4 Steps Vital to Releasing Old Family Patterns

A family walks away through a field

Editor’s note: Claudia Black, PhD is a renowned addiction specialist and the author of several books addressing family systems and addiction issues. Her continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, titled The Addictive Family: The Legacy of Trauma, is scheduled for 9 a.m. Pacific Time on September 5, 2014. The event is available at no additional cost to GoodTherapy.org members and is good for two CE credits. For details, or to register, please click here.

It is true that as long as we live we may keep repeating the patterns established in childhood. It is true that the present is powerfully shaped by the past. But it is also true that insight at any age keeps us from singing the same sad songs again.
– Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses

Family-of-origin influences certainly seem destined to last a lifetime as we repeatedly fall easily into old family patterns. These old patterns may just feel comfortingly familiar and like the path of least resistance, but as Viorst points out, those “same sad songs” don’t have to be played on repeat. Following the four steps listed here will enable you to leave the past behind.

Explore Your Past

Exploring the past is not an exercise in assigning blame, but an opportunity to acknowledge the truth of what happened in our lives and experience the grief associated with our pain, rather than hiding or suppressing our wounds. There is no doubt denial was a skill that served us as children in survival mode, but denial, which begins as a defense, can eventually interfere with how we live our lives today. When we let go of denial and acknowledge the past, we find an opportunity to genuinely put the past behind us and continue with recovery.

Connect the Past to the Present

Ask yourself, “How does this past pain and loss influence who I am today?” “How does the past affect who I am as a parent, in the workplace, in relationship, and how I feel about myself?” Identifying the cause-and-effect relationship between our past losses and present lives gives us a sense of direction, and we can become more centered in the here and now. This clarity will identify the areas we need to work on.

Claudia Black

Claudia Black, PhD

Challenge Internalized Beliefs

Consider which of your beliefs about yourself were internalized from childhood. Are they helpful or hurtful to you today? Which beliefs would support you in living a healthier life?

We often internalize beliefs such as, “It is not okay to say no,” or “Other people’s needs are more important than my own,” or “The world owes me and I am entitled,” or “People will take advantage of me every chance they can.” When these beliefs get in the way of how we want to live our lives, we need to take responsibility for what we do with them. We need to let them go and create new beliefs to take their place.

Learn New Skills

Try to identify what kinds of skills would help you today that you may not have had an opportunity to learn in the past. You can also take a look at skills and behaviors you learned prematurely or developed out of fear or shame. These skills may be poorly developed, leaving you to feel like an imposter. Addressing the feelings and beliefs associated with the skill will make it possible to develop greater confidence in those skills.

Because there are such a variety of issues we may need to address—from healthier decision making to realistic expectations, and from setting limits to expressing feelings—these four steps are not always followed in a linear fashion. We generally follow them in the order listed, but as you will quickly learn, you often return repeatedly to a step to do another piece of work.

The knowledge that comes in owning our past and connecting it to the present is vital in developing empathy and compassion for ourselves. It also helps us to reduce shame and refrain from holding ourselves accountable for the pain we have carried. Understanding that we have lived our lives as we have for good reason—not because there is something inherently wrong with who we are—is fuel for our ongoing healing. The change we want to create in our lives will be made directly as a result of both releasing self-defeating belief systems and learning new skills.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Claudia Black, PhD, Featured GoodTherapy.org Presenter

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Alyss

    August 22nd, 2014 at 11:28 AM

    It can be quite hard to let go of the past, especially those things that we learned or thought that we learned about ourselves and how to behave from a very early age. However if these are things that you think are holding you back in your life, what real choice do you have besides letting go and moving forward? There is no other way to move on than by letting go.

  • David

    August 22nd, 2014 at 2:36 PM

    You sort of have to decide what of that family of origin is going to be worth keeping and what about it would you like to toss out with the trash. That is the first thing that I think that you have to do. Determine what is important, and then the rest should go out the door.

    The next thing is to find a way to implment those keepers into your daily life without also falling back into the bad habits of the past. Some things will feel like they go together but if you want part of it and not the rest somehow you have to learn to let go of some of it while determining how to keep the ones you like.

  • maurice

    August 23rd, 2014 at 5:26 AM

    For many people I know this has become the game of blame so to speak. They are so busy looking for a scapegoat that they forget that this isn’t what it all should be about. This should be about clansing and starting anew, not continuing the same old cycle of pointing the finger at another and still failing to take responsibility for their own actions. I realize that some of us have tougher pasts than others- there is a lot of blame to go around sometimes! But don’t you think that part of the reason that you could have been treated the way that you were was because someone else in your life had failed to let go of their own past?

  • Lola

    August 25th, 2014 at 10:33 AM

    Very nice to actually give yourself a little bit of a challenge every now and then. Whta good does it do for you to hold onto long held beliefs that you know can’t be true? Challenge yourself to work through those and to get past those beliefs of the past. A much better future is likely ahead of you when you allow yourself to do that.

  • noelle

    August 25th, 2014 at 3:43 PM

    It might be uncomfortable but I find that talking to the people in your life who impacted you from the word go can be so cathartic in helping you to release some of the demons that you could carry around with you.

    We may be afraid of hurting feelings or causing rifts, but I think that if you can actually talk to each other as adults and have a conversation about those habits then that helps you better understand where they were coming from and maybe even why they did the things that they did.

    I don’t think that this is the all encompassing answer but it helps to gain a better of understanding of those in your lie and maybe help you repair the things that happened long ago in the past.

  • Ronald

    August 27th, 2014 at 2:01 PM

    Tackling that chore of exploring your past can be a very hard thing, so it could be wise to seek the help of a counselor or a therapist when you finally make that decision to take that step. It can be a rough journey but it can also be very enlightening in many ways too. If you think that it will be too hard to navigate on your own though, a good therapist can help and guide you when you need that extra support and feedback.

  • starla

    August 28th, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    I think that because of my childhood I never learned how to say no to others, I have always been more of a people pleaser so whatever they want me to do I find that I pretty much do it because I don’t wnat to run the risk of getting them mad at me. I think that a large part of this comes from being raised in a home where it was easier to say yes than no, it sort of kept the peace and even though I am now grown and married with children of my own, those habits are still hard to break and I find myself over extended and over committed because I just don’t have that ability to look out for me first.

  • Meredith

    August 30th, 2014 at 2:08 PM

    This is a tough one because you love your family and they have made you who you are but at the same time you may not quite like who you are and it sure is hard to break those old patterns of behavior and thoughts

  • Marc S

    January 14th, 2015 at 2:14 AM

    “Enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment.”
    – Trungpa Rimpoche

  • Echo

    March 17th, 2016 at 6:54 PM

    I have believed for at least the last 10 yrs that I have explored my past. Apparently not. Upon just finding out that my daughter, who is going to soon be 19, was sexually molested by my ex-stepson (her half brother), while she was in the 1st/2nd grade…….WOW. Talk about some serious PTSD. Then her father calls her a liar…………..and yet now they are Besties?! I’m hurting….

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