April 11, 2018

Feeling Stuck: When old family rules make it hard to change

Identity Development


A common frustration people share is they feel stuck and can’t seem to make a change. They’ve come to realize what they’re doing isn’t working for them but they can’t understand why changing is so difficult. It can be a pattern of behavior, a belief about themselves, or a coping style. This can lead to many problems, including emotional, relational, and occupational.

One of the main sources producing these patterns is your family of origin, which is the family unit in which you were raised. Every family has rules or expectations. These rules can be around time together, communication, work ethic, priorities, authority, free time, and emotional expression, among other things. Rules can be explicitly stated through conversation or open correction. They can also be communicated implicitly by what Mom and Dad or other siblings model. Certain behaviors may have been reinforced or encouraged, while others were frowned upon. Rules can also be communicated through what is not said, such as family secrets.

Here are some examples of family rules:

“We share everything.”

“Don’t talk about our problems with anyone outside the family.”

“Stuff your feelings away.”

“Always work hard.”

People learn to operate under the family rules in order to maintain the status quo, receive approval, and function well within the family. This can be a good thing in many cases. However, there are times when the family rules exacerbate poor communication skills, unhealthy boundaries, shame, and lack of emotional expression. Individuals carry these family rules into adulthood, which can carry these issues into other relationships and settings, proving challenging.  What worked in your family of origin and helped you survive in that environment might be what’s causing you to feel stuck in the present.

Holding unwaveringly to family rules can negatively impact you in adulthood include being unwilling to ask for help, avoiding conflict, people pleasing, and not setting limits on yourself or others. Another indicator of rigidly held family rules is “should” statements. For example, “I should be able to deal with this on my own,” or “I should always win.” “Shoulds” carry unrealistic expectations and can lead to feelings of shame, anxiety, and isolation.

What are some areas in which you feel stuck and unable to change? Once you’ve identified those areas, ask yourself what beliefs you hold about yourself, others, or the circumstances? For example, do you believe that you shouldn’t be having a hard time? Do you believe that others should do their part and not ask for help? Do you believe that it’s selfish to practice self-care? Exploring some of these underlying beliefs can lead you to understanding yourself better. Then think about what some of your family rules were during childhood. How were they communicated? How did you know what was and was not acceptable? How are these rules shaping your current expectations, thoughts and feelings? Are you operating too rigidly out of those family rules?

Next, consider whether that rule is actually working for you in the present. As you grow up, you need to re-evaluate and determine what rules you want to live by now- rules you are living out on your own. You have the freedom to do things differently and figure out what works for you. This can be a challenging process but it is worth it to make the changes you want to see in your life. If you want help exploring family rules and developing new ones, call me today! I help people understand and create new ways of living that stops the cycle of feeling stuck.


Written by therapist Ndunge Marquardt

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