Wright Foundation | December 3, 2019

Emotional Development and Your Family Relationships

The holidays are almost here. It’s time for parties, music, lights, and food.

As the holidays approach, here’s what your interactions with your family can show you about your own emotional development.

With all the joy and festivity comes time with our nearest and dearest. For many of us, the holidays include time with our families.

But family time isn’t always calm and drama-free. In fact, it may cause us to reflect quite deeply on our relationships, our feelings about ourselves, and the emotional development within our family.

As adults, we may feel we’re past the emotional development stage. We’re developed, right? In reality, our emotional development continues well into adulthood and throughout our lives. We can continue and learn and grow even as seniors.

So, this holiday season, use this time of reflection and family gatherings to explore your emotional development.

Why is Our Emotional Development Tied to Our Family Background?

When we become adults and move out of our parent’s homes, we may feel like we’re finished with our development. After all, we’re all grown up—we see ourselves for who we are as adults, right?

When the holidays roll around, we may find we’re right back in those roles we experienced growing up. Suddenly you’re jealous of the way your parents lavish praise on your sister. You’re irritated with your mom’s unsolicited advice about the way you should style your hair. Your dad is droning on about the news and politics, and suddenly you feel like you’re 10-years-old!

It makes a lot of sense why we feel this way. Our family background is deeply ingrained in our identity. Freud said this too. We’re pretty much programmed by the time we’re six or seven-years-old.  There’s a huge amount of programming and conditioning that happens in our families while we’re growing up. Some of this programming happens before we’ve developed language, or can even speak.

As very young children, we’re getting these hundreds and thousands of experiences in our code, embedded in our neuropathways. We call this internal code our matrix. Our matrix is our beliefs about the world and ourselves and how we translate those beliefs into our actions.

The brainwaves of a child are quite different from the brainwaves of an adult. As children, we’re in a beautiful, imaginative state where a broom becomes a horse or a lightsaber. We pretend and mimic—it’s how we learn. Our brainwaves are more hypnogogic—they’re easily programmed or imprinted to our sense of the world around us. Our perception sets our foundation. As Adler tells us, all of this is laid down in the early stages of our lives and forms our unconscious beliefs. There are four distinct beliefs set up through our interactions and programming: beliefs about ourselves, beliefs about our world, beliefs about what the world expects from us, and beliefs about what we expect from the world.

All of this is getting laid down, and we’re getting constant feedback—how we’re treated by others, how we’re responded to, what’s okay and what’s not okay within our family. These beliefs stay unconscious unless we later decide to give them some conscious attention.

So, you see, our family roles don’t just play a role in our belief about ourselves; it lays down the very foundation of who we become as adults.

How Do You Discover and Uncover Your Beliefs About Yourself?

Now, when we discover beliefs about ourselves that aren’t so great or aren’t exactly true, it doesn’t mean we’re bad, or our family did a bad job. It doesn’t mean our relationship with them was terrible. In fact, we may think we had a very good childhood. These mistaken beliefs still become ingrained in our thinking as part of our matrix.

We often don’t even realize these beliefs exist. Sometimes we don’t know what we believe until we observe how we’re reacting and behaving. For example, if you feel insecure, inferior, or have thoughts like, “I’m not enough,” or, “I can’t handle this,” it may indicate you have some core unconscious beliefs that you aren’t enough. Or if you think, “I was too loud,” or “that was too much,” or “oh jeez, I’ve got to hold back,” you may believe you’re too much.

You can see how your behavior and the thoughts that run through your head come back to these core beliefs that were set up so long ago in your childhood. Those feelings of I’m not loveable, or I’m too much, I don’t matter, or I’m not worthy stick with us. We all have them. We can look at them by examining how we go about our lives.

The holidays are a perfect time to explore these beliefs because we’re often returning home to our families, so a lot of feelings come up for us. It’s incredible how quickly we can fall back into the familiar patterns of our childhood. It truly makes sense, though. After all, we were raised in a certain environment and used those experiences as models for our future relationships.

Why It’s So Hard to Change Our Beliefs

I’ve watched myself sitting in a meeting, not speaking up or talking, feeling more and more left out. Sometimes, I hold back from voicing my opinion. There’s still a belief deep within me that I don’t belong there. The minute I recognize this is my mistaken belief kicking in and I speak up, I always realize people ARE listening to me. I DO belong there! Often though, I don’t realize I still carry those beliefs until I catch myself holding back.

I grew up a middle child; I was a quiet little ghost growing up. So I have a belief I carry with me that I don’t matter, or people aren’t seeing me. As soon as I recognize it, I can act to counter the belief.

If we want to work on changing our beliefs, we must become aware of them first. Then when we’re aware of our beliefs, we can start to shift them.

It’s essentially a rewiring job to figure out how to rewire our hardwired beliefs. We have to strategically identify those thoughts and counter them so we can start building a new, more empowering belief.

For most of us, our family relationships go back to our first days of life. We’ve known Mom and Dad since we came out of the womb. Siblings may have been in the picture already or come along a few years later, but our family relationships go way back.

So, it’s challenging (but not impossible) to objectively explore and break out of these deep-set patterns, especially when we’re spending time with our families. It feels comfortable and even familiar to drudge up the same conversations and styles of interaction.

But what if this year you decided on a different approach? What if this year you decided to explore some of these feelings?

Does this bring up images of slamming doors, plates flying across the room, and tears in the turkey? Don’t worry! As adults, we can engage in productive conflict that will actually help us strengthen our connections and get closer to those we love. It’s all about starting the conversation.

So, how do you start talking to your family about these beliefs? Identify those patterns in your family you can point out. Maybe your family isn’t good at taking risks. Perhaps they aren’t great at communicating.

At the Wright Foundation, we have our students map their family roles. Most families can reach a pretty quick consensus on which sibling was the popular one, which sibling was the rebel, the bad kid, or the family pet. You can identify who played which roles as discuss those patterns with your family. Which parent was the authoritarian, the enforcer, the diplomat, or the good cop/bad cop?

Identifying the roles within your family is a more neutral way to approach the conversation, and your family can often agree who played which roles in your relationships. You’re not blaming anyone, simply exploring these feelings.

Starting these conversations can help you address challenging family situations and express your feelings responsibly and openly. Look at this opportunity to appreciate your family for the positive aspects they bring into your life too. That doesn’t mean you brush hurts under the rug or ignore them. Address them and move forward.

As you start to grow in your emotional development, you may discover your family rises to meet you. How incredible is it to live your life in such a way that your approach inspires others?!

This year let’s make the holidays more honest and meaningful. Express your feelings, explore your beliefs, and find new ways to strengthen your family ties.

For more on exploring your beliefs, please visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for an upcoming More Life Training weekend, where you’ll connect with others on their transformational journey. Happy holidays to you and your family!

The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.