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Healing pain by exploring our family of origin

People come into therapy for different purposes and goals.

For some, there is frightening processing of reacquainting themselves with the truth of what has happened in their family of birth.They have lost memories of what had happened because of trauma and are now looking to ‘see’ their childhood for what it was.

Others want to understand their family of birth so that they can understand themselves better. They are asking the question “Who Am I”?

Understanding these complexities in your family dynamic may provide insight into your own personality and your own being. Understanding what happened provides perspective. These perspectives might change the conclusions you’ve previously made about your family members.

Going Home to Start Collecting Stories

Prior to returning home, consult with a therapist to get clear on what you want to better understand. Talk about what kinds of barriers might come up in the process of returning home, and develop some strategies to cope with these barriers.

Take two to four days to visit your childhood home. If you sense yourself feeling reactive or returning to old patterns, it’s time to leave. This may be sooner than two days. You might want to consult a therapist if you find it hard to not be emotionally reactive, (e.g.: angry, appeasing, feeling child-like).

As part of the process of gathering information, aim for three to six visits home a year. Times of crises (illness, death) or times of celebration (holidays and birthdays) are good times to visit. Relationships can either be more volatile or more open during these times. You want to capitalize on the possibility of the relationship being more open.

You may be tempted to bring your spouse for emotional support. However, they often become triangulated or their presence may create too much of a change to the delicate system of the family of origin for you to obtain any unbiased information. If you feel too anxious and vulnerable without your spouse, work with a therapist in processing and coping with that anxiety.

Sitting down with one parent at a time, go through steps 1 and 2.

Step 1: Who is in your family?

Go back as far as the past three generations (your parent’s grandparents). Map it all out in a family tree. Use squares to symbolize male-ish people and circles to symbolize female-ish people and triangles to symbolize non-binary people. Add name and dates. Who married who and when. When were people born and when did they pass? Ask your family members to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.

Step 2: Develop a History

Develop a chronological timeline of events that span the four generations of your family. Note things like major world events, economic changes, war, immigration/exportation and other geographical moves, births, deaths, adoptions, major illnesses, jobs & job changes/firing/resignations.

Be clear. What did your mother’s grandfather do when he first immigrated to Canada? What did the job involve? What did he do after? What kind of an impact did that work have on your family? What kind of impact did that job have on him?

What events lead to one of your family members being cut off? How do other family members view the situation?

Who is treated as if they never existed in the family?

When you are collecting information from your family members, push for accuracy. Sometimes people can get dates that are off by 5 or 10 years. You may have to consult historical writing, and anthropologists who studied certain eras. Become a researcher about this process. It is hard, and possibly impossible to remain objective about one’s own family but at the very least, be systematic about information harvesting.

Step 3: Making Sense

Laying out the family tree and the timeline, work with a therapist to identify any patterns in your family. What hypotheses do you have about why things were the way they were? What major events occurred around the time of your birth? Can you imagine the emotions that may have hung in the air at that time?

Step three involves returning home again, this time to explore how members of your family made sense out of their role in the family. How events affected them. What certain events meant to them and how they felt about things. A good rule of thumb for when folks start getting uneasy about the questions you are asking, keep going back in the generations until there is open-ness again. For instance, you may have to ask about your grandmother’s relationships with her mother.

If you feel blocked in the process, it’s a good idea to consult with a therapist to deal with any anxieties that may be blocking an unperturbed exploration.

Be patient, it could be a multi-year process of visiting with family in various places in the world before you have collected all the gaps in knowledge.

This work is not for the faint of heart. It takes commitment of time and energy. It takes courage and curiosity. This work isn’t for everyone but for those who have the ego strength to do it, it can be a tremendously rewarding experience. 

Watch as I facilitate a discussion of how Adhel Arop,an award winning filmmaker approached her own family of origin work, tune on August 27th 7PM PST by purchasing your ticket for live Zoom event on https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/who-am-i-screening-event-tickets-116678250789 Proceeds go to support the non-profit organization Women for Women South Sudan. 

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By Angela Leong
Aug 27, 2020