Relationship & Dating

What is Family of Origin Work?

  • Dec 8, 2023
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What is Family of Origin Work?

You may or may not be familiar with the term “family of origin” as it relates to therapy.  When it comes to  understanding how you function emotionally and/or in your relationships, it’s an important term to get familiar with.  Family or origin work is basically the process of exploring your historical relational experiences to understand how you function.  As a therapist myself, this the way I would describe it in more detail:

Family of origin work is the process of removing the obstacles that block you emotionally and/or in your relationships.  By understanding your relational history, you are better able to understand the narrative you created about yourself, others and the world around you.   If the stories (or beliefs) you have been carrying are inaccurate, this has probably not been helpful.  The goals are to understand and heal these wounds, shift your narrative and get unstuck.”

A range of emotional and relational issues are connected to one’s family of origin experiences with parents, primary care-givers and/or families in general, as well as past trauma.  Anxiety, depression, anger, fear and recurrent relationship problems are often tangled up in these unresolved issues. Our early experiences help shape the narratives we carry about ourselves, our “stories” or core beliefs about who we are, whether we can safely rely on others, etc.  I never cease to be amazed by the ways people cope with adversity.  However, sometimes the survival adaptations that served them well then, often don’t continue to do so.

Examples of early life challenges:

  • Childhood trauma (physical, sexual or emotional abuse)
  • Critical or harsh parenting styles in childhood
  • Rejecting or dismissing parenting styles in childhood
  • Living in a chaotic, fear-based environment in childhood
  • Death or long term illness of a parent, sibling or other close relationship
  • Witnessing a volatile, high-conflict relationship between parents
  • More subtle boundary violations and codependencies

Therapists have their own unique approaches to doing this kind of therapy – but my family of origin work with people involves an exploration of the past, understanding of how the past might have impacted you on emotional and relational level, identifying unhelpful core beliefs you may have developed about yourself, others and the world, then shifting these.  I educate people about how changing their thinking impacts their feelings and ultimately their behavior.  A look at the quality of attachment with parents or primary caregivers is also part of the work.

People who feel “stuck” often report they’ve felt this way a long time.  Many come to therapy trying to understand why they are repeating unhealthy relationship patterns.  Or they’re struggling with depression, anxiety, stress or other self-defeating thinking styles that lead to self-defeating behaviors.   Some simply say, “something feels off.”  Often there is little awareness initially that they are still operating from old narratives.  Defense mechanisms to help protect from early experiences of hopelessness, fear, anger or sadness may have served you then but no longer.  But even if you haven’t been able to make a connection,  you probably have had a sense that something isn’t working for you emotionally or in your relationships.  The article, Family of Origin Work: Is it Time to Start Digging takes a deeper dive into when you know it’s time to start looking more closely at this.

Here are a few signs you might benefit from this kind of therapy work:

  • You carry an underlying sense of not being good enough or feeling unlovable.
  • You struggle with emotional dysregulation (easily angered, sad or afraid).
  • You repeat unhealthy relationship patterns.
  • You identify as perfectionistic.
  • You struggle with addiction.
  • You have trust issues that show up in your relationships.

There are different ways you can address your family of origin issues.

Talk therapy can be very productive.  This remains one of my most passionate areas of my therapy practice.  For people who successfully dig deep to understand themselves in this way, process the emotions of their experiences, change the stories they’ve been carrying and heal themselves through it can see themselves, life and their relationships with a whole new pair of eyes.  This is no bandaid approach but has the potential for lifelong positive change.  There are other ways to go about this work.  Here is an excellent piece on working through family of origin issues through a body-mind perspective.

I love this work and truly enjoy helping people make these life changing shifts.  If you believe you might benefit from it, many therapists work from this orientation, I wrote a short ebook guide called,  Family of Origin Work:  Untangle Your Healthy Roots.  It can be a good start to empower you to work through the tangled weeds of your history.  The goal of this guide is to help you identify the issues, understand their source and work through them .

For those with more complicated histories, unresolved trauma and pain, this guide might not be enough.  There are many therapists who do family of origin work and you may be best suited to begin there. But many of you will still be able to use my guide as a starting point, then bring your learnings to your new therapist ready to jump right in.

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