Do you feel like you are 5 years old again when you visit with your family? Do you feel like everything is the same somehow? Have you maintained the same role in relationship to your family throughout your life? The shining star? The black sheep? The outcast? The one who just can’t seem to do anything right? Think about how it is when you and your family gather together. Do you meet each other anew as the individuals you have evolved into since you were last together? Or do you all somehow fall into the same old familiar ways of being with each other?
When the physical umbilical cord gets cut at birth, you are just beginning to develop your mental and emotional umbilical cord — the invisible ties that bind you to your family’s dynamic way of being with each other. Whoever raised you gave you your first worldview in terms of what kind of person you are, what you could expect in and from the world, and what you need to do to be loved. It’s not as though anyone sat you down and laid this all out for you — it was put in place in a thousand ways each day. Perhaps you were taught how far you could go before generating a negative response by your father’s tone of voice or a certain glance your mother gave you. Just like an actor in a drama, you were cast in a role relative to the others in your family, and that role defined you, yet some part of you always knew you were not that role. Whether you were cast in a favorable or unfavorable light in your family, you will continue to see yourself that way until and unless you recognize this point of view for what it is and evolve your own authentic sense of self.
Here’s an example. Sasha is in her early 20s, having graduated from a prestigious college several years ago. She is highly creative and not suited to a traditional path. As her life coach, I am delighted by her progress in establishing her own identity after a lifetime of struggling with her place in her family. When away from them, or not looking at herself through their eyes, she is confident, productive, and clearly on track in her personal and professional development. Yet, when under their influence her sense of self-worth crumbles. She becomes sad, weepy, and completely unsure of herself and unable to speak confidently about what she is doing with her life. On closer inspection, it is apparent how this happens. Sasha is the younger of two children. Her brother has always been the family star — everything he touches turns to gold, and his parents have always radiated with pride in every little and big thing he does. With the roles of Mommy, Daddy, and Star Child already taken, Sasha assumed the role of the family’s Black Sheep at a very young age. By outward appearances, Sasha’s family are lovely and normal people who love her dearly. As with any family, however, the dynamic that exists between Sasha’s family is complex and challenging.
It is essential to recognize that these family roles are not “the truth,” but simply the roles we assume in our relationship to other family members. Typically, there is a sense of self that doesn’t match the role, and the individual struggles to reconcile the two. Having felt confused, misunderstood, infantilized, and alienated from her family until now, Sasha, in her early 20s, is right on course to be doing this work of establishing her true sense of self. She is learning to look at the family drama with compassion for them all. She is even seeing how her brother has struggled with his role as the star. Ultimately, everyone wants to shed these roles and just be seen as loved ones who are doing the best they can in life. After all, don’t we all just want to be accepted and loved?
So, how do we break free? Here are the five keys:
- Recognize that this process is perfectly normal. Successfully establishing our autonomy can take many years, and many people never get out from under the mental and emotional patterns they learned as children that no longer serve them in adulthood.
- Be willing to pay attention and play detective with how these patterns show up in your life. Does your boss remind you of your father? Do you have the same relationship problems with your girlfriend that you had with your mother? What are your triggers that make you feel out of balance? How do you respond? What specifically do you do that works for you or against you feeling good about yourself?
- Intentionally develop and experiment with new thought patterns and behaviors that support you in maintaining a healthy sense of self-worth. Do more of what works and less of what does not.
- Have compassion for yourself and your family. It is not necessary to make anyone wrong when breaking free of these patterns or to try and get others to change their behavior. It is all right to give feedback about how you respond to certain behaviors that set you off, but don’t demand that the other person change — just let them know that their behavior has consequences in your relationship with them. Be kind about it.
- Practice, practice, practice and have patience. These ties that bind didn’t show up all of a sudden one day, and they will take time to dismantle. Just keep your eye on the vision of your own freedom to motivate you along this journey. It is a pearl of great price.
If you would like to know more about me and my work, please explore my website here.
Also, if you know anyone who might get value from this article please email or retweet it or share it on Facebook.