“Family of origin” is the technical term used for the family you grew up with or identify as the group of individuals who shaped your childhood on a day-to-day basis. Your family shaped how you view and interact with the world and the people in it. The older you get, the more you realize how aspects of your childhood have molded you into the person you are today. Typically, this occurs more when an adult child has moved away, experienced different environments and social situations, and has subsequently created a new identity for himself/herself. However, being back with your family of origin over the holidays has a way of almost erasing that new identity and making you feel eight years old all over again! I like to refer to this as defaulting. We default back to the unspoken “scripts” or “rules” our families instilled in us when we were kids because that’s how it’s always been when family’s around. This parent talks to you as if you didn’t move out and establish a successful life all on your own, that one uncle always makes the same uncomfortable jokes, your dad or grandfather tell the same stories as last year, and your siblings are picking on you as if you ate the last pack of fruit snacks behind their backs! Don’t forget the other member of the family that always starts talking about religion and politics…
This family dynamic is fairly common and can be pretty frustrating if you aren’t one of the family members listed above. However, there are some things you can do.
- Be mindful of who you have become as a person. Are you the same as when you were a child? How have you grown into your new identity? Think about the patterns of behavior or beliefs you told yourself you were never going back to. Sometimes this is most apparent if you attend family gatherings with a significant other. Do these phrases sound familiar: “Why do you act like a child around your mother every time we come over for the holidays?” or “It feels like every holiday I get ignored while you’re off with your family”? You are seeing defaulting occur! Being aware of this allows you to check your own default behaviors. Once you can identify or have your partner (gently) help you identify them, you can choose what to do with them next.
- Once you are aware of those default behaviors in yourself, or even in your other family members, you can decide how to best set boundaries in place so as to not compromise who you are as an individual outside of your family of origin. This could range from simply not engaging in certain discussions or activities to verbally telling family members what you are and are not comfortable with. (Note: It is important to be aware that when boundaries are set in place, they tend to be challenged, especially when things have been the same way for years until now.)
- If you think of a family system as a geared machine, any change in those gears will shift the functionality of the machine. The same is true with family dynamics in both positive and negative ways. Stating a boundary of “Please refrain from talking about politics or religion at the dinner table” might lead to comments of your being “too sensitive” or needing to “grow up.” This push-back can be frustrating, but is normal. However, what if instead you were to manage the conversation at the table by asking questions relating to positive topics or family stories? You just changed a “gear” of the machine while keeping it running. In essence, you became the change you wanted to see by still interacting with family for the holiday meal, but not talking about hot button issues.
While these three steps can be daunting, they are achievable if you believe in the change you want to effect. It can also be helpful to talk to someone before and after these potentially stressful times occur.