Defining Your Family Of Origin & How It Impacts You
By: Corrina Horne
Updated May 12, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn
Families are beautiful things. As your first source of social contact, they teach you how to live, how to interact with others, and how to make your way in the world. They are also the first group of people you learn to trust. As such, your family of origin is largely responsible for your thought patterns and behavior, especially when it comes to relationships.
Because it is literally the basis from which you develop, your family of origin has a large impact on you and your life. But what happens when that impact is negative? In this article, we'll talk about issues that might arise from your family of origin and how to heal from them.
Family of Origin and Impact
Your family of origin is the family unit in which you were raised. This is not to be confused with a biological family or a community of origin; a biological family might have very little to do with your development if they did not raise you, and a greater community is a much broader, more nuanced categorization. The term "family of origin" specifically refers to the small unit that cared for you as a child. For example, you might have been raised by grandparents, an aunt or uncle, a family friend, or your parents. Families of origin can also include siblings, cousins, or anyone else who lives with you.
Your family of origin has a considerable impact on your development. As many studies can attest, your family of origin helps to shape your worldview, determines how you relate to and interact with others, and even has a big effect on your mental (and even physical) health. These influences will impact much more than your childhood; the way you were raised affects every aspect of your future. That's why it's often helpful to consider your family of origin if you're working through trauma, mental health concerns, or similar issues.
Common Family of Origin Issues
While it might seem shameful or embarrassing to have serious concerns about your family of origin, it's not uncommon to carry childhood hurts and traumas into adulthood. This is largely because children are wholly dependent on others, and this dependence can render them helpless in the face of abuse, neglect, and generational problems like dependence disorders, addiction, mental health disorders, and general unhealthy family dynamics. When children feel helpless, they can develop beliefs that may be harmful later in life.
If you are a member of a healthy family of origin, you will likely be able to connect with others on a meaningful level, making friends and friendly connections without a great deal of difficulty. A healthy family of origin will probably also help you develop self-confidence and determination; if your goals and personality were supported when you were a child, you may feel more comfortable with yourself as an adult.
Conversely, if your childhood was plagued by trauma or tumultuous relationships, you may struggle to form connections with other people. You may also experience anxiety, depression, or other mood or personality disorders, and you may consistently have low self-esteem. Again, these issues are not terribly uncommon. Many people even experience health issues as a direct result of their families of origin. All of these issues may require some amount of introspection or even therapy in order to heal.
1) Marriage. Healthy families of origin might include marriage, or they might not, but single parents can also provide children or dependents with a healthy childhood. The structure of the family does not necessarily signal a positive or negative family of origin. Instead, it's about the caregivers' ability to interact with romantic partners kindly, respectfully, and carefully. When parents or guardians show their children how to have respectful romantic relationships (or any relationships), they set their dependents up for success.
Conversely, unhealthy marriages or unhealthy romantic relationships can perpetuate generational conflict and troubled romantic encounters. If you're not given a healthy model for these types of relationships, it can be difficult to know how to navigate them. Furthermore, if you only see unhealthy or unproductive relationships as a child, you might adopt those same patterns in your romantic encounters when you grow up.
2) Relationships. Similar to romantic relationships, your workplace relationships, friendships, and virtually all other interactions can be colored by your family of origin. If your family engaged with other families to cultivate friendships and close relationships, you're likely to feel comfortable doing the same. If, however, other people were usually treated with suspicion or discomfort, you might feel hesitant about entering into new relationships or you might keep people at a distance.
3) Self-Esteem. Supportive families of origin create an environment where self-esteem can thrive. Families who support one another's dreams, encourage one another's strengths and talents, and keep one another grounded may help produce well-adjusted, healthy children. On the flip side, families who frequently resort to criticism and often point out the flaws in their loved ones' dreams, wants, and personalities usually foster children (and adults) who struggle to make decisions on their own. In this situation, these children may have a hard time cultivating independence and living generally healthy lives.
4) Lifestyle Habits. Children tend adopt lifestyle habits from their family of origin. For example, if your family rarely exercises, you are more likely to adopt that habit. If your family places significance on the environment and conservation, you might also value these things. The lifestyle that your family of origin leads is likely to form the basis for your own lifestyle choices later in life.
What Is Family of Origin Work?
Although many adults can recognize unhealthy behaviors-most people know that smoking is unhealthy, for instance-there are some problematic behaviors and patterns that can be hard to recognize. It's common for family of origin problems arise in the form of mental health issues, but if you can't see the problem, it's hard to solve it. If this resonates with you, know that you're not alone. Many people have untreated traumas that they must work through to achieve mental health, and the root of these traumas is not always obvious.
Talk therapy can be an important tool to help you uncover unconscious behaviors, thoughts, or biases that might stem from your family of origin. Some people have internalized misogyny, racism, and classism as a result of their upbringing, while others have chronically low self-esteem. Still others have adopted simple habits from their families, such as procrastinating or eating unhealthy foods. Addressing all of these challenges falls under the umbrella of "family of origin" work, but the exact work involved can differ substantially from issue to issue and family to family.
Ways to Help
Part of growing up and becoming an adult is learning how to recognize your own biases and where they come from. A little bit of introspection can go a long away as you learn more about your own thoughts and behaviors. To move beyond any unhealthy relationships, ideas, or belief systems, you may want to question your beliefs. Simply asking "Do I actually believe this?" can take you down a long, winding road of self-discovery.
Exposing yourself to new cultures, new ideas, and even new relationships can also help you begin to unravel issues that may be present within your family of origin. Everyone can benefit from taking a step back from their own assumptions and learning to look at the world through a different lens.
How BetterHelp Can Help
When independent learning and exploring is not enough, mental health professionals can step in to help you fill in the gaps. A counselor can help you identify any unhealthy thought patterns or behaviors in your life, so you can get to the root of them and understand how to move past them.
Therapists can do this via weekly sessions at their clinic, or they can engage with you on a more flexible basis using an online platform like BetterHelp's. No matter which avenue you choose, therapy can be a wonderful tool to help you work through any issues with your family of origin. Below, you'll find reviews of a few BetterHelp counselors who've worked with people experiencing similar issues.
"Alisha has let me view situations in another perspective. Like the stressful times I've gone (still going) through with my family and my work. I'm really grateful for her time to listen to what's on my mind and really making me comfortable to share so much with her. Thank you, Alisha!"
"Dr. Baggs has been very helpful in helping me deal with anxiety, and I've been overall satisfied with the experience. She's helped me work through and understand trauma from my childhood, as well as help me realize I'm on the right path to getting help and improving my life. Overall a very good experience."
Healing from Family of Origin Wounds
Family of origin wounds can be difficult to understand and even more difficult to work through. Because they stem from your formative years and because they're intrinsically tied to your family, your worldview, and your lifelong beliefs, these wounds, habits, and patterns might feel too big to address alone. Don't worry - support is available to you. With help and patience, you (and a mental health professional) can address and improve difficulties associated with your family of origin. Take the first step today.