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Understanding how our past family dynamics contribute to the development of certain behavioral patterns is important so we can choose how to respond in adulthood.
As children, these patterns or tendencies are often adaptive, helping us both survive and learn how to have our needs met.
However, those same patterns can later cause problems in adulthood (unhealthy family dynamics), such as creating challenges in our relationships or difficulties in the ability to express our emotions.
Becoming aware of how we are shaped and influenced by past family dynamics allows us to move from habit to choice.
We can choose which tendencies from our past we’d like to maintain and let go of those that no longer serve us.
So what are the early roots of some of our patterns, and how do we identify them?
Focusing on specific behaviors and tendencies that emerged from our families of origin offers opportunities for self-reflection.
To consider how these patterns might operate in your life and foster curiosity about how these patterns do or don’t serve you — some key questions for self-reflection are included.
The goal is not for you to develop an exhaustive list of all of the ways in which you were affected by your families of origin, but rather to equip you with a process of self-reflection.
This will enable you to move from a place of conditioned response to one of intentional choice.
These types of family dynamics operate on a continuum.
You could be high, low or moderate in any one particular area, and none of these tendencies or patterns is mutually exclusive.
We can all have elements of some of these patterns in different situations with different people, including tendencies that seem somewhat contradictory or opposite.
>> Consider your responses to the following types of family dynamics as a springboard for your self-inquiry in better understanding the influence of your family of origin.
There are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to conflict resolution.
We have family systems that tend to be high in conflict. This can include arguing caregivers who may be very strict or reactive.
When children make mistakes or are perceived as not behaving, family members feel as though they are “walking on eggshells.”
There can also be a certain level of unpredictability as well as verbal and emotional abuse, physical abuse, and aggression.
In these family dynamics, conflict might be avoided, and the importance of agreement with each other may be overemphasized.
This can often lead to a sense as though there’s an elephant in the room that no one’s talking about.
Minimal displays of emotion, whether emotions we consider as more positive as well as more negative, are common.
Depending on how your family of origin is related to conflict, certain tendencies can emerge.
One is more of a peacemaker tendency. As a child, you may have played an intermediary role, often trying to translate or explain what different members of the family might have meant when they said certain things.
Also, you may have attempted to soothe the tension and help resolve the conflict.
This kind of peacemaker tendency can be really helpful. People who develop these skills in childhood can be very good at seeing and acknowledging multiple perspectives and can be very well equipped at validating those different perspectives and helping people feel understood.
At the same time, those who have a peacemaker tendency can tend to focus on others at the expense of themselves when it comes to conflict, minimizing their own needs for the sake of group cohesion and harmony.
Depending on where a family falls on the conflict resolution spectrum, patterns with a more argumentative tendency can emerge.
If you grow up in a high-conflict family system, you may be conditioned to be more high conflict; you may have a tendency to participate in the high-conflict resolution style that has been modeled to you.
Perhaps you’re very quick to react, and it takes you some time to cool off. A high state of conflict may feel normative to you.
This more argumentative tendency can be helpful by empowering people to feel emboldened to challenge the status quo. Feeling confident in playing the devil’s advocate and disrupting certain systems or rules can lead to a level of questioning that can result in change.
We can fall into a trap of challenging just for the sake of challenging even if we’re not truly invested in a particular point of view.
Because the act of challenging is a place of comfort, it helps us feel in control. And if we tend to respond with a lot of reactivity and defensiveness, we can perpetuate conflict in our personal relationships and elicit defensiveness in others.
This can lead to distancing and disconnection in our relationships.
All of these questions are useful in thinking about your current responses to conflict and how your family dynamics roles of the past may influence your present behavior.
Growing up in a family dynamic with a high level of criticism means we may have internalized a message that criticism makes us stronger, or that criticism is a way of showing love and is a way of getting your needs met.
This type of family dynamic can lead to a lot of guilt and shame in response to making mistakes.
These family systems can vary in terms of the type of criticism and the way it’s delivered.
There can also be criticism that isn’t really intended to hurt or to criticize but does nonetheless.
So it’s important to consider some of the nuances that exist within the dynamic of high criticism.
A family member might say something like…
“Oh, I really wish you hadn’t done that” with an exasperated voice.
The result: This can be experienced as enormously critical and invalidating to a child.
Having a high level of criticism in your family dynamics can develop certain behaviors, such as…
Being an overachiever can be helpful in creating ambition, a willingness to work hard and a focus on achievement.
However, on the flip side, it can be unhelpful.
Overachievers tend to fill their schedules, feeling more comfortable with a lot of action and less comfortable with downtime.
Very full schedules can lead to burnout and make it hard to rest or be still.
The tendency to overachieve may result in perfectionistic traits.
We can also have low self-worth and tie our worth to our achievements, which is very fragile because we’re not always successful.
Another pattern is that we might seek out criticism without necessarily being aware of doing so.
We may find ourselves more comfortable with a high level of criticism because we’re used to it, and even though it’s harmful, it feels more comfortable.
We also may not trust relationships in which people are not critical, and some insecurity can develop when criticism isn’t present.
Those who were raised in highly critical family systems may have self-invalidating tendencies or tendencies towards low self-worth and low self-confidence — because we have internalized criticism from our families of origin.
Many of us have grown up in family systems with a more inhibited relationship to emotions, including…
A low intensity of emotions may be expressed and an internal processing of emotions emphasized. Or perhaps emotions are fully suppressed — even when there is significant grief or trauma.
Having an inhibited way of experiencing emotions can become protective, especially if the expression of emotions was punished, ridiculed, or created an unsafe physical or emotional situation in our families.
On the other hand, it can be unhelpful:
By contrast, some family systems are highly expressive of emotions, including families rewarding intense displays of affection or emotion.
These systems may also emphasize the importance of talking about emotions to process situations involving family members.
This more emotive style can be helpful by:
Lastly, if we grow up in family dynamics that are highly expressive but our natural tendency is to be shy or more inhibited with our emotions — we can feel like an outsider as if something is wrong with us.
This is because there’s a poor fit between our natural tendency and what is normal in our family system.
As adults, this can make it difficult to accept and trust ourselves as well as our relationships.
Whether caregivers are absent because they are distracted, they work a lot, they are very self-focused or they are neglectful, the impact can be similar.
In this type of family dynamic, we can develop a tendency towards caregiving.
We can lean towards taking control in situations, caring for others and developing an acute sensitivity and awareness of other people’s needs and emotions.
This can be helpful because it can lead to a nurturing, compassionate and inclusive style in which we’re very considerate of others and sensitive to their needs.
However, we can also be so vigilant to other people’s emotions that we don’t really consider our own needs, and we can have a hard time in situations when others don’t need our help.
So this type of pattern can create a need to be needed, and we can tie our worth to our ability to take care of others and feel bad when we can’t.
This family dynamic can also lead to:
In family systems with absent caregivers, it’s important to also highlight the impact of grief and stress on the system.
With this type of toxic family dynamic, one kind of pattern that can emerge is a tendency towards optimism, lightheartedness and a sense of humor.
This tendency can be a powerful antidote to grief and stress, allowing us to be resilient and to recognize that, even in the midst of grief and stress, there is room for joy.
People with this tendency can also have a certain positivity and optimism when dealing with difficult situations, and they can have a basic trust that things are going to be okay even if they are extremely challenging.
This optimism and lightheartedness can also lead to some harmful tendencies, resulting in a kind of toxic positivity and self-invalidation that prevents us from acknowledging hardships.
We can also be overly forgiving of other people in a way that allows them to take advantage us.
Family secrets could be centered on sexual abuse and other kinds of abuse, or not sharing with others that there is addiction or mental health struggles in the family.
Or there could be secrets related to unhappiness in a marriage, such as infidelity, or other forms of dishonesty within the family.
When we keep secrets, the utility is that other people view us as loyal and trustworthy; we can be very effective confidants.
By contrast, when we’ve grown up with the message that certain things cannot be revealed, a sense of shame can be fostered.
We may find it difficult to be vulnerable, emphasizing the importance of hiding feelings or certain behaviors in fear of a negative consequence.
This increases anxiety and discomfort about people knowing who we truly are. We can also become very sensitive to our perceptions that others are lying to us and become hypervigilant to signs of dishonesty.
And when someone does actually lie to us or misrepresent something, a very deep core wound can be activated. Families with secrets and betrayals can also lead us to a sense of being an imposter and being inauthentic.
Family systems with secrets can also lead to a truth-telling tendency, a tendency to call it like it is. This can be really helpful because it can engender trust. When we know someone is willing and able to be honest with us, our ability to trust is enhanced.
However, growing up with so much secrecy can also create a need to rail against that dynamic, and we can be overly blunt.
We can sometimes harshly give advice and feedback when it’s not solicited, and we can be intolerant when it’s hard for others to be candid or fully honest.
This could be a toxic family dynamic with relentless stressors.
Maybe it’s caused by financial instability or due to abuse, whether it’s a caregiver or another family member perpetrating the abuse.
Or maybe a caregiver has a history of unresolved abuse or trauma, resulting in a certain level of chaos and unpredictability.
High levels of crisis and chaos could also be the result of addiction, mental health issues, serious medical conditions, gambling, or parents who are very temperamental and emotionally unpredictable.
Another way in which this family dynamic can play out is in a more solitude-seeking tendency. If we grow up in an environment with a lot of crisis, chaos and unpredictability, we may then respond by wanting low crisis, low chaos and lots of predictability.
That may mean an abundance of solitude and stillness.
We may be very independent and comfortable being alone; we can find restoration and relaxation in quiet and stillness.
On the other hand, this tendency can be unhelpful if it leads us to withdraw and isolate, not trusting that others will be there for support.
We can also be overly reliant on ourselves, believing that others aren’t going to be there for us, which can lead to ambivalence about relationships or difficulty being vulnerable.
None of us are immune to the effects of our families of origin.
We all have certain patterns or tendencies that emerged and were reinforced by our family systems.
And though these patterns or tendencies served an important function, there may be ways in which they are no longer adaptive or helpful.
When we can recognize why they existed and how they emerged, we can have more self-compassion for ourselves, which enables us to transform and make changes in our lives.
This process of self-inquiry about our family dynamics can promote that understanding, allowing us to move from habit to choice.
To find support and help you navigate the complexity of your family dynamics, learn more about my 1on1 coaching program.
If you’d like to delve deeper into an understanding and awareness of family dynamics — and their role in shaping your current behavior listen to the full podcast episode…