For most of us, our family background plays a huge role in our beliefs and perceptions about the world around us.
We may not even realize how much our family patterns show up in our lives today but exploring our beliefs and value systems can be a powerful exercise.
Just like you can’t choose your family, birth order, or parents, you can’t choose the beliefs and family background instilled during your upbringing. Chances are, these beliefs were passed down year after year, generation to generation. They may go back to the days of your grandparents and even before. Some familial traits are great—they make us feel like we’re a part of something.
But not all family patterns are positive or healthy. In fact, some family patterns are destructive and painful. So, how do we break out of our negative family patterns and explore our beliefs?
Our beliefs and worldview are deeply ingrained from childhood. We may not even be able to pinpoint exactly how they originated. We may also believe that there’s no way we still share those familial patterns and traits.
I often hear from people who say they’re nothing like their parents or who really hate it when their spouse says, “you’re just like your mom/dad.” Why does that statement get under our skin? Because we want to believe we’re different. Many of us want to believe that we’re completely independent products of our own choosing. We want to think we’ve identified weaknesses and shortfalls in our parents, and we’ve altered our trajectory. We’ve broken away from our family background.
But it’s incredible that when we scratch away the surface and look a little deeper, almost without fail, there are similarities between people and their parents. These family patterns run deep. It’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes we may model many good behaviors, morals, and values passed down from our parents as well. Even family patterns may be positive, but it’s important that we recognize them and explore them to better understand how they tie into our lives today.
It’s not always our parent’s “fault” either. As Alfred Adler tells us, we formed limiting beliefs as children simply because the world is big and children are small. As a result, we faced restrictions and activities we couldn’t do because of our age or size, reinforcing the idea we were somehow inadequate.
Even if we had a perfect childhood (which no one experiences), the world around us reinforces our limiting beliefs when we’re young. So as adults, we must work to explore and even overcome those beliefs so we can live up to our fullest potential.
When people look at their family background and patterns, they often focus only on the surface. We put our siblings and parents into roles. Someone is the “good son” or the favorite. Another person might be the difficult parent or the challenging sister. We engage in the same interactions time and time again because we’ve set up roles that are comfortable for everyone. These family patterns come out when we interact with our family, and they show up in other areas of our life, too (like at work).
Stephen Karpman, MD, tells us about the drama triangle. In many relationships, we fall into a dramatic pattern of one of three roles: victim, persecutor, and rescuer.
When it comes to family, many of us look at our family members and quickly identify who falls into what role of the drama triangle. Mom, Dad, or an older sibling might act as the persecutor. There’s always a victim. Then there’s a rescuer who swoops in and fixes everything. Middle children often end up being the mediator or the rescuer. Sometimes, when the parent is the persecutor, the role of the rescuer falls on the firstborn—the one who fixes everything. But as we quickly learn about the rescuer, they will rescue others from everyone but themselves.
The drama triangle can be a sticky family pattern to break out of. It may feel deeply ingrained into our family background—so much so that we may have a tough time admitting which role or roles we play and how we’re repeating it even today.
First, the good news: we no longer need to fall into these family roles as adults. We can recognize these patterns and take responsibility for our role in the drama triangle. Instead of taking on the family background and pattern, we can choose to step out and refuse to participate. To break out of the pattern of the drama triangle, everyone needs to take responsibility for their own feelings and their own satisfaction in relationships.
We must each do the work to recognize our patterns and take responsibility for our role in the situations presented by our family background. But remember, we can only change ourselves. Unfortunately, we can’t force our adult siblings or aging parents to acknowledge their role or change their behavior.
We can, however, engage in honest, open discussions and share our feelings. We can express our wants and yearnings. Explain to our family members how we feel, where we’re planning to change, and our expectations for the situation.
If we grew up in a conflict-avoidant household, chances are we don’t like to rock the boat. We may think it’s easier not to deal with these family patterns, avoid them, and keep moving forward. We may even deny that there’s anything there to acknowledge or work on.
Yet, the avoidance itself is still a continuation of those old family patterns and beliefs. We believe it’s easier not to express our feelings. Perhaps we think we’re bad, we’re wrong, we’re too much, or we’re not enough. We harbor these limiting beliefs and let them hold us back from expressing our truth.
These limiting beliefs and ideas continue to damage our relationships. They keep us feeling disempowered and helpless. They’re reflected in our beliefs about ourselves and our confidence. They keep us stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy trap. Instead, imagine what would happen if we embraced honesty and expressed how we felt when we visited our family members.
Yes, there might be a family conflict. In fact, there might be several members of our family who aren’t thrilled about what we’re going to say. They might even be hurt, and it might result in the bubbling up of different feelings. But if we operate under the rules of engagement (as outlined in our book, The Heart of the Fight), we will have productive conflicts to bring us closer together.
In the book, we offer several rules of engagement. These rules are essential for any situation but are especially crucial in our most intimate, close relationships—our spouse and our family connections.
The rules of engagement are:
When we follow these seven rules, our conflict becomes productive, no matter the situation. No longer are we bickering or fighting to prove the other person wrong. When we use this approach to conflicts and discussions with our family, we avoid falling into the drama triangle and going through the same damaging patterns from our family background again and again.
Now, as I said, each person in your family only has control over their own behavior. A sister or brother may drive us nuts with the way they parent their children or their interactions with our parents. Rather than swooping in to critique (as the persecutor), fix (as the rescuer), or pout (as the victim), we stop the cycle by recognizing our role and choosing a different path.
It can also be helpful to focus on the real purpose of the family interaction. For example, if it’s Thanksgiving, what is the real purpose? Is it to sit around and eat turkey with people who irritate us? Or is it to recognize the aspects of our family we love and appreciate? Could expressing our appreciation for them set a different tone?
When the inevitable drama arises, what if we break the family pattern by refusing to engage and instead say, “This upsets me. I want to discuss this more in-depth when we’re in an appropriate, one-on-one setting. Since today is a holiday, let’s spend time loving and appreciating each other.” Then move forward.
At the same time, if we want to change the situation, we should also commit to setting aside time to discuss the topics we want to address. Don’t simply ignore or bury the conflict. Address it, obeying the rules of engagement.
Breaking out of patterns in our family background is a huge, lifelong job. It takes work and self-exploration. It requires us to get to know ourselves and get honest with ourselves about our thoughts and behaviors. It requires us to be honest with our family too. But when we take the time to become more mindful of these patterns, we’re on the right path.
For more ways to find empowerment, please visit WrightNow, where you can explore our array of courses to help you get ahead in your career, relationships, and personal life. These courses are an excellent resource for anyone who wants to discover ways to live a life of MORE.
The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation’s performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.