Family is familiar

I usually tell my clients that if they hang in with me for a year, they’ll notice I have some basic themes that I repeat.  A year might be long just enough to learn what I have to offer.  🙂  One of those themes is about family being familiar.  Of course, it seems quite evident that our family should be familiar.  The word familiar is derivative from the word family. They share the same root. This becomes a theme in therapy because of the differences in our families and what exactly we become “familiar”/comfortable with.  If we grow up in a healthy loving family, then that is what becomes familiar/comfortable to us.  If we see our parents enjoy each others company, laugh and smile together, then we get familiar with that.  Basically, whatever we see our parents doing, we figure is what adults in couples do, and that is what “love” is.  So if we are exposed to a healthy family environment, then we get familiar and comfortable with healthy.

But if our family life was less that healthy then we get familiar with something else.  If there was arguing, stress, fighting, disharmony and worse, then that is what we get familiar with. In an odd sense, that is what we get comfortable with.  Again, whatever our parents do, on some level we incorporate that as what adults do when they form couples.  Whatever they do must be “love”. So if they argue and fight, we, on some level, take that in as what “love” is.

In my practice, people come in sick over how they are repeating their family dynamics now as an adult. “I’m becoming my mother” or “I’ve become my father” or “I’m in the same crazy relationship I grew up in!”.  I try and help them see that they have gotten familiar/comfortable with unhealthy patterns from their childhood.  As I go back over their relationship history, they will often tell me about a relationship that just didn’t “feel right”, it was “weird” and as they talk more, it becomes clear that the relationship was healthy and thus “unfamiliar”/uncomfortable and they just didn’t know what to do with it.

As a theme, I go over and over, that when family and what is familiar is unhealthy, then what is healthy is going to feel very unfamiliar/uncomfortable.  Healthy just isn’t going to feel right.  If we incorporated “love” as arguing and disagreements, then peace and harmony is not going to feel right or feel like “love”. Something will feel like it’s missing.  So here, the person is going to have to steel up for an uncomfortable journey.  To get out of the familiar and the unhealthy, they are going to have to get out of their comfort zone and tolerate discomfort.  Unfortunately, this is where growth happens, outside the comfort zone. A series of peaceful days will feel uncomfortable.  There may be a feeling of wanting to create a fight.  Getting ready for a family outing or vacation may feel like intolerable suspense. When is the chaos going to finally start?  The list is endless of times when there has been familiar dysfunction.  But the process in therapy is to work through that.  Slowly start getting use to healthy. Tolerate the good feelings.  And learn to put into words all the sorrow and other feelings that will begin to rise up as the past is now able to be mourned.

In my childhood, oftentimes a special event was taken away at the last minute by an angry parent. A trip to the zoo or to a park.  Just as we might be getting ready, one parent would find an excuse to be upset and take away the outing as “punishment”. I remember that disappointment and unexpressed rage at those times.  I eventually learned to not get my hopes up. It was a coping mechanism to protect myself from pain. In my own personal therapy, I had to work through my own fears of special events and my own sabotage of them, as well as all my unexpressed feelings.  It was very uncomfortable to make special plans and start to build up excitement about them actually happening.  Through much hard work, I am now able to create special occasions and look forward to them and let them happen.  I do sometimes still catch that feeling of fear or apprehension that something hoped for might be taken away.

So, if you are working through some unpleasant “familiar”, know that you are not alone.  You will need to fight the good fight and start to get slowly more comfortable with the healthy.  On the deepest levels, we all deserve healthy love and healthy relationships.  Reprogramming to that truth can be challenging, but it is one that can be achieved with persistence and consistency.  We can learn to become familiar with the healthy.

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2 Responses to Family is familiar

  1. Sandi says:

    As someone who has been learning from you for well over five years, I want to mention one moment that was especially powerful for me. I think I was about six months into therapy with you, struggling with lots of issues and complaining a lot…every time I saw you. I had a light bulb moment and one day said, “I think I am using this time poorly. I can complain forever, but that changes nothing.” You smiled, grabbed a note pad and started asking me what I wanted my life to look like in five years. I still have that paper…I AM living that life. Even when cancer popped up, I stayed focused on The Plan. I don’t have cancer, I am not in an unhappy, unfulfilling relationship and I have developed the ability to make choices that are good for ME. Knowing, if the choice is good for me, it is good for those around me as well.

    If Peter asks you to make a plan, MAKE A PLAN!!! Keep it in your wallet. Read it, meditate on it…tweak it, but make it! What is more important than deciding how you want to spend your life??

  2. petertfwoodbury says:

    Yes! You really did it all and made me look like a great therapist along the way. I’m so proud of you! Now, where’s your blog? 🙂

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