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How to Be Yourself Within Your Family of Origin

What it takes to think differently about your role within your family.

Key points

  • Every family member is emotionally connected; what one person does affects others.
  • People fail to develop a strong self when their well-being and functioning depend on what others say or don’t say.
  • Just by thinking differently about your role in your family, you can make significant positive changes.
Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels
Source: Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

“Functioning depends on how well you adapt to your environment.”–Murray Bowen

You and the people in your life, especially your family, are not just a bunch of separate people who happen to know and be related to one another. We are not simply walking around in our own lives, totally unaffected by one another. As psychiatrist Murray Bowen likes to call it, our families are emotional units. The relationships between you and your family members are shared; each person changes in response to a process governing those family relationships. Everyone in a family is emotionally connected; what one person does affects others. Here's an example that will help explain this systemic interaction and show how each person changes in response to the family relationships process.

Cynthia left home for college in another state. She was happy to finally get away because her family was a significant stressor in her life. Throughout her life, she felt she needed to bear the responsibility of the problems of other family members. Cynthia thought that by going to college, she’d be free of this dynamic. And things did quiet down—at first. However, not long after she left, her parents decided to end their marriage. This had a significant impact on her, as she was pulled into the emotional battle of the divorce, despite living hundreds of miles away. She realized that the distance separating her from her family members hadn’t changed a thing; she was still highly emotionally reactive to them. She realized that her need to be there for her family stayed the same, and creating physical distance wasn't enough. Cynthia decided she had to learn how to manage her anxiety whenever there was a family crisis. Instead of fixing problems, distancing herself, or cutting off family members, she tried to understand her family as an emotional unit and see her role in it. After experiencing some health problems that she felt were related to her family stress, she came to the following conclusion: “My well-being depends on understanding how I can better manage a crisis when it occurs. Running away does nothing.”

When people fail to develop a strong sense of self, their well-being and functioning usually depend on what others say or don’t say. Essentially, the sense of self vanishes in the presence of others, and they start to desire to be what other people want. This can show itself in many ways: over-giving, self-sabotaging behavior, constant efforts to accommodate others, and even chronic inflammation in the body. After her parents’ divorce, Cynthia was trying to manage the anxiety of everyone else in her family instead of looking inside herself to see how she was managing and feeling. She lacked a strong sense of self; she wanted to be and do what everyone in her family expected of her. Ignoring her own needs eventually resulted in her developing an ulcer and suffering periodic anxiety attacks.

In general, people tend to be more concerned with things outside themselves instead of looking within. I asked Cynthia, “What difference would it make if you held the belief that the people in your family could manage their own stress?” She cried out with relief, “It would be like a million bricks being lifted off my shoulders.”

Change happens when you shift your experience of a problem. Cynthia thought she had to ease her family members’ anxiety and carry all of their emotional burdens whenever a problem arose. When it didn’t work, she believed the only solution was to distance herself and ignore her family. In reality, she just needed to be willing to take on the challenge of looking at herself and managing only her anxiety around the situation. Bowen emphasizes that when a difficult situation arises, what matters most is how you think about the problem because problems are an unavoidable part of life. In Cynthia’s case, she lost herself by managing everyone else’s stress, believing it was what she needed to do. This only made her feel more anxious about her parents’ divorce and more reactive to everyone around her.

In therapy, Cynthia was able to gain objectivity about the emotional process of her particular family unit. Just by thinking differently about her role in her family, she made significant changes. She worked with me on creating a solid sense of self. Or, as Bowen would say, we helped her become differentiated.