Origin stories lay the groundwork for understanding the present. In action movies, knowing the origin story of a hero or a villain – the experiences that shaped their intense desire to help or their intense need to destroy – helps give us context for why they are so driven in the present moment to do whatever they are doing. We love origin stories. We love understanding the inner workings of a character, and experiencing a connection with their sense of motivation. It interestingly offers us compassion for villains, seeing the complex ways in which their early hurts through neglect or abuse make them feel more human rather than simply “a bad guy”.
Our own origin stories shape us in similar ways… perhaps a bit less dramatically, but very much still present in our day-to-day lives. Our early learnings and experiences will continue to show up in our preferences, our choices and decision making, our priorities, and our reactions or responses. And regardless of how many times we say “I will never do that with my own kids,” the truth is that old patterns die hard. Our origin story can be a subtle influencer, or it can be a very apparent one. Even when we are fighting to leave behind our origin story and set an entirely different course for ourselves and our family, choosing to do the opposite of what we experienced is still based on the influence of what we experienced.
So, how do we create a better origin story for our own children than the ones we had created for us? How do we shift from patterns established in ourselves for years, and sometimes within our families going back generations? Or, how do we support a partner in shifting from these types of patterns when we see the influence it has on the family?
Awareness is the hardest first step
It sounds a bit cheesy or trite, but it’s true. It is incredibly difficult to make change to something we haven’t acknowledged, identified and feel strongly aware of. Our capacity to navigate most things is grounded largely in our capacity to see and assess what is going on, and then respond intentionally to it. When we fail to take the time to fully identify what our origin story is, and what it has cultivated in us, we sense a longing for something different but will have difficulty enacting meaningful changes because we are flying blind.
Awareness building can take time, and often happens in stages. It can be helpful to think about the following questions:
- What did my family of origin value? How did we spend time? What did we talk about? What were we not allowed to talk about or discouraged from?
- What are some of the things I am proud of myself for being? How is this rooted back to my early learning?
- What are some of the things about myself that annoy me? How is this rooted back to my early learning?
- Are there patterns I see in my current life? What kind of feedback do I get from others in my life?
In working through questions like these, it can sometimes be helpful to talk it through with siblings or other family members who witnessed or shared in our early life. These can also be helpful questions to discuss with your partner to gain mutual understanding of one another’s context.
Don’t give shame power
Shame is often deeply rooted in our origin stories, and can be entrenched in the process of bringing patterns to awareness and taking the steps toward change. The feeling of shame encourages us to hide, disconnect from others, or become defensive. Notice where shame lives in your origin story, and dispel the power of shame by talking about it with safe people who are invested in your wellness. Shame cannot survive empathy. If you find shame to be a stumbling block as you seek to grow toward intentional living out of your desired values for your family, I would strongly encourage you to consult the work of Brené Brown, including her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (2007) and her 2012 TedTalk found here.
Talk about the patterns
Make it explicit and open. Identify with each other the ways that things have been done in your own childhood families, perhaps for generations, and the impacts this has had – both positive and negative. Ground these things in the context of history and work to have compassion for the origin stories of those that have gone before you. Honour the past, even when it’s ugly, and talk about why it feels important to make a shift.
Identify what you value, and tangible ways to create this
As you reflect on what your own origin story experiences were, you will likely begin to gain a sense of the values you long to have for the family you are now creating. Work to identify the values that you hope to trace for your family, and build from these the practical and tangible ways in which you believe you will live these out. For example, I might discover I value cultural engagement and consider tangible ways of weaving this into our family’s life by attending local festivities, seeking out museums or cultural experiences, and striving to save and plan for family travel. Likewise, I might discover I value quality family time and consider what this means, practically, for our family – is it satisfied in watching a show together? Or playing a board game? Or is it more like trips to the zoo or aquarium? The practical living out of these values will often be dependent on the family and unique to their personalities, interests and situations.
Recognize that mistakes happen, learn ways to bounce back
The process of becoming aware, reflecting on patterns and values, and being intentional about living into the values you want for your family, is not a one-time deal. To be successful, it will be a process that is engaged time and time again: looking at what is working and what needs further growth. It will evolve as your own family evolves and the personalities and preferences of children grow, flourish and seek to have voice in how the family is shaped.
It won’t always go well or smoothly. There will be times where patterns, entrenched things that they are, will show up unwelcomed to the party. There will be times where you will feel disappointed, and perhaps ashamed, of not doing better at changing the origin story in your own family legacy. When it happens, stop. Breathe. Slow it down. Take the time to acknowledge that you got caught in an old pattern. Work to have grace for yourself that all humans tend to fall into patterns, and you are human like the rest of us. Work to assess what led you back to this familiar place, where did you detour back into old patterns? Try to hold understanding for the detour, and compassion for yourself in the process of making hard changes. Connect with those you trust, share what you are learning about yourself and allow them to support you. And then re-assess and work at seeking out and implementing steps grounded in your values to pivot back toward the new patterns you are creating. This process is about resilience – being faced by a challenge and using it meaningfully rather than getting hung up in it or avoiding addressing it.
For some, the origin story can include very scary things, or patterns that are difficult to re-work. If this process feels too difficult to do alone, seeking out the support of a registered counselling professional may be valuable. We hope that this resource helps you as you create a family that can grow. change. live… Thrive.