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What is Family of Origin Work?

The term, “family of origin work,” is familiar to some but many not everyone.  Everyone should have an understanding of it, being that in the realm of emotional and relationship health, it’s critical.   Therapists probably have slightly different interpretations of the meaning and process. Here is my definition:

“Family of origin work is the process of getting unblocked emotionally and/or in your relationships, by healing family or other wounds of the past.” 

I have repeatedly found (in life and with my clients) that a range of emotional and relational issues that can be connected to  one’s family of origin experiences with parents, primary care-givers and/or families in general, as well as other traumatic experiences.  Anxiety, depression, anger, fear and recurrent relationship problems are often tangled up in these unresolved experiences. Our early experiences can develop our core beliefs about who we are, whether we can safely rely on others, etc.  It is an area of great passion for me to help people to get clarity around what happened, how they adapted to their circumstances, develop self-compassion and forgiveness if possible and shift paradigms resulting in a new way of seeing things.

People who might benefit from this type of work are those who experienced a number of different situations in the past that are keeping them from living fulfilling, connected and peaceful lives in the present. These “situations” usually occurred early in life – though can continue in various patterns straight through to adulthood.

Examples of problematic situations occurring earlier in life include:

  • Childhood Trauma (physical, sexual or emotional abuse)
  • Critical or harsh parenting styles in childhood
  • Rejecting or dismissing parenting styles in childhood
  • Living in a chaotic, fear-based environment in childhood
  • Witnessing a volatile, high-conflict relationship between your parents

Again, therapists will all have their own unique approaches – but my family of origin work in therapy involves an exploration of the past, understanding of how the past might have impacted you on an emotional level, identifying any unhelpful core beliefs you may have developed about yourself, others and the world – and changing these unhelpful core beliefs.  I also help people consider how changing their thinking impacts their feelings and ultimately their behavior.  A look at the quality of attachment with parents or primary caregivers is part of the work.

People who feel “stuck” often report they’ve felt this way a long time.  But others aren’t as aware.  We are equipped with primal defenses to help protect us from painful memories.  Ultimately, there is probably a sense that something isn’t working individually and/or in relationships.

Not all therapists view people through a past-oriented lens.  If you’re considering doing this kind of work, I encourage you to ask potential therapists about thoughts about how change occurs to be sure the fit is good.

If you are considering the possibility that you might benefit from family of origin work, I have a tool called,  Family of Origin Work:  Untangle Your Healthy Roots.  This mini-guide was created to empower people to start unpacking and healing their earlier wounds.  It will be enough for some but not for all as some of these issues involve trauma and more complicated layers needing the care and guidance of a therapist in the room.  But it could be a starting point.

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT

Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is the creator of LoveAndLifeToolbox.com with tools for emotional and relationship health and is the author of Therapy-At-Home Workbooks® for individuals and couples. She is a frequent consultant for the media having appeared in CNN.com, HuffingtonPost.com, MensHealth.com and others. Lisa has a private practice in Marin County, CA and offers online therapy to residents of California.

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