To understand ourselves fully we need to take a look at how our family of origin helped shape us. But the purpose of looking to the past is not to criticize or assign blame, or get upset about what happened, or did not happen, in the family we grew up in. Rather, the purpose is to acquire an understanding of the influences that shaped us, and then mobilize that understanding for personal change and to move forward in the sanctification process.
I think most of us could dig around in our childhood memories and unearth aspects worthy of criticism. I am sure we could all find things we wish had been done differently, or better. Most of us could blame our parents or a sibling for “causing” us to be the way we are now or for how our lives have turned out.
While such complaints may have some justification, the problem arises when we get stuck, and remain in places of hurt. When we hold onto anger, grudges, and resentments, and cast blame on others, we become unable to move forward in our own growth. Looking at others prevents us from looking inward at ourselves and taking responsibility for our own lives.
Matthew 7:5 encourages not to judge, but rather to self-examine. Taking responsibility for our own difficulties and identity removes “the log out of our own eye”, at which point we are able to see everything more clearly – both ourselves and others.
Clear vision is necessary when looking backward at our family of origin, for it is a tricky process. It must be undertaken with great care, because it is more a question of personal discovery than getting stuck in complaining, assigning criticism, or casting blame. Human nature makes it all too easy to slip into the latter rather than keeping an eye on the former.
The value in examining our past is that it allows us to unearth the influences that helped shape us. We are able to learn how our families, and primarily our parents, taught us to communicate, deal with thoughts and feelings, handle conflict, build relationships, and generally how to conduct ourselves. Our early families are also where we picked up many of our values, ethics, beliefs, and morals. We learn how to do the complex and challenging task of parenting by first watching our parents parent.
Some of us are fortunate because our parents role-modeled effective communication, and exemplary conflict resolution skills. A positive precedent was set for managing anger, relationship building and other life skills. But most people grow up in families where these skills are not modeled correctly and there is a great struggle to negotiate the difficulties of life. To further complicate things, many families have additional challenges such as control issues, struggles with mental health, anxiety, alcoholism, abuse, anger, or financial issues to contend with. In days past, there were limited opportunities to learn new strategies for coping with such problems because there were seldom parenting classes, trained mentors or teachers, or books or articles on such topics. People just did the best they could with what they had, which often simply meant mimicking what they had observed within their own family of origin.
In previous generations it was a common belief that the less attention given to emotionally charged or traumatic events, the quicker a person would heal, and the faster the trauma would go away. When I was 12, my 16-year-old sister was the victim of a random, life-threatening accident. While standing on the side of the road with a friend waiting to cross the street, the trolley pole of a fast moving bus disengaged from the guiding wires above, sprung loose and downward, the large knuckle on its end hitting her in the forehead.
As she began her physical recovery the doctors recommended that my parents not speak with her about the accident, believing this would help her move past the trauma more easily. Trusting in the advice of the doctors, my parents complied. The difficultly with this approach was that it led to emotions being buried and hidden, from both my sister and our family. Needless to say, this dysfunctional approach has high emotional and health costs.
But over the last few years my sister and I have had a number of conversations about the accident – what it had been like for her and the rest of the family, the losses she experienced as a result of it, the sudden change in the trajectory of her life. Processing these memories has helped to bring some healing and closure. We are beginning to understand the event’s influence on how we have dealt with emotions, challenges and losses, and unexpected turns in life.
The positive thing is that transparency regarding feelings is becoming increasingly permissible. Yet there remains a challenge. Because we were not exposed to optimal learning environments when we grew up, there is a gap existing between our yearning to be open with difficulty and conflict and our capacity to do so.
But we have the power to change and bridge that gap. By looking backwards, we can become empowered to move forward. We can sift our family of origin, keeping what is valuable and worthwhile, and discarding that which does not edify or enrich our lives today.
We can learn effective ways of relating through books and resources, and parenting or communication classes. Counseling is available to help people process experiences and to learn new skills. As people seek greater openness and take risks to share, there will be possibilities for learning and eventually practicing. We can mentor and lean in on one another, helping each other learn from the past and mature in the present. We can learn healthier ways of communicating, relating and parenting that can then be role-modeled to our own children.
There is such hope for our children. There is potential both for them, and for us, to develop more positive senses of self, and to have the enriched, transparent relationships, necessary to build healthy families.