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Our family of origin--the family we grew up in, as opposed to the people we live with now--is the place we learned to be who we are, for better and worse. From our family we learn how to communicate, deal with our emotions, and get our needs met. We also learn many of our values and beliefs from our families. We often develop our sense of self in the contex of our family of origin--a strong sense of self if we are loved and kept safe most of the time; often, a damaged sense of self if love and safety are frequently unavailable.
When children experience a lack of love, that is the responsibility of the parents. However, to the child mind, that reality is terrifying; if my parents cannot keep me safe or make me feel loved, then the universe is a chaotic, unsafe place. Children, therefore, in an attempt to avoid experiencing the terror of realizing our parents are imperfect (or worse), usually take on themselves the responsibility to be perfect or good and thus win the love of their parents. Of course, since it’s impossible to be perfect or good all the time, and since the child’s behavior isn’t the cause of a parent’s failure to love, this approach does not work. What it does, however, is create the personality.
Clients in therapy may recognize their family wasn’t “perfect”, but it still may be difficult to confront the ways in which our childhood has contributed to our current suffering and difficulties. We often feel loyal to our parents and don’t want to blame them. It’s frightening to examine our upbringing, since it is the source of our core knowledge about life. Still, such examination is imperative.
Family experiences don’t explain everything in mental health; genetic tendencies often play a role, and free will, mystery that it is, is also at work. However, for a case example of someone working on family of origin issues, any entry in this website’s compendium will do; every issue presented in therapy can be addressed at least in part by examining family of origin experiences, both positive and negative.
Spouses bring their extended families into their marriages, whether consciously or unconsciously. Each one of us is a product of our family of origin, and the issues that we struggle with, our family of origin issues, contribute to our adult personalities. If we sought out our parents’ attention through perfection as a child, we may well continue to strive to achieve perfectionism for our mate. Additionally, we may put our own unrealistic expectations on a partner that is unaware, unable and ultimately unwilling, to live up to them. Bringing unaddressed family of origin issues into a marriage can create relationship problems that are often confusing and overwhelming to both partners. In order to fully understand the behaviors we exhibit in our adult relationships, we must first become familiar with why we developed those behaviors in our childhood.
Therapy can begin to unravel the ways that process occurs, and help us to see better why we do certain things, make certain choices, hold certain beliefs and experience certain emotions. This can help us overcome our fears, pursue our authentic goals, and achieve some sense of peace. Severe abuse or neglect in the family of origin can lead to serious, persistent difficulties. Therapists are trained to help clients overcome the distress associated with neglect, physical abuse or sexual abuse in the family of origin.
Some therapeutic approaches do directly address families of origin. Cognitive behavioral therapy mainly examines current beliefs and thoughts. They may originate in our family experience, but CBT focuses on the present tense and does not generally look at the past. Solution focused therapists also tend not to explore family of origin issues. On the other hand, analysis, psychodrama, and psychodynamic therapy place a great deal of importance on past family experiences.
If there is something important you'd like us to consider adding to this page, please feel free to suggest your ideas.
Last updated: 12-15-2014
Family of Origin Issues Articles