Exploring Our Family ‘Tree’ — What’s In Our Roots, Trunks and Branches
Last month, we hosted dinners — virtually and in person — in 8 cities worldwide to discuss the topic of family. Women from multiple ages, nationalities, and backgrounds came together, mostly strangers to one another, to share and listen to each other’s stories.
Who is family anyway? For some of us, it’s our birth parents and siblings. For others, it’s their adopted parents, grandparents, step-parents or a mix of caregivers. For others, family is the one we choose. And for others, it’s a mix. Family is and isn’t a “static” thing. It evolves, grows, dissolves.
For some of us, family is our biggest source of love and support. For others, family represents our deepest pain. For many, it’s a bit of both. Throughout the night, we were reminded of how multi-layered the conversation around family is. It was also interesting to see how many of us had similar experiences growing up, yet we each went through those experiences in unique ways.
Here are our key takeaways…
Family represents multiple — and often opposite — feelings all at once
Our family of origin teaches us our first lessons about love, relationships, values and ways to look at the world. These lessons are rarely consistent, however, as most of us witness contradicting notions. Across our tables, we realized that behind a “happy” family, there are often layers that others can’t see.
Many of us grew up in places where there was happiness in the midst of addiction, compassion sandwiched with bitterness, loving parents that could quickly turn aggressive. Perhaps our parents divorced and could not hide their resentment, so as children, we tried to make sense of who to trust.
The world tells us that things are either “good” or “bad”; “right” or “wrong.” We like it when we can put people and ideas neatly into boxes. Yet, what happens when we are exposed to both: deep joy and care ALONG WITH abuse and pain. Reality lives on a spectrum.
As children, it was hard to reconcile these inconsistencies and feel safe. So as we grow, many of us have to “re-parent” ourselves. We have to give ourselves the love and compassion that wasn’t always available to us. We also have to allow space for all the contradicting feelings that might still be present when we think of our families.
Family is not necessarily a synonym of safety
Family is meant to provide safety and security, but that’s often not the case (even in homes where the caregivers had the best intentions).
When we feel entirely safe, we can be our most honest selves. Yet, how many of us can say that we are truly authentic with our families? We might know that we are loved, but that doesn’t automatically translate into feeling accepted for all that we are.
Some of us feel we are a source of worry or anger for our parents or siblings — we may be “too much”, “too weird,” or “not X enough”. Some of us put on an armor and distance ourselves. Some of us please and try to do what’s expected from us — letting resentment build up inside. Some of us “walk on eggshells” to avoid upsetting a family member.
In most of our families (like in most of our relations), there’s often a tension between being ourselves AND feeling connected to others. What would it look like to have both?
Becoming more curious about our families
Sometimes the best thing we can do is to walk away and and try to put an end to the abuse and manipulation. And other times, bringing curiosity to our interactions can create the change we desire.
Often, we are trapped in old pattern dynamics. When we see someone we know well, we see the labels we have put on top of them, i.e., the smart one, the slow one, the complicated one, the dreamer, the control freak, etc. These assumptions protect us from making similar mistakes that we’ve made in the past, they protect us from being hurt, but they also prevent us from connecting and discovering who this person is today.
Imagine if we were as curious about our families as we are about a new friend or lover we meet? What would happen if we put our assumptions aside, removed the labels, and tried to relate to them as if we were meeting for the first time? What would we learn about their dreams and fears? What could they learn about us? We expect our families to understand us, but do we really know them?
We can also become more curious about our past. In school, we are taught to learn about the history of the world to understand how we got to where we are. But how much do we know about our own family history? Understanding our grandparents can help us better understand our parents. And in that deep reconstruction and retracing comes more awareness, understanding and the opportunity to open ourselves to deeper empathy and compassion — because we realize that a lot of who we are didn’t originate with us.
Dissonance of moving forward while honoring the past
Many of us wonder what’s the balance between honoring the past and not letting ourselves be defined by it today. We are who we are because of what happened before us, and at the same time, we are not responsible for the past. YET, we are responsible for how we choose to relate to the consequences from the past.
As we become adults, and maybe parents, what do we want to replicate? What do we need to change? Letting go of deeply embedded cultural or religious beliefs requires a lot of self-awareness, courage and effort. If we want to raise our children without taboos and stigmas, what do we need to decondition inside us?
Similarly, what’s been lost from our human history that is worth bringing back? What can we learn from our ancestors? We used to live in community and had a sacred relationship with the land. What’s possible for us if we reclaim some of those roots?
What if we see ourselves as trees?
As we ended the night, some of us imagined we were trees.
- The roots connect us to our past and to others in this moment. They carry our history and what we have inherited from our ancestors (wounds, traits, genes). They also carry our current patterns and dynamics.
- The trunks are our core. The space between our roots and our potential in this life. Here is where we hold our values, knowledge, and lived experiences.
- The branches and leaves are what we give to the world. They are our ability to grow, create, renew. These are our words and actions that we put forth. What kinds flowers and fruits are we creating? Is there anything stuck that prevents us from flourishing the way we are meant to?
No matter the kind of family we have, most of us need healing. We can use the tree analogy to start this exploration. Are there any familial or ancestral wounds that we need to process and integrate? How are our roots currently interconnected with those of our family and community?
When we look at our families today, how many labels are present in our interactions? How much are we carrying from our past? Do we feel safe in our relationships? Do they feel safe with us? What are the power dynamics at play?
Going through this journey is the only way to avoid replicating unhealthy patterns and feeling the safety and belonging that perhaps we didn’t feel growing up. Let’s continue the conversation. We hope to see you next time at one of our tables.
- When was the last time you felt — really felt — the love you have for your family and the love they have for you? One thing is to know we love them/to know we are loved, and a whole other thing is to feel it in the body.
- Ask your family about their past, their upbringing and the history of your family. Be curious about their stories.
- Reflect on your own childhood — what lessons did you learn about love, anger, compassion? How did your family deal with conflict? What do you need to heal, process, and integrate from those years?
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