Integrating Family of Origin History

At some point in your healing path, you are ready to turn towards your experience with your family of origin and take a closer look at what happened and how it has shaped you. As you do so, it’s helpful to have a few specific questions and practices to guide you.

Let’s start with questions. You can ask the following questions of yourself or discuss with a family member or trusted friend or therapist. The purpose of asking these questions is to create perspectives that can help you integrate your family experience in a new way.

  1. What were the significant events in your parents’ and siblings lives that shaped them?

  2. What were the beliefs and cultural norms about raising children when you were growing up?

  3. What emotional/psychological role did you and your siblings each occupy in the family?

  4. What needs were consistently met for you growing up? How did this affect you?

  5. What needs were consistently unmet? How did you adapt to that lack?

  6. What was the most common emotional tone of your home?

  7. Did you take on the attitude or emotions of either parent; either resonating with or trying to resolve?

  8. What core beliefs, about how to live life and relate to others, were communicated to you either explicitly or implicitly?

  9. Did you make any reactive vows about something in your family that you opposed or struggled with? How is that operating now?

  10. What qualities, skills, or understanding do you appreciate in yourself now that you can link to family of origin experiences?

If you have the opportunity to spend time with your parents and siblings in the present, you can engage in some experiments to help you access insight and understanding. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Bring a trusted friend to a family gathering. Try to notice your family interactions from their perspective. Afterwards, ask them what they noticed about family dynamics: unique ways of communicating, biases, power dynamics, emotions allowed or not allowed, type and level of sharing, etc.

  2. Identify one habitual mode of interacting with a family member. For example, perhaps you take on the caregiving role with your mom, or giving your sister advice, perhaps you share very little of your own life, or maybe you are the one that tries to organize everyone and maintain order. Identify a typical role or behavior, and then, for perhaps a half-day or even just over lunch, watch for those behaviors and replace them with something else, even if you just remain silent. Notice what’s different in your own experience. Notice if you observe anything new in your family.

  3. If you have enough rapport with a family member, share and make amends for any behaviors you regret that impacted them. Do this if you can access compassion for yourself and them.

  4. Look for opportunities to express gratitude to family members about how they have contributed to you. Be specific about the particular events and the needs met.

Lastly, on your own, with a trusted friend, or with a therapist, use photos of yourself growing up as doorway to accessing empathy and understanding. Choose two or three photos from each stage of life or have someone choose them for you. Take time with each photo to explore the experience of the younger you. What were you feeling and needing? What was big in your world at the time? What were your challenges and delights at that time?

Practice

Look through the questions and practices above, choose one to work with and how you would like to approach it, e.g., just reflecting on your own or engaging with others.