Did you swallow your family by accident?

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

Families give us so much. They give us their genes, which is sometimes a blessing and other times a curse. They give us the occasional compliment or dig. Most important, they give us life maps. Unfortunately, these maps are less like the helpful GPS lady who tells us exactly when and where to turn, and more like pirate maps that lead to something mysterious, if we can decipher the meaning of the symbols along the way.

In an attempt to make sense of these “gifts”, more people have become interested in exploring family histories through genealogies or family trees. This exploration leads to the discovery of family strengths and weaknesses, skeletons and secrets, and family roles. To help with this, there are a multitude of books on birth order and sibling position, on multigenerational patterns of addiction, and on all types of family dysfunction. There are even vacation packages available to help people track down family roots in some wonderful countries!

But simply knowing history and understanding family roles and birth order does not necessarily lead to changing dysfunctional patterns. We tend to forget that our families actually live inside of us.

My family lives inside me? What does that mean?

In psychological terminology, this process of carrying your family with you is called “introjection”. Introjection is the way we internalize family messages. For example, the child who was constantly told that they wouldn’t amount to anything eventually internalizes that, believes it, and lives it out. The child who was told they were “bad” eventually complies with the projection, starts to act out, and at their core, thinks that is who they really are.

Introjection is different from projection, which we will delve into more next time. Where projection is the way in which families put different traits, abilities, and problems onto a child – introjection is the way in which that child internalizes that message and lives as if it were true. This can have both positive and negative implications. Think about the child, for example, who does well in school most of the time but who struggles with making friends. In this case, it is helpful for the parent to help the child understand themselves and develop into the person they are. That might sound like, “You had a lot of fun with your friends today… I know how hard that is to feel comfortable getting to know new kids. Your bravery and brains are something really special!” Alternatively, think of the parent who says, “You’re just socially awkward… keep focusing on your grades. You’re our smart one.” This sets their child up with a significant amount of pressure to perform and, eventually, gives them the belief that they are incapable of connecting well with others, or worse, unlovable as a person.

How do those messages affect my relationships?

As mentioned earlier, we all carry within us a way of knowing how to react and interact in life. We are given maps, from our earliest hours, that set us on a path in life and in relationships. None of us has the same map, which can cause significant difficulty when it comes to intimacy in our most important relationships. Consider:

Conflict: In some families, conflict is seen as very dangerous, while in other families it is healthy. Too often, partners have very different internalized maps about how conflict should be handled. If one partner is frightened of conflict, while the other believes conflict is healthy, the couple will have significant issues with problem solving.

Intimacy: Every family models an example of intimacy. Some families see intimacy as positive, therefore closeness is encouraged. Other families value distance and stay removed from intimacy.

What a good marriage isFor some, good marriage means never fighting, for others it means always being understood. Too often, these family messages about what a good marriage looks like are never compared and explored by couples.

ParentingHow many people have said at one point, “I will never parent like my parents.” Yet, we sometimes hear the same words our parents said, or maybe yelled, coming out of our own mouths. We unconsciously internalize messages about how to parent, and then forget to compare notes with our partner and get on the same page with a joint parenting philosophy.

Self-EsteemWe also carry messages about who our families said we are, which is not necessarily accurate to who we actually are. We may have been labeled not good enough, selfish, the good one, promiscuous, untrustworthy – the possibilities are endless. Unfortunately, we then fear that our partners will see us that way as well, which causes us to stay distant for fear of being wounded again.

Imagine, for example, the person who grew up believing they were not good enough. By the time they were an adult, they’d internalized that message from their parents, and they are afraid their partner will see them in the same way.  As a result, this person stays distant and hidden, sadly, blocking any chance for intimacy. Even sadder – if their current relationship ends because of their fears of closeness, they will continue to play out these same patterns in every relationship to follow until they do something different.

TraumaWe may also internalize unhealed trauma from our families. This impacts our ability to be intimate. The most important thing to understand about trauma is that it leaves us disconnected from ourselves, which means that we cannot reach our potential for true intimacy.

Now that I know my family lives within me… what do I do about it?

In the end, the goal for all couples who want an intimate relationship is to become more conscious about the messages they are sending to each other. Intimacy is impossible without beginning to explore more of what we have “swallowed” from our families. After all, those old family messages become part of us and, as a result, become part of a life script that impacts our relationship style. If these internalized messages are not made conscious and talked about, they may block the development of intimacy in our relationships.

Step one is to begin to explore, perhaps with the help of a therapist, what we have actually swallowed and internalized from our families. This level of self awareness is essential for intimate relationships. Without self awareness, we will end up projecting onto our partners, or stay distant, or at the very least lack awareness of our contribution to the relational problems.

Step two is to begin the important task of talking to your partner to better understand the impact of this internalized family on your relationship. Then the hard work begins – you must work together to begin rewriting those contracts so that you can move toward a conscious partnership.