We are imprinted, positively and negatively, by the beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors of those in our families.
For thousands of years people have passed along their wisdom and knowledge and built on the past and moved forward into the future telling each other stories.
Storytelling helps us make sense of our early life and family life, and often provides essential clues about the values, behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that we have embraced and live by, or have rejected and replaced.
Part of learning to tell and write our stories, is recognizing the themes and patterns of family beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors.
Does your family have a mythology about children, elders, illness, money, expressing emotion, career etc., to which everyone subscribes?
When I introduce the idea of identifying themes and patterns, I frequently offer examples that may spark your thinking and awareness.
In my friend Diane’s family one underlying theme is children are dispensable or disposable. Consider these stories:
- When Diane’s maternal grandfather was 3 years old he, his mother, father, and six older siblings escaped the Pogroms in Prussia in a hay wagon and came to the United States by ship. His mother died aboard ship from unknown causes. When they arrived in New York, his father kept the two girls with him, sent the four brothers to live with three uncles and placed Diane’s grandfather in an orphanage because no one was able to take one more child into their home.
- At age 13, Diane’s father and his 7-year-old brother, who was recovering from Rheumatic fever, were sent to California (from Ohio) because Diane’s uncle needed to be in the warm, dry weather. The story is that Diane’s fraternal grandparents were too involved in their businesses to accompany their young sons. They trusted Diane’s uncle to raise his brother and enlisted the part-time assistance of an aunt and uncle who lived in the area.
- One of Diane’s grandmother’s brothers became a widower as a young man. He had three wonderful children. As the story goes he met and married a woman who did not want to raise his children. In fear of losing his beloved new wife he sent his son (9), and his daughters (7 & 5) to boarding school in another state. He raised his two young step-children.
There are other stories reflective of this way Diane’s family treats its children. These are not stories of bad people, but rather of family values and choices that have particular ramifications and consequences for the members of Diane’s family.
In this "storytelling process" our job is to search for themes and patterns of family beliefs, behaviors, attitudes and values. It is not our job to judge or draw conclusions. Stories are data to be used to enrich our understanding and make meaning of events, experiences, and relationships.
My friend Sam grew up in a family in which everyone took care of each other. The story is that if someone came by unexpectedly to visit at mealtime, his mother would simply add more water to the soup or the stew and insist that there was plenty for everyone who was hungry.
Here are other examples of themes or patterns of relating or family values that may be familiar to you:
- Boys are given more educational advantages than girls;
- Family hopes and dreams are placed on the eldest son;
- One child is identified as the black sheep and is ostracized by or disowned from the family;
- One or more of the children is expected to join the family business;
- We die early in our family;
- We are long livers in our family;
- Following your dreams or pursuing your passion is selfish and self-centered; and
- The list goes on and on.
What’s your story? What themes and patterns influenced or affected your attitudes and beliefs? What family mythologies positively or negatively affect your relationships?
Be very gentle as you proceed on this journey, resist being critical or judgmental.
Become aware of the strengths and weaknesses of beloved family members and stay open to recognition and awareness that can deepen your experience of yourself and your world. Good luck as you travel down this path of richness and courage.
Remember, only YOU can make it happen!