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What is Family of Origin Stuff?

A Reader's Post: What is "Family Of Origin Stuff?"

Lord, when I am wrong, make me willing to change;
when I am right, make me easy to live with. So strengthen me that the power of my example will far exceed the authority of my rank.
- Pauline H. Peters

March 17. 2000

Here is an email I got:

Dear Dr. Irene,

In response to a question on the Magic Yak Board about "What is family of origin stuff?"  I wrote the following.  Victor said it ought to be saved.  As usual, he's on target. I think the most logical place to save it is with you. Stuff on the Boards won't last past 999 days, though that time may get shortened if the Board keeps growing. I don't think I'll ever take this site down!

If it makes sense to you, please save it. It makes lots of sense to me. Thank you for taking the time to write and edit your reply.

Family Of Origin Stuff - by Sarah

"Family of Origin" stuff is all the abuse and neglect and unhealthy boundaries, and things you were taught (one way or another) by your family while you were growing up.

If you grew up in an abusive home (for instance with Dad abusing Mom), you "were taught" that domestic violence was normal, that it is something men do and women tolerate. That piece of information was "stored" in your system of values and beliefs, the bedrock of "who you are." Right along with that belief, you learned that it was OK that Dad was not responsible for his behavior and didn't have to pay consequences - and that if Dad was unhappy it was Mom's fault because she accepted the blame.  So you didn't learn healthy boundaries. Later, because of those beliefs, you may end up being the victim/abuser in your own marriage.

It takes therapy to work through this stuff. "Changing your mind" about the rightness or wrongness of what your parents did to each other and to you isn't enough.  "Changing your mind" doesn't alter the basic belief that it's your lot in life to be a victim, or that it's OK to expect everyone else to satisfy your desires even at the expense of their own needs.

Therapy is like weeding your emotional garden. "Changing your mind" or gaining insight is like using a hoe to take the top off a weed.  Therapy gets root and all.

One of the things about kids, for example, is that they get a sense of their own importance in the scheme of things based partly on how much time you spend with them, or the quality of time that you spend with them. That's fairly accurate. We spend time on the things that are most important to us, unless we have poor boundaries, e.g., there is a demanding parent who runs the other one ragged (boundaryless) and there is no quality time left for the kids. Their self-esteem suffers a lot.  They NEED you but they can't GET you, and they learn that the one who acts out gets the attention.

In another example, suppose that the parents are really OK, but there is a bedridden grandparent in the home, whose disease (like stroke) is VERY time consuming. It's no one's fault, but the kids get only whatever time is left over, and it hurts them! 

Unless this stuff is addressed in a therapeutic environment and resolution is found, it continues to be a problem. Reading a book like, Codependent No More  by Melanie Beatty gives a lot of valuable insight, but insight isn't therapy.

One of the things that wounded my abuser very badly was that at age two he broke his leg, and he was in the hospital for weeks! Parental visitation was not allowed in English hospitals then, and he has paid the price for 53 years. His abandonment issues are gigantic. And the first time I "abandoned him" by getting some of my own needs met before I met his "desires," he quit trusting me, AND retaliated!

He is doing extremely well in anger management therapy, but...  That's why I keep saying that until he does his family of origin stuff, I don't want him back.

I spent 18 months in co-dependency therapy for this, back in '90 and '91, but didn't hear a word about boundaries. I learned that my family was sick, and I learned how that affected me, and I learned that I had to forgive them, but it didn't heal my boundary problems. So while I had the family of origin stuff under control, and I knew that what was going on in my marriage was NOT OK, I didn't know how to make it stop.

Result: I drew the ultimate boundary and left. THEN I found this GREAT book (Boundaries: When to say Yes, When to Say No, To Take Control of Your Life Cloud and Townsend),  and I have boundaries that really work. My self-esteem is finally where it ought to be (approximately)!

Here's how the bedrock of a belief system affects our decision-making in abusive relationships:

One morning the victim wakes up and her denial system has vanished. She realizes that she is being abused. She asks herself what she has done to deserve it. (I sure did!) She blames herself.

She reads a few books, and they "change her mind" about whether she deserves it or not, but she is still unable to make herself feel OK about leaving the relationship. Every time she thinks about it, she feels guilty! Why? Because she "knows" (with her head) that leaving is the only sensible way to stay safe, but her belief system still says that is it not OK to leave.

HOWZAT? Topnotch! Thanks Sarah. Dr. Irene

HUGS, Lots of 'em, Sarah

 I have edited my original response somewhat. The original message and responses are on this board:
(dead link removed)