One of the most prevalent dilemmas I notice coming up in my practice is the issue of separating from the family of origin (meaning the family you grew up with). It has taken some time to distill my understanding of this kind of pain. I know it seems strange. You might think: “I have my own family now” or “I live my own life” or “I moved out years ago”. Well, all of that might be true. And, I have seen this exact issue cause significant distance and lost connections in marriages, result in silently caging people with anxiety so they can’t move forward in their life, or turn out to be an addiction built around a person because of the tension of needing to separate and fear of separating. The interesting part about this is that it occurs insidiously. We don’t even know it is happening. A client rarely comes in saying that this difficulty separating is the source of the current problem. In fact, it usually takes a little bit of convincing on my part to help people understand.
David Richo talks about our two adult tasks: to go and to be. The root of the dilemma of going and being is actually approval, which the author defines as “meeting with the projection of me in the other person’s mind” (p. 56). Meaning: I need to match the standard the other person has in their mind. Approval is important to a child because a child needs it to survive, needs the love and attunement of a parent to healthfully develop. Again, the systems we use as children just need to be updated to better suit our adult life…but sometimes people get stuck and don’t update!
David Richo identifies this process of growth (to go and to be) in four parts: “First, you go out, leaving the familiar behind. Second, you are on the journey, facing the unknown. Third, you arrive somewhere. Fourth, you settle into a new place” (p. 57). In my mind, the leaving and ‘going somewhere’ doesn’t always have to be geographic. It can occur metaphorically. You create an identity, a life, a way of operating that is in alignment with you. Richo says that each of these four steps are challenging. These steps are familiar, right? Like the first one. Yes, most people reading this have left home. Sometimes that is an exciting step. But here is the scary part: “I am choosing to be unprotected by my usual supports” (p. 57). Even if you didn’t experience your family as supportive, at least there were things around you that were familiar that gave you comfort and oriented you. The other hard part is that family can instill guilt and apply fear about going. The other difficult part about being out in the world is that no one knows who you are… so you are held to the task of showing people who you are. Showing new people who you really are? Again, sometimes that is exciting, but also can be terrifying.
Now, being. Being connected to our family and things we know give us the context of our identity. Now that you take that context away, you are forced to find out who you are outside of that. This happens when people leave home, but also when they leave other things that have been a significant part of their identity like a marriage, relationship, job/career or for parents whose children leave home so that the primary role is no longer daily parenting. David Richo says: “…as I become more adult, I am myself everywhere” (p. 59). Yes, your identity is defined by you, inside. Not by where you are or who you are with. Your identity as an adult is no longer connected to whether you match the image that anyone else has in their mind of who you are, it is connected to how much you are aligned with who you really are inside-- your essence. Some aspects of you may be related to where you come from or the work you do, but those outside things are not the source, you are. Meaning you may love to camp, but it is not just because you grew up in a place or family that does those things a lot. Your surroundings did awaken that part of you, but the fact that you pursue it is because YOU love it. There are lots of things about our early life that we are exposed to, it doesn’t mean we gravitate toward them all, right?
So, here is the reason why it is important to have an identity based on your essence. “As a separate, individuated self, I form adult-adult relationships. I form a parental bond with anyone from who I am trying to gain or maintain approval” (p. 52). If you are able to have your identity be made of your connection with yourself, not as the result of what is around you, you have the freedom to create healthy relationships with the people you love in your life. Including your family of origin. It just requires a renegotiation, which is tough in the short run, but totally possible and worth it in the long run. The freedom is in not needing the approval, but creating from within you the vision you have of how you want your life and your relationships to be.
*This post is written in response to a section in David Richo's book "When Love Meets Fear: Becoming Defense-Less and Resource-Full".