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Family of Origin. What is that?

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Family of origin is the family in which you were raised; the immediate people that influenced the biggest part of your upbringing from infancy through childhood. A family of origin is the not the same as your biological family. Biological families are those where we are blood related; family of origin is the relationships through which your earlier memories and learnings happen. Why is our family of origin important? Our families are where we learned what is “normal” and how we fit into the world. Children grow up thinking whatever happens at their house is what happens at everyone’s house. That is why you meet adults who say, “I had no idea everyone’s house wasn’t like mine.” Children are egocentric. They do not have the life experience to realize all the players in their lives and how they all fit together. If there is a problem in a family, a child believes it must be about them and something they have or haven’t done. This leads us into my theory of “absolute truths” where our earliest memories create the touchstones of who we are. In a family, the child believes they are the center. Everything that happens is somehow related to them and their behavior. If those are the building blocks of our lives, it seems like it would be important to understand how all those pieces fit together to create the persons we are today.

Let’s explore how this concept is connected to therapy.

The lessons we learn in childhood typically dictate who we are in adulthood. Our family dynamics, healthy or not, play a large roll in how we interact with others and, more importantly, how we behave in our own families. The trickle-down effect is beautifully illustrated in families. Generational trauma plays a significant role in generation after generation continuing with the same negative pattern. Generational trauma is not something often discussed outside the world of therapy and even then, mostly focused on by trauma therapists. An example of generational trauma is the emotional distance a grandmother used as a coping skill during her time in the holocaust. Her only choice in the concentration camp was to separate from her emotions. After she was liberated, she never recovered from the emotional survival skill and raised her children in an emotionally distance home. As a result, her daughter never learned the emotional connection necessary for raising her own family and so the story goes. Generational trauma can also develop in less intense situations. A workaholic father may be unavailable to his children unless they achieve a significant accomplishment. From these infrequent interactions, a child learns that they are what they achieve. If they do not excel at something, they are not worthy of love and attention. When that child is raising his own children, he interacts with them in much the same way. An easy way to understand generational trauma is the pot roast illustration. In a family, everyone, for as long as anyone can remember, has cut the end of the roast. Nobody knows why they do it, it is just how parents have taught their children for generations. Finally, someone becomes curious and asks why they cut the end off. Turns out, there wasn’t a pot big enough for the roast, so they started cutting it. If that’s what we do to the roast, what do we do to our families?

In the beginning sessions of my work with clients, families are my focus. Therapists have the interesting job of gathering pieces to a puzzle we don’t have the picture of. We are asking questions, creating family diagrams, and holding information that might be helpful down the road.

Since our families are our idea of “normal,” often clients don’t see the point or relevance of taking a deeper look in how they came to be. Relationships and dysfunction are frequently minimized. It is not until a therapist reflects back the client’s story that many are able to hear dysfunction that existed(s) within their own family of origin. It is with that knowledge that work can begin in the transformation and empowerment stage of therapy.

What was your family of origin like growing up? What are those relationships like now? How do the dynamics within those relationships influence the way you interact with your spouse, children, and friends. This knowledge is the jumping off point for healing and restoration for so many people. It could be beneficial to find a therapist that works within a family of origin model to help you create new patterns of interactions with those around you at home, in the workplace, and amongst your friends. We all arrived at this point by way of relationships. In the great words of Dr. Phil, “how is that working out for you?” :)

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