“My family is who they are, and they won’t change, so we don’t need to talk about them.”
“Okay, but I don’t think it’s related.”
These are some of the most common responses I get from my individual clients when I ask them about their family of origin. For so many people seeking therapy, there is an overall impression that the problems they face are problems that if they just work on hard enough, they can solve all on their own. After all, they are the only ones in therapy, right? I attended school to become a Clinical Psychologist, and I feel privileged to have had this training; understanding internal structures that lead to attitudes and behavior, learning about diagnosis and psychological assessment, and treatment interventions. One of the best parts of my training, however, was the opportunity to dive into another clinical/psychology world: Marriage & Family Therapy. It was through my exposure to family systems models from mentors, professors, and peers, that I was able to connect the puzzle pieces together in my mind and have a holistic answer for why people develop the symptoms they do. It expanded my thinking past each individual person and their internal world and brought about an understanding of how external forces can have an even bigger impact on a person’s symptoms. It even challenges the idea of how many of us were taught to diagnose a person - How can we do so when a person is just a part of a larger system? Through this lens, what I have discovered wholeheartedly is: Our family of origin is almost always related in some way to the feelings and problems we face today.
When I meet with individual clients struggling with depression, anxiety, relationship struggles, substance use, eating disorders, or any number of other presenting issues, I am struck by the level of shame, grief, and guilt that people feel about their symptoms. Good people, struggling with pain, are often are on a journey to “fix” these symptoms alone, hidden, and without emphasizing or sharing their pain with the people they care about most. Almost every one of my clients would extend their hand and their heart full of compassion to the people around them if others were struggling in a similar way, however, when it comes to their own mental health, somehow people get lost in not understanding where their symptoms came from, and when they don’t understand their symptoms they turn inward and blame themselves. As a therapist, this can be painful to witness, as I have deep compassion for my clients, but I can also understand and relate to this very human experience.
There is a truth that can be discovered by anyone struggling with mental health; most of the problems they face can be rooted somewhere in their family tree or relationship history. They are not alone in their feelings, as most likely someone else in the family has experienced something similar at some point in time. Knowing and recognizing patterns, intergenerational trauma, challenging immigration stories, adoption, cut-off, experiences of oppression, and moments of strength and resilience, are all examples of key family of origin information that are essential for healing. Having access to this information can plant seeds for integrating self-compassion that so many people are searching for. As social beings, what we say and do, and even what we don’t do in some cases, has an impact on others. Sounds like a lot of pressure, right? It can be. However, this is not about placing blame or fault on our family, or ancestors. It’s about bringing their struggles to the forefront and breaking cycles.
Families are resilient and adaptable, and we can gain immense strength through understanding our family’s stories more fully and understanding the roles we play in our relationships. I know that when a client comes into my office, they bring their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, siblings, and other extensions of themselves with them. After some time (with hope and courage) they may even choose to bring those people physically with them…after all, they are already in the room! Family is context; family is culture. We can make choices once we understand our own stories about what we will pass down to the next generation. We can lean in to uncover the rules that we have acquired for how we should feel, act, or even love, not only with our family of origin but with our current partners, children, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. There is immense, powerful, and sometimes hidden data within families that can be used to draw upon strength, insight, and understanding. We can learn to let go of symptoms that have been passed down to us, intentionally or unintentionally, as they may not be our symptoms to hold. It is with this knowledge and awareness that we can best work on healing wounds that perhaps we never knew existed until we looked further. This is the hope and intention that I strive to bring to my work, and I enjoy sharing this vision with my colleagues. So yes, I will keep asking about family, no matter how redundant it may seem, because it matters, and because it is the key to discovering methods for our deepest growth and healing.
Dr. Amanda Rios, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
CORE – Center of Relational Empowerment, PC