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  • Lori K Walters

Break the Spell and bring your Genuine Adult Self to family gatherings

Wooden table with rustic place settings, yellow sunflowers

What the heck happens to us on the way to our parents’ anniversary dinner? Is there an unseen tunnel where a spell changes us back into kids again? One minute you’re an adult, a grounded, growing human. The next minute, you travel through some kind of ether that erases your resolve to be yourself. Your affirmations, “I am enough, I have a voice, I am grounded, etc.” sound like hollow words echoing from afar...

Pulling into their driveway, you feel yourself surrendering your autonomy. You fall into old patterns, pouring the drinks or setting the table. You let your parents instruct your children differently than you do. You let your sister second guess your latest decision or poke holes in your plans. You listen to Uncle Jeff’s cringy story for the hundredth time. And you tell yourself to hang on, it’ll only be 3 more hours until you’re free again…

This is the Push Me – Pull Me of visiting your family of origin. On the one hand, there is an elemental desire to belong, to feel connected and welcome. Your heart craves familial warmth. On the other hand, you want to be seen, accepted and appreciated as you are at this point in your life, with the wisdom and ways you have adopted through your choices and experiences.

These are such tender and fundamental human longings. And they feel like contradictions.

How can you bring your genuine adult self and still do what it takes to belong? How can you express yourself honestly and still meet the norms/ expectations of your family? Where’s the balance between being true to yourself and true to your clan?

Naming the Unspoken Understandings

Every family has a set of implicit agreements: “This is what we share and this is what we keep hidden, this is how we communicate, that’s something we never do, etc.” And at our family gatherings, we end up falling into line with those agreements. They've been running in our veins for decades, repeated, reenacted and reinforced. It's what our system knows.

What are the unspoken but understood agreements in your family of origin?

Here are some clues:

  • What conversations feel oh-so-familiar? 

  • What topics are avoided?

  • Does someone’s opinion reign supreme?

  • Do we avoid subjects that could cause discomfort or tend to instigate controversy?

  • Do we avoid certain emotions? What levels of emotion are acceptable?

  • Do we criticize ourselves, our partners or our kids before anyone else can?

  • Is it acceptable to ‘toot our own horn’?

  • If conflicting opinions arise, do we quickly change the topic or grab our seats to watch the fight?

  • Do we tend to focus on ‘fixing’ certain family members while they’re out of the room?

  • Are complaining and commiserating one of our ways of building connections?

  • How do we tend to maintain harmony or comfort?

Being able to name these agreements in your family of origin, honestly and specifically, is the first step to breaking free from the ‘code of behavior’ and claiming your freedom to show up authentically. So, think of your last family gatherings. What did you observe in yourself and in others? What felt obligatory? Is there a safest route?  What words or actions were involuntary? 


Upsetting the Balance

So much has changed since you set out on your own, dear one. You’re making choices and living from your own values, some of which you share with your family of origin and some of which have developed since then. Living by them creates meaning and integrity in your life.

You’ve come to new understandings of your purpose and built new skills in articulating your unique perspectives. You have expanded your heart into relationships with new people and have become more able to speak from your heart. You feel the pulse of Life within you and your light shines even more brightly.

And yet some members of your family of origin don't see it. Those implicit agreements have you keeping aspects of yourself safely hidden and support others' blindness to what they don't want to see. The rules are about maintaining the status quo so everyone is comfortable in knowing what to expect.

So, to bring yourself more fully into your family of origin, you must first get crystal clear about what you want to happen instead of the old code of conduct.

Consider the habits and agreements you listed above.  What’s one thing you’d like to play out differently at your next family gathering? It could be something simple to begin with. Maybe you make a point of mentioning the strengths of the person who always ‘needs fixing’ and steer the conversation elsewhere. Maybe you refrain from criticizing yourself or your own family. Or you offer potential solutions along with your complaints. Small steps, slow and steady; this is how patterns are shifted.

~ What will be required of you to do this?

~ What’s the outdated assumption you’ll be viewing from a new angle?

~ What fear/ doubt/ anger/ heartbreak might you feel and how will you allow this discomfort in yourself as you make your move anyway?

~ How will you stand, move, speak or gesture?

If you feel ready for a bigger step, an area that needs development in most families is how we express emotions. Admitting fear, grief, anger and even joy is perilous in many of our families and it’s no wonder: we didn’t learn how to be with our own emotions, nor how to be present with another person’s emotions without having a reaction.

You can take a step in showing a new way. Let’s say that your brother-in-law lost his job and no one’s talking about it.

~ How might you broach the subject and share the concern you feel for him?

~ In what ways might you model how to simply be present to his humiliation or panic?

~ How can you bring more of ‘you’ forward to help others talk about it when they're constricted by the rules?

Imagine your family as a mobile hanging in the sunlight with different beads and shells on different strings. Think of making a move that jiggles everyone – not so much that they are flung wildly left and right, crashing into each other and becoming reactive, but just enough for them to feel some new thoughts and feelings bouncing around within themselves. Notice what's enough for today.

Shaking the mobile will feel risky. Of course it will. Expect emotions to run through you. Expect your body to caution you. Expect your head to say, 'Eeek, are you crazy?' Exhale, nod and keep going.

Here's the thing about breaking the spell of family codes: you are also under the spell and so you too must have your equilibrium disturbed and changed, in ways you might not have expected. You must allow yourself to be in the motion as the family mobile wobbles and finds its new, slightly different place of balance.


Freedom for All

I’m a firm believer that I was born into my family of origin to learn, and I continue to do so, both awkwardly and gracefully. There were rules I emphatically rejected to assert my autonomy and some I still follow, sometimes subconsciously. There were periods when I had to keep my distance to protect my own development and times when I yearned for their closeness and didn’t know how to ask for it.

What I know now is that they too are struggling in their position on the mobile and trying to make sense of the unspoken rules that run in their veins. They too want to feel a sense of belonging (however they define it). They too want to be seen and accepted.

Regardless of how much we have in common or how well we get along, the family of origin bond is one that must be tended as we evolve, come to know our shining individuality and claim our freedom to fully express it. In so doing, we make space for family dynamics to change in ways that allow everyone to rest into an environment of greater authenticity and acceptance.

May it be so.


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