FAMILY OF MY ORIGIN – Impact of early relationships

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words | Elaine Caetano

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So you are grown-up now. But do you find that when mum or dad shows up, you suddenly become twelve again? It’s not magic, it’s neural wiring!

In this month of Christmas, most of us are preparing ourselves in different ways for family gatherings and parties. There are some people who say they love the festive season. Many put a lot of effort into making Christmas a happy time, and others have just given up and revert to the theory that “Christmas is for kids”.

My work involves helping people manage distress, so I am aware that despite the season of good will and cheer, Christmas can be the most stressful time of the year.  Another aspect of my work is to help people understand why they experience life as they do and how they can change what isn’t useful to them. As a relational psychotherapist, I focus plenty of attention on clients’ relationships and those with partners and family are the most relevant to their wellbeing.

The most meaningful relationships are initially with our parents and others close to us. These are significant because they help us develop our personality, our views of and role in the world. They are important because later, we will model these relational dynamics in our close adult relationships and unless we pay attention and work on ourselves, it will also paint the windows through which we see the world and our role in it.

The individual’s personality is co-created in relationship with their parents or carers and significant others have important roles to play. We are not just born to a mother or a pair of parents but we are born into a culture, a language, a socio-economic reality and a family.

When a child comes into a family, there is already a system in place. Someone may set the rules, someone may be the main care giver within the home and another may have the role of provider. Beyond social roles, there are psychological positions that individuals take. Everyone has a role to play in the family structure, someone can play victim, another tends to bully and maybe you have one who likes to play the peacemaker.

Every group has particular dynamics that with consistency become engrained so that processes become familiar and predictable. The familiarity and predictability makes the individual feel safe. This doesn’t mean that the group is either fulfilling the individual’s relational needs or allowing them to flourish.

Whilst growing up, we develop our character in line with powerful messages that we receive from significant others that surround us. For example, we may subtly or indirectly receive the message that we are not important, that it is not OK to think ourselves important and therefore act as if we matter or give ourselves much value.  We could have grown up with parents who were childishly competitive or siblings who were determined not to let us be more successful than them.

Each family or established group will have its own culture which in part emerged through the establishment of unspoken rules. Verbal communications are also used to dish out shame; the affect that keeps our behaviour in check and safely in line with a group culture. An exclamation of “Quién te crees que eres?” or a criticism of “Ese que se ha creío?” is usually effective in intimidating one from ‘rising above their station’.

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In Gibraltarian families, where we are often close and drama is integral to our modus operandi, we regularly find ourselves feeling with or on behalf of others. It is likely that there is one member who tends to carry emotion for others, another could be the most likely to express anger or injustice on behalf of others. Many family issues we get worked up about, we really do not need to be involved in. Developing awareness of group dynamics can help us avoid feeling drained by processes like these.

The tendency is to fit in to the family culture and take a role that suits us and the others can accommodate. Do you carry the group’s guilt and blame, performing the role of family scapegoat? Or maybe it’s the shame you get landed with, helping you fulfil the role of black sheep of the family?

There are parents, especially in Gibraltar, who never stop treating their children as if they were still children, making it hard for the adult individual to avoid reverting to thoughts, feelings and behaviours of the past. Getting together with our families at Christmas can be fun but it can also be a nightmare. Being back in a close knit group can make us regress to unhappy experiences from the past.

Unfortunately, it’s not just our family of origin that has this magical power on us.  The role that we play at home we may carry out into the playground and later into our more grown-up social circles. When we feel stuck in a particular position like ‘the one who always gets bullied’, it is easy to feel cursed. This can be seen most clearly in the relationships we form at work, hence why workplaces can be riddled with such intense friction.

It’s how we are programmed in early life that determines how we think, feel and behave. And subsequently, the type of attention and situations that we unconsciously attract, are attracted to or recreate. Most of us don’t have the luxury of deeply and lucidly understanding the processes of our relational dynamics. Any process that remains unconscious will continue to function through repetition as an automated system. We need to develop awareness in order to effect change if at some point we think that the best ways we found of coping in our early environment, are no longer helpful.

Families are very important to us as individuals. The human mind naturally seeks to make meaning of life experiences and understanding where we come from is a curiosity that is in everyone who has the mental capacity to think about their heritage. There is a particular thrill to being in the presence of others who look or walk or sound like you and have so much intrinsically in common with you. It has to do with the ability to understand ourselves in a wider context as well as feeling safe in a group whom you sense as being protective of you and your loved kinship.  Further, we need to function in groups socially and in professional situations.

Without discouraging tolerance, if family gatherings this Christmas test your resilience, parts of you could be yearning for a change. Maybe you would prefer to be less perfect, less tense, more assertive, more fun, joyful, more confident, successful or more of a rule-breaker. If that is your case then you might like to consider trying out group therapy in the New Year.

Participating in group therapy can help bring awareness to how we project onto others and how we limit ourselves by the ways we have learned to be in relationships. Then we can begin to open ourselves to the new opportunities of our current here and now reality.