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What’s Your Family of Origin, and What Can You Do About It    

What’s Your Family of Origin, and What Can You Do About It

Art by FISK

By Caroline Hatchett

“This Be The Verse”

by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,   

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

All families exist on a sliding scale of dysfunction. No parents are perfect, and along with the healthy values and behaviors they instill in us, they’re bound to screw us up a little—and sometimes a lot. Poet Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” memorializes this passing down of pain from parent to child through generations, and it describes what’s referred to clinically as family of origin. 

Family of origin refers to the immediate family in which you were raised and includes parental figures—whether they’re biological, step, adoptive, or grandparents—and all the siblings or children sleeping under one roof. Living in this unit influences a child’s values and self-esteem; it affects the way they approach relationships and how they process emotions. As that child grows up and becomes a certified adult, many of those behaviors (good and bad) go unquestioned for years. Then they become automatic. Cemented. 

In a best-case scenario, families of origin produce resilient, emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and confident children. In the inverse, family of origin can also contribute to anxiety, anger, depression, low self-esteem, and addiction. “Anxiety is number one,” says Jonna Cohen, family therapist and principal at Lamorinda Therapy in Orinda, California. “Let’s say you have an alcoholic parent. You’re a kid coming home and you look up the driveway. You don’t know what’s behind the door: the happy drunk or mean drunk. Are you going to be abused? That unpredictably stays with you.” 

Cohen says that people who experience trauma often need to know what’s next. It’s harder to be free and spontaneous, and they might blame their anxiety on work or illness, or other outside factors without ever exploring their upbringing as the root cause. 

In "This Be the Verse," Larkin’s rather extreme solution to breaking the cycle of trauma is to leave home as soon as you can and then take whatever precautions are necessary to avoid having children. Therapy is another option. 

“At some point, you have to take responsibility for your own behaviors, but you can’t do that until you understand why you act the way you do,” says Cohen. 

Let’s say your dad never praised you or told you he was proud. If you got a B on a test, he’d ask why you couldn’t get an A. You might grow up to be a perfectionist, put undue pressure on yourself, and constantly seek approval. Or maybe your mom wasn’t warm or demonstrative. When you grow up, you don’t know how to nurture people. You can’t be vulnerable. Physical touch might even be difficult. 

Despite best intentions, it’s easy for parents to pass along their worst traits to children. In stressful moments, parents may find themselves acting and reacting just as their parents did. “If you have a father who’s angry and quick to jump to yelling, that’s all you know. You may find yourself getting more irritated with your kids and jumping to anger just like he did. That’s how you learned to parent,” says Cohen. 

Exploring family of origin issues takes courage. You have to dig around the mud of uncomfortable and painful memories. You’ll unveil flaws and ugliness in your parents and yourself, which a therapist can help you dissect and navigate.

Family of origins issues often reveal themselves in relationships—romantic and otherwise. Contrast makes it easier to see that not all families function the same with finances, communication styles, expectations, chores, discipline, temperaments, diets, or even bedtimes. 

My parents went to bed together every night at 9 pm. Early in my own marriage, when my husband stayed up late studying for law school or watching television, I got upset. One night I told him that it felt like he didn’t love me, which sounds absurd, but I didn’t realize that I had assigned a moral value to falling asleep next to a partner. He tenderly explained to me that his parents, who are still together, rarely go to bed at the same time. Oh. 

We’ve had similarly resolvable dust-ups about screen time, money, and gender roles. But some issues take a lot more work to dredge up and tackle: trust, confrontation, agency, fidelity, self-worth. For more entrenched issues, Cohen recommends therapy.

“People live their truth the way they see it. When you go to therapy, you get an objective opinion from someone who doesn’t know you, someone who has observed so many people. We give people a different perspective, and it brings up things people have shoved down inside,” she says.  

Among other tools, therapists use genograms to help clients with family of origin issues. Genograms map your family tree with added details on personality traits and relationships. It helps therapists keep track of who’s who while also building awareness in clients. “We look at who’s the kid, then talk about who’s an alcoholic, who dies, who has an eating disorder, and then trace things back. It helps people see, ‘Oh, I’m not a bad person. This is how I was raised or how he was raised.’ Genograms give insight into your behavior. If you’re blind, you can’t change,” says Cohen. 

With awareness and clarity, you can work on yourself and your own relationships. If you have kids, you can teach them to express their emotions in a healthy way, rather than bottling them up. As a partner, you can speak up about things that bother you. “If you can communicate in the moment or an hour later or even a day later. Tell your partner, ‘That didn’t feel right. I feel judged. Maybe we can talk about it,’” says Cohen. “Even if it sounds funny and you’re embarrassed, even if it starts a fight, don’t stuff things inside.” 

Working through family of origins issues, Cohen coaches clients on mindfulness. She helps them identify bad habits and unhealthy ideation and develop techniques for thwarting them. Sometimes she asks people to write letters to their parents that never get sent. Or she has them pretend a parent is sitting in a nearby chair so they can unburden all their frustrations and pain—the goal is personal growth, not confrontation. 

“It’s important to say: ‘They’re not bad people. You’re not a bad mother because you didn’t do this thing. You just didn’t know any better,’” says Cohen. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.