Working with Family of Origin Issues from a Body-Mind Psychotherapy Perspective
The family you grew up with and the parents that parented you are your family of origin. If you were adopted or your biological parents separated early in your life you may have been parented by people who were not biologically related to you. How your parents raised you is often influenced by how their parents raised them. The parenting influence from one’s ancestors can be traced far back from the ancestral lineage of both parents’ grandparents, great grandparents and great great grandparents.
Dysfunctional family patterns are often handed down to the next generation. These patterns can arise when family members find it difficult to cope with intense emotional feelings or conflicts. Because they are stressed, parents are likely to unconsciously fall back on learnt dysfunctional family patterns as a way of managing their anxiety. A family pattern handed down to the next generation is called intergenerational transmission of relationship patterns. These patterns can include parents triangulating a sympathetic son or daughter to listen to the parents’ distress about another family member. This can often lead to more conflict in a family as members lose their ability to trust one other. This kind of relating involves an enmeshed boundary style where inefficient boundaries are implemented when communicating. For example, reading someone else’s mail, opening a bedroom or bathroom door without knocking or taking something that belongs to someone else without asking permission. Inappropriate physical boundaries can involve physical or sexual abuse and this can result in complicated layers of emotional and psychological wounding called developmental trauma psychologydictionary.org.
Another family pattern that can be commonly seen in families is when someone ‘cuts off’ a family member and is reluctant to have contact. Family members can also live together but still choose behaviour that causes emotional distancing. Emotional distancing can happen where a person ‘tunes out’ to another person’s needs because their needs are a threat to their own needs being met and can cause them to feel anxious. The person being ignored can feel disempowered and invisible in the family system. The person doing the ignoring can be negatively impacted as they become emotionally and physically numb from shutting out the person. The ‘cutting off’ can turn into a final physical action where the ‘cut off’ of the person is a permanent ending of contact between them. Using distance in a relationship is a relationship pattern so common that it is often not seen as a problem. The person doing the distancing is denying their own intense pain and at the same time they see their distanced position as normal. When on the receiving end of being ‘tuned out’ it can feel like the person has built a solid wall between them and you, and from the outside they can appear wonderfully happy and robust. The person distancing often appears really quiet when anxiety rises to hide their pain. The way out of this dynamic could involve less distancing which calms the person on the receiving end and for that person to do less emotional dumping, such as name calling (Gilbert, R.M.)
A more sort after position to hold in any relationship is one of being emotionally mature, also known as being highly differentiated. An emotionally mature person can absorb large amounts of stress without having to resort to emotional distancing. They can choose not to get emotionally overwhelmed by having greater choice about responding from their emotions or their thoughts. Learning this skill comes from being able to witness one’s own behavior, understand it and know how to change it. It also helps to understand the other person and see them not as they want you to see them, but as the true human being that they are and that they are doing their best in the situation given the tools they learnt in their family of origin. It is difficult to get to this place of emotional maturity if you have not worked through your own dysfunctional family patterns. These patterns become ingrained in our way of relating as we internalize the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of our parents even before we can speak.
Parents are able to behave with greater sophistication according to the depth and breadth of how their emotional needs were met as children and the way in which their parents responded to them. For example, children need to be held safely in loving arms and be mirrored positively by their parents to see a positive reflection of themselves in their parents’ eyes. They need to be soothed, comforted, reassured, and protected and be given a sense of control to know that they can ask for their needs to be met. A person develops a real sense of self usually if they were loved and kept safe most of the time. Conversely, if a child is told how to feel instead of being allowed to express their feelings, a false sense of self can develop. A key factor that leads to the development of a false self is growing up in an emotionally invalidating environment. In this instance a child may grow up to be a vulnerable adult that needs another adult to tell them how they should feel and behave. From lack of experience the adult survivor of emotional neglect or abuse can perpetuate this cycle by demanding their partner behave a certain way to make them feel happy, rather than the person finding happiness within themselves (Lawson, C.).
Psychotherapy transforms family of origin issues
Family of origin issues can also include emotional abuse, neglect and domestic violence. How you communicate with others, hold your emotions, get your needs met, the way you see yourself and how you experience the world are all learnt from growing up in your family. For example a person exposed to domestic violence in their family may grow up to believe domestic violence is normal and unconsciously continue to behave this way. When children are developing their sense of self, it can be terrifying for them to believe that their parents are imperfect so they may tend to internalize a negative self-image and blame themselves by thinking they must be wrong, bad or unlovable as reasons for their parents’ behaviour. Here the child creates an emotional map from their experience in the family. This map extends to their experience of the world as they believe it must be chaotic and difficult out there if their home is a similarly an unsafe place goodtherapy.org.
Hakomi trainer and psychotherapist Dyrian Benz agrees “that the kind of relationship we had with our family still manifests itself in our present everyday interpersonal relationships, especially if we are not aware of these family patterns” (Benz, D.). In addition Howard Cole and Meg Blanchet-Cole write that “we live within an outdated ‘body mold’ that continues to echo these old messages through our nervous system and our mind” (Cole, H. & Cole Blanchet, M.). Healing family of origin issues involves the client understanding through self-exploration and discovery that their negative view of themselves and the world may have been true in the context of their family, but as an adult with transformation is now untrue. Processing information deepens as the client gains insights about their limiting character strategies used to try to meet their emotional needs. As an individual gets in touch with their thoughts, feelings, and body sensations about earlier childhood memories they can understand the impact of their family dynamics on their self-concepts and their experience of daily living. With this new awareness it can become easier to ask directly for what you need and accept support when it is offered.
A useful tool to implement at the commencement of therapy is a family genogram. Using symbols to distinguish family patterns and styles of attachment can help pave the path for healing. A client came to see me for therapy with issues of depression and unemployment. His father had passed away two years before, but acknowledged he felt little grief over the loss, describing the relationship as being distant and emotionally empty. He went on to describe his relationship with his brother. He stated that his brother had ‘cut off’ his relationship with him and their mother, and that they had related competitively as children. Holding his sadness in, my client said that he had no real family ties and felt very much alone. He described his relationship with his mother as being enmeshed, meaning she found it difficult to act as a separate being from him. She could not see where he ended and she began as two people with separate emotional and physical boundaries. She also suffered from depression and had periods of anxiety and would phone him daily to ask his advice about ordinary events. He remembered that this pattern of her offloading her troubles onto him had started early in his life and he experienced it as a burden.
Apart from being unemployed his need for therapy included his difficulty in feeling emotionally connected to other people. As he gained an awareness of his body in the present moment he watched how he had a social action pattern that disengaged from people. This had been a blind spot in his style of communication until working with the body and mind. Here he noticed that even though he was talking to me he felt alone. I verbally contacted and affirmed his sense of aloneness, and tracked his body posture, face, eyes and arms. After a few minutes I observed him speaking to me as if I was not in the room with him. When he looked towards me his eyes did not meet mine, but rather were diffuse and downward in motion, while his hands were composed and clasped together. I attended first to the safety of the relationship by listening with a non-judgmental and compassionate attitude allowing him time to talk spaciously.
In sensorimotor and Hakomi psychotherapy we talk about setting up experiments. An example of an experiment is working with the therapist’s seating proximity to the client or their experience with eye contact. For example, I helped my client notice the disconnected body pattern he presented with as he spoke. I invited him to be in awareness of the present moment by feeling his feet on the floor and his body supported in the chair with awareness of his breathing pattern. The first step is to gain the client’s permission to proceed with the experiment. To do this they find an internal ‘yes’ in the felt sense of their being. With a mindfulness directive my client was invited to actively look towards me and speak, and notice inside some thoughts, feelings, memories or body sensations. His imagination called up an image of a castle with a moat, a drawbridge and land. He said his body was the castle. The moat surrounded him and protected his heart and stomach from feeling vulnerable growing up in his family. The drawbridge separated him from the outside world which was the land. As he stayed with the image he felt his heart and then the sadness of being alone and a yearning for intimacy and love. He noticed a contradiction with his life. He said people remind him that he is good looking, well dressed and highly educated, but that on the inside he feels alone and sad. I agree with Hakomi psychotherapist and trainer Donna Martin who asserts that therapy is a powerful opportunity to heal family of origin issues. Martin writes “that healing is possible because the ‘wound’ has more to do with what did not happen than what happened” (Martin, D). This means the therapist can provide the client with what they missed in their family upbringing such as receiving emotional warmth and unconditional love.
Before working with the client it is necessary to obtain a hypothesis from the presenting story, body posture, level of high or low activation of autonomic nervous system arousal and emotional content to decide whether the therapist works with the client from a trauma, developmental or developmental trauma lens. Returning to my client’s experience and working with his developmental wound, we established that what he missed out on was feeling loved, enjoyed and respected in relationships. We worked with one of his core beliefs: ‘I have to work to be loved’. In order to evoke a missing experience for my client as a felt body and mind experience I invited him to pay attention to inside his body for about 30 seconds. In response to a potentially nourishing statement, first pausing for his permission and readiness to hear the words, I said, “notice some thoughts, emotions or body sensations when I say the words, ‘there’s nothing you need to do to be liked’”. A thought came to him, ‘I wonder if my CV needs editing’ in preparation for a job interview. The experiment worked because it revealed how his organization of experience happens. The organization of experience refers to how a person perceives others to perceive them, and how they feel about themselves and the world around them. As we observed his habitual pattern of needing to perform, in the same instance we noticed how he blocked his ability to take in nourishment. This confirmed that the pattern he learnt in his family of origin was to work hard to win their approval. He realized that subsequently the effort and attention on working has become the thing that has stopped him feeling connected to people.
It was useful working with the experiment to notice how my client returned to his habitual core organizer, which was thinking, when invited to go inside his body to feel a body sensation or emotion. Finding refuge in thinking is popular amongst many people when today’s society in the main often respects the intellect over feelings or intuition. As my client continued to participate in small experiments his ability to include his body increased. I acknowledged the importance of his mind and that it too is useful. I explained that as a child his mind through thinking and not feeling was what kept him safe and invulnerable by numbing his pain about feeling unloved. I invited my client in mindfulness to study how he maintained his core belief that to receive love he had to work to make it happen. Mindfulness is the kind of attention that looks for and lets come whatever is present as a thought, feeling, body sensation or memory. He studied his experience using a sensorimotor psychotherapy technique for working with developmental wounds. In these circumstances I invite clients to observe themselves to naturally reach out to the therapist with their arm. The client observes how they receive the therapist reaching out to them. Reaching out to give and receive are developmental milestones human beings learn as babies and can yield profound information about how we take in nourishment.
When my client reached out to me he felt a sense of unworthiness as he had a memory of being aged 5 and was trying to get his father’s attention, but his father seemed to dismiss him because he was talking to someone else. He said it was a familiar feeling. Other memories of not being chosen or attended to by his brother also emerged. In his grief he felt a mixture of sadness and anger. A tightness in his stomach lessened and his eyes softened and connected with mine more comfortably. In therapy the client can deeply see, feel, understand and know family entanglements and difficulties. Their beliefs about who they are in the world can change into something more positive.
My client’s feelings of unworthiness shifted to ‘I am okay’ and he experienced his sense of being okay in his whole being. He gained further clarity when talking with his mother about his father’s family. He learnt that his father’s father was also in need of emotional nourishment and therefore did not have surplus amounts of love to give. He realized he had been looking to other people for confirmation of his worthiness because he did not have this reflected to him within his family. He gained more control in his ability to reaffirm himself with the inner knowledge that he was okay. In conclusion Cole & Blanchet-Cole summarise succinctly how family of origin issues can become entrenched in our beings. They write “that the unconscious speaks to us all the time through the tissues of our bodies. The way that we learn to hold our bodies as children not only affects how we carry chronic tension as adults, but how we unconsciously experience and respond to the world around us (Cole, H., & Cole-Blanchet, M.).” Sensorimotor and Hakomi psychotherapy are elegant and precise methods used to heal these seemingly fixed patterns in our body and mind.
1. Benz, D., Family: The Next Larger Picture.
2. Cole, D., Modified Hakomi: Coaching Clients with IFS & Hakomi Skills.
3. Cole, H., Cole-Blanchet, M., Why Body-Mind.
4. Gilbert, R. M., Extraordinary Relationships A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions, 1992.
6. Lawson, C., Understanding the Borderline Mother Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable & Volatile Relationship, 2004.
7. Martin, D., Remembering Wholeness: A Model For Healing & Recovery.
9. Schwartz, R., Our Multiple Selves Applying Systems Thinking to the Inner Family.
10. Staunton, T., Advancing Theory in Therapy Body Psychotherapy, 2002.
I was able to quickly release painful emotional blocks with Tessa’s gentle and professional approach. In mindful self study I saw habit patterns that got me into traumatic situations. I can now make better decisions.
Tessa, I've been surprised at how quickly you've helped me get to deep stuff and start healing it. Sensorimotor psychotherapy is different from anything I've done before. You showed me how to use my feelings directly instead of getting stuck in analysing them, because you saw this is what I needed. I'm often amazed at your sensitivity and how much you see. Thank you, this work has made a real difference already!