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For most of us, our family background plays a huge role in our beliefs and perceptions about the world around us.
Like you can’t choose your family, birth order, or parents, you can’t choose the family beliefs instilled during your upbringing. Chances are, these beliefs were passed down year after year, generation to generation.
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 family patterns and explore our beliefs?
Your belief and worldview are deeply ingrained from childhood. 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. We want to think we’ve identified weaknesses and shortfalls in our parents and we’ve altered our trajectory.
But it’s incredible to me when you scratch away the surface and look a little deeper. Almost always, without fail, there are similarities between people and their parents. It’s not always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes we may model many good behaviors from our parents as well.
As Alfred Adler tells us, we formed limiting beliefs as children, simply due to the fact the world is big, and children are small. We faced restrictions and activities we couldn’t do because of our age or size, reinforcing the idea we were somehow inadequate.
Even if you 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 overcome those beliefs.
When people look at their family background and patterns, they often focus only on the surface. We put our siblings and parents into roles. We engage in the same interactions time and time again because we’ve set up roles that are comfortable for everyone.
Stephen Karpman, MD, tells us about the drama triangle. In many relationships, we fall into a dramatic pattern of 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. 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. Sometimes, when the parent is the persecutor, the role of the rescuer falls on the first-born. The rescuer will rescue you from everyone but himself or herself.
First, the good news: as adults, we no longer need to fall into these family roles. We can recognize these patterns and take responsibility for our role in the drama triangle. To break out of the pattern, everyone needs to take responsibility for his or her own satisfaction.
We must each do the work to recognize our patterns and take responsibility for our role in the situation. You can’t force your adult sibling or aging parents to acknowledge their role or change their behavior.
You can, however, engage in honest, open discussions. You can express your wants and yearnings. Explain to your family members how you feel, where you’re planning to change, and what your expectations are for the situation.
If you grew up in a conflict-avoidant household, chances are you don’t like to rock the boat. You may think it’s easier not to deal with these family patterns and to avoid them and keep moving forward.
Yet, the avoidance 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.
These limiting beliefs and ideas continue to damage our relationships and hold us back. They keep us feeling disempowered and helpless. Instead, imagine what would happen if we expressed how we felt, the next time we visit our family members.
Yes, there might be a family conflict. In fact, there might be several members of your family who aren’t thrilled about what you’re going to say. 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.
Accentuate the positive.
Minimize the negative.
No one gets more than 50% of the blame.
Each person is 100% responsible for his or her happiness.
Express and agree with the truth, always.
Fight FOR the relationship, not against.
When we follow these seven rules, our conflict becomes productive. 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 again and again.
Now, as I said, each person in your family only has control over his or her own behavior. Your sister or brother may drive you nuts with the way they parent their children or their interactions with your 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.
How do you bring this idea up with your family members, so you all have a better time during your next get-together? Explain to them you’ve been exploring your behavior patterns and your personal growth. Let them know you’d like to help set a different tone for this interaction. Then follow the rules of engagement above.
You may also find it helpful to focus on the real purpose of your 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 you? Or is it to recognize the aspects of your family you love and appreciate? Could expressing your appreciation for them set a different tone?
When the inevitable drama arises, what if you break the family pattern by refusing to engage and instead say, “This upsets me. I want to discuss this 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, commit to setting aside time to really discuss the topics you 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 to get honest with ourselves about our thoughts and behaviors. But when we take the time to become more mindful of these patterns, we’re on the right path.
For more on empowering yourself, please visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for an upcoming More Life Training, where you’ll connect with others on their transformational journey. Don’t miss our specialized downloadable courses available now at a special introductory price.
Dr. Judith Wright is a media favorite, sought-after inspirational speaker, respected leader, peerless educator, bestselling author, & world-class coach.
She is a co-founder of The Wright Foundation and the Wright Graduate University.
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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.