Family is a loaded term. It evokes different feelings in everyone – each one valid – and even brings different things to mind. For some it may be your nuclear family (parents, siblings), or it may be ancestors you’ve never known, people who share a similar background, culture or ethnicity as you and for others it may be your “chosen” family, a romantic partner, group of friends, religious community etc. In short, it means a lot of things to a lot of different people – some positive, some neutral and some negative.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that family – specifically our parent or parents – are a frequent topic of conversation in therapy sessions. They play a big role in the messaging and conditioning we received in childhood that taught us to view the world with certain perspectives and react in specific ways – some helpful and some unhelpful.
I remember when I started therapy, I was so annoyed by the questions or probes related to my mom, dad and sisters – what did they have to do with my eating disorder and recovery!? As I started to uncover their role in the diet culture messaging I was exposed to, I felt both relief for finding some actionable “reasons” I was in my current situation and immense guilt as I love my family and didn’t want to “blame” them for my illness.
I’m not alone in this experience – as many people find it difficult to hold on to the idea that our parents caused us harm at one point or another AND they were a loving parent trying their best. In therapy we typically start to realize the ways our parents caused harm – unintentionally (we’re only human!) and there’s a desire to talk about the harmful messaging we inherited (e.g. around food, bodies, movement, self-worth, identity, success, etc.) but also a feeling of guiltiness talking about how our parents harm us when they also love us.
This is normal and becomes palatable when we introduce the and/both concept. You’re allowed to wish your parent or parents did certain things differently AND know they loved and love you. There is of course immense nuance here – if your parents were abusive, neglectful or cruel this and/both concept may not apply and your feelings are so valid; you’re allowed to say they weren’t trying their best and you deserved so much better.
Almost all of us have to “undo” some messaging from our parents AND we can still love them and feel close to them. Talking about negative parts of your parents or childhood does not cancel out the positive memories there too. Acknowledging pain and hurt doesn’t paint a broad label over your relationship as “bad” – it recognizes there are bits of positive and negative, which is a far more realistic and honest assessment over black and white thinking.
And if you’re a parent now, chances are you’re trying your best to wake up every day and nurture and protect your child and even then you will likely, unknowingly, cause some sort of harm despite your best intentions. You’re not perfect.
It’s deeply uncomfortable realizing some of our sources for harm can come from those we love the most or are closest to us. Acknowledging this doesn’t negate our ability to have a relationship with them – it allows us to honor our feelings. We can see there is hurt AND know there is love there too. Both exist.
Family and our feelings around it are often a tangled web. If you’re looking to start exploring yours further, start with these journaling prompts:
- What are certain messages or ideas I received from my parents that I can acknowledge as unhelpful or harmful?
- How does it feel to acknowledge them as such? What are my feelings toward my parents?
- Using the answers to the above questions, craft an AND statement of what you’ve observed + any conflicting feelings. This statement is valid.
We welcome you to continue these reflections and conversations around family – if you’re interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a free consultation with one of our therapists.
By: Maddy Weingast, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC