of our family of origin as a relationship partner. For example, it is not unusual for someone whose father was distant and emotionally unavailable to be attracted to and chose a husband who is also distant and emotionally unavailable. What we are attempting to do with the person is to re-create the same dynamic or role we played in our family of origin. The basic problem with this is our husband or wife is not our parent and not our sibling, and is unlikely to understand why we are choosing to act in such a manner. In order for adult romantic relationships to be successful long-term, the relationship needs to evolve and be shared between two mature, self-aware, well-defined people. Part of maturing is being able to “leave” one’s family of origin and the old role(s) played in it and choosing to BE with another person in a present-day relationship which is chiefly defined by present-day experiences. Being free and mature in the present comes from facing and being aware and conscious of who we were and are in our family of origin. Discovering and facing family of origin issues a process and it requires courage and persistence. Take the time to explore what you learned about yourself, life, love, emotions, and conflict in your family of origin. If you live in the Baton Rouge Area, and would like to enter counseling, please call Baton Rouge Counseling at (225) 293-2913. If you need relationship counseling, check out our Marriage Counseling in Baton Rouge LA.
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