Family of Origin

So much of our beauty and brokenness — so much of what makes us who we are today — is tied to our family of origin. The ways in which we act, react, and interact with others are directly tied to our childhood origin stories and the hurt that we all inevitably experienced – no matter how perfect (or imperfect) our families were.

Why should we spend time going back to name the hurt we experienced growing up? Is it worth it to stir up those memories, talk about painful experiences, and potentially upset our loved ones? 

Dr. Dan Allender and Adam Young, LCSW, MDiv, candidly share their own personal experiences of courageously engaging their parents in conversations and, over time, discovering more grace, understanding, and freedom in the process. We hope this conversation sparks courage within you to engage some of the difficult truths of the past in order to discover a new hope for your life right now. 

If you’d like to hear more, we invite you to join Dan and Adam on February 23 for Family of Origin, a new online seminar from the Allender Center. Click here to register.

About Our Guest:

Adam Young is a therapist who focuses on trauma and abuse and the host of The Place We Find Ourselves podcast. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, with his wife Caroline and two children, a daughter (14) and a son (11). Adam is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with a MMaster’sdegree in Social Work (Virginia Commonwealth University) and Divinity (Emory University). He is also certified in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Adam is an Allender Center Fellow, and enjoys mountain biking, skiing, soccer, and windsurfing.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: Are we supposed to deal with our families? Really? Come on. It only creates complication. It’s better just to live with a tabula rasa, a white screen with no markings. At least that’s some view by some. But my dear friend and colleague, Adam Young and I are going to talk about it. And Adam is a brilliant therapist and brilliant podcaster. Just a righteously good human being. And so Adam, welcome to this version of a podcast.

Adam: That’s right. It’s fun to be on the other side. It’s good to be with you.

Dan: I love listening. “The Place We Find Ourselves,” it’s just one of those gifts on a weekly basis to see what mischief you have engaged, created, and followed and ensued. But as we begin talking about this difficult topic, we can also say that without embarrassment we are inviting this conversation in part because we get the privilege, I get the privilege, of being able to spend a longer period of time addressing these questions on February 23rd. Sometime between, well not sometime, but actually between four and 6:00 PM Pacific Standard time. You make the adjustment to your own time zone. But Adam and I are going to be doing a webinar addressing a whole lot more, but at least around this question of, oh my goodness, why bother opening up, what some people call Pandora’s box, and letting out all sorts of things that might actually create more apparent complications. So Adam, your thought says, why would any rational, normal, somewhat bright human being opened this door?

Adam: Well, I can speak autobiographically. I mean, for me, I opened this door because I was hurting. Because my life was not as free, as robust, as hopeful as I wanted it to be. And it wasn’t from a lack of exploring, psych major, undergrad, therapy, lots of reading and searching from the scriptures to psychology, to self-help and story. When I first got introduced to the idea that I have a story and that my parents have shaped my brain and my heart, and that my present life is linked to my past experiences growing up with these two people, things started to open up, things started to move within my heart, my mind, and my body. And was, I won’t say intoxicating because it, it’s a very painful process, but there’s something about the new vistas of freedom that makes, at least for me, want more. I wanted more. And so, you know, were through The Wounded Heart. That was my introduction to story one of your books. And then spending a week at recovery week with you was really the introduction for me about looking at, okay, how has my relationship with the man and woman who brought me into this world, how is that still affecting me at that time? A 35 year old man?

Dan: Well, for me, the word that you’re beginning to move us toward is so often we have behaviors or thoughts or feelings. That internal world that just feels like, and I’ll, I won’t speak to you about this, but I’ll say it for myself, often past, present, and I’m sure the future, there are moments where I just go, I am nuts. I can’t believe I have that thought. I can’t believe I want to do this. Whatever the act might be. And in that process it feels like, at least for most of my life, felt like it didn’t have a context. So it, we know that, meaning… like when I read scripture, if I don’t have a basic understanding of the context, the sentences may have power, but I don’t see how they fit. So that idea of creating context creates a sensibility a little bit more of a, oh, is that a fair way of putting what you’re putting words to?

Adam: Yes. I mean, I think all of us want to understand why we are the way we are. I think most self-reflective thinking people would like it not to be an enigma, why they think, say, and do the things that they think, say and do and you put it well, there are times when we have a thought or do something or interact with someone in a particular way and we are taken aback with some measure, at least for me, of shame, with shame, a sense of shame of why did I do that? How could I have thought that? And one of the premises that we want to engage on February 23rd is maybe there’s a reason why we think and feel and do the things that we do.

Dan: And so much of that either gets ignored, denied or minimized. I remember almost the meal, I don’t quite remember the actual food, but I can remember the context where we were, my kids were a bit younger, they were at the table, and I had finished the meal, my meal, barely at the point that the kids had begun eating. And Becky looked at me at one point and she said, why do you need to eat so quickly?

Adam: That’s right.

Dan: And I’m like I don’t know. But again, she knew because I had actually put words to this in other contexts, and that is she said, you have always eaten fast because your role was to be the family storyteller, and if you didn’t get the food down, you couldn’t actually do the work your role held for your family. And that is to entertain them. And I remember as soon as she said it both a, oh yeah, and hell, no, that’s not true. No, that’s not true. I guess I’m in a little bit of a rush right now. But when she began to say, this is a pattern, it’s showing up almost in all contexts, and it isn’t just you like food and you’re eating quickly, it has meaning. And I think that’s one of the things that we’re inviting people to explore, that there really is meaning to the fact you got triggered in this way or that you shut down in this context. It isn’t just what’s happening in the moment. It actually has its own history. And that history as you put it so well is the shaping of your soul, your identity, but even more so your brain in the context of the most profoundly formative years of your life. So I’m curious, as we open the door to this, what things have you seen and, how is it related to your world?

Adam: Yeah, well, I mean, everyone of us brings ourselves into the world of relationships in a particular way. Now, you can call that your personality, fine, that’s a fine term for it. But there’s a way, listeners, that you bring yourself into your relationships. And if you want to know what that way is, take the risk of asking a few people that you’re in relationship with who are kind of honest, Hey, what’s it like? What’s it like to be in relationship with me? Because most of us don’t realize that there is a fabric of there’s a list on a half piece of paper where people could write down, Hey, this is what it’s like to be in relationship with you, Adam. And I’m primarily thinking of those I’m closest to, my wife, my children, for me to ask. I have two kids, hope and Eli, what’s it like to be fathered by me? They’re going to be able to put some words to that to ask my wife, what’s it like to be married to me? And then the next premise is those, the answers to those questions are not random. There’s a reason that I relate to my wife in the ways that I do. There’s a reason that I parent in the way that I do. And it has been incredibly freeing for me and frankly hopeful to begin to put some words to why I am the way I am in relationship with the people I love.

Dan: Alright, let’s start with that. What do your kids tell you?

Adam: Well so it’s interesting. Eli, who’s my 11 year-old-son, would be the first to say that I tend to get very dysregulated. I get upset when he is upset. So when he is really angry or really having kind of a temper tantrum, whether it was when he was three or whether it’s the way an 11 year-old does it that’s very hard for my nervous system to bear. Now, my inclination as a therapist is like to say, get it together, Adam. Right? Get it together. Your son needs a father right now. He needs you to engage with him. You’re pretty skillful at engaging with dysregulated people. Why can an 11 year-old undo you? Okay, and that’s there. But more recently, there has been both curiosity and kindness about, okay, Adam, why is it so hard for your nervous system, for your insides to bear your 11 year-old son’s dysregulated body?

Dan: And what have you discovered?

Adam: Well, several things. Number one and this is both. I guess that’s a bittersweet confession. When I was 11, when I was seven, when I was 14, I mean all growing up, there was no space in my home for me to do with my voice and my body, what my son does in our home. In other words, I never had, we could say the luxury, I don’t like that word, the freedom to emote, to feel my feelings and let them manifest in the air of my home. That was not an option for me. So there is in me a sense of how dare you, Eli, do what I could not do.

Dan: Never have the chance to do. Yeah.

Adam: That’s right.

Dan: Oh, well, I just did a podcast with my two adult daughters.

Adam: So I saw. So I saw.

Dan: And it’s good that we didn’t fully do the full conversation after we finished because they began talking about things just like what you’re putting words to. And in some sense, I would say it was just the opposite. They said, the only way, at least at certain seasons we could engage with you is if we in one sense screwed up our courage and got into this brawl. You were much more comfortable being in conflict and having a brawl with us than to just sit and feel something of the sorrow or heartache we were in the middle of. And I’m like, oh, oh, Jesus. Yes. Because back to that simple phrase what my mother created was the seductive realm that our intense relationship could actually become more intense, yet more divided by having conflict. So yelling at one another. The intensity of conflict provided this strange level of connection while also providing enough distance that it gave us both space. So we’re playing out with our children. Mercy.

Adam: That’s right. And yes, this comes to, brings to mind a term that our friend Cathy Loerzel coined, which is “arousal structures”. And when most people hear the word arousal, often they’ll think sexual arousal. We’re not only talking about that. What you’re putting words to Dan, and even with me and Eli, what I’m trying to name is that their arousal is just when something inside of you is of intensity, kind of comes online, comes alive, there’s connection, there’s energy in your home. And the ways that we experienced energetic connection with mom, with dad, with siblings, those ways are patterned. And we could give the term that Cathy’s given to it, arousal structures. And when I say patterned, I mean neurobiologically wired in your brain. And as a result, there is a sense for me in which I am much more interested in combative argument with my wife than kind of withdrawal. And what I want to say is there is a reason for that. And it is rooted in my story, in my family of origin, particularly with my mother. And so for all the different people out there that are listening, what we want to invite you to ponder is could there be a reason why you relate to your loved ones in the manner and style in which you do? And if there is a reason that’s rooted in your story, here’s the next really freeing point. I remember where I was when I heard you say this, Dan and you said this, naming what is happening is 50% of the way to healing. Now, that’s a very hopeful sentence, very hopeful, just getting clear and putting some language to the particularities of what makes me come alive, what makes me withdraw, dysregulates me, why I get so upset when my son is having a temper tantrum. Putting words to that is 50% of the way to healing. That’s a hopeful sentence.

Dan: Oh, it’s so fun. And I just remember as a young seminarian I didn’t really want to be in seminary. It’s a long story, but I do remember when I started taking Greek and I came across the word confession. And in Greek, it’s homologeō, which basically means saying the same thing. God knows what’s true. And when we confess, we often think that means sin, and it certainly includes, but it’s naming the truth. And there is something freeing to the body, to the heart to be able to go, I eat too fast. And it’s not just a mere behavior. I am drawn to conflict. It’s not just because I’m pugilistic. There is something in this that indeed I have to hold the reality of my own responsibility, but I also have to hold that I didn’t choose this. I didn’t say as a three-year-old or an eight year-old, you know what? I think combative interactions create enough distance that allow me a certain degree of soothing. I know that’s odd, but nonetheless, it is my way of being. All that to say that the process of coming to name, let’s just say it has a two edge coin here, and that it does create relief. But doesn’t it at least to initially create more complication?

Adam: Well, the complication is implicit in naming why I relate to my wife the way I do. Implicit in linking that to my, for example, relationship with my mother is an invitation to repent. And all I mean by repent is to turn around and begin to operate in a different manner. So there is something inviting. But yes, agonizing about being called to be more of a man, more Christlike than I currently am. And yet that’s what my heart most deeply longs for. So or anyone else invites me to engage my story more deeply. You’re really calling me to holiness and frankly calling me to freedom. And it’s, it’s the simple question of, okay, Adam, having understood why you are the way you are, how would you like to live tomorrow?

Dan: Well, my mom has not been on this earth in about five years, and my father died in 1991. So as we engage this question of what does it mean to step into the realities of the unique shaping power of our families, our parents, our siblings, and beyond that larger family systems and structures, there is a complication, particularly for those who have parents still on this earth. So I want to at least kind of knock on the door, what’s the process been like for you as you began naming some of the realities? And then there is, I just don’t want to in any way minimize this. There are complications that occur in the process of naming, particularly when your parents are still alive.

Adam: Yes, absolutely. And I have an experience with both because I engaged my story after my mother had died, and I engaged my story long before my father passed two years ago. And so I’ve had the experience of both, how do I engage my living father, now that I know some things that I did not know last year. My relationship with my dad included both beautiful restoration, redemption reconciliation, and it included unmet longing for more. But let me speak to that first part. In 2009 I began having conversations with my dad every Friday. I was a pastor at the time. Every Friday at 4:00 PM, I would have a call with him for this probably lasted my nine months. And the purpose of the call was, dad, I just want to talk with you about some of the ways that you harmed me growing up. Are you open to that? And his answer was, yes. His answer was yes. And we began, and I would read him or share with him just vignettes of, hey, here’s a story that I remember, dad, do you remember it? And most of the time, his answer was yes, I remember that. And we began to talk. And there was ownership on his part. And frankly, I think for most of us, we do not need, I’m sorry, we just necessarily, we need ownership of the person that has harmed us that yes, that happened. That happened. Go ahead.

Dan: No, I was just going to say that it, it’s so sweet that you invited him to that question that he said yes. That you began to name scenes.

Adam: That’s right.

Dan: That particular events, not just patterns. You were angry or, yeah, you were so distant. We’re not talking about engaging a broad, broad 20,000 foot high theme. Not wrong, but it’s in the particularity of the story that we have more text to engage than ethereal abstract categories. Like you were always so angry.

Adam: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this point really needs to be underscored because the way hearts, minds and bodies operate is always in story. So my dad never hurt me. My dad never abused me. Okay. My dad hit me when I was six because I didn’t do that thing, and he was having a bad day and a bad interaction with his wife, my mother, and he physically took it out on me on that day, in that room with that carpet. Do you remember that, dad? Yes, I do. Adam. I remember that Now we’re having a limbic conversation where my bondage frankly resides. And there, in my experience, there can be no real freedom and healing until our heartaches and tragedies and traumas are engaged at that particularity level. That level of, I remember what was, I remember the horse outside the window. I remember the color of the carpet. I remember what my mother was wearing. It has to be that particular, when we talk about engaging our stories, we’re talking about scenes.

Dan: And even when the level of detail is not present, oftentimes there there’s more like a fragment, maybe the sense of what was happening outside the window. But even the smallest particularity often seems to be the context if we’re faithful with a small, not saying always, but sometimes the spirit begins to offer us more detail. I’m curious, when you engaged your dad with even that story, what did he bring? If you can put words to what was the process?

Adam: Well number one I’m thinking of a different story right now. I’m thinking of a story when my younger brother had actually ruptured his appendix and it was snowing. We grew up in Connecticut, a lot of snow on the ground, and I drove him to the hospital. But my fuel tank froze because I didn’t have enough fuel in it. It was me, my mother, my brother Jake, with a, we didn’t know it, a ruptured appendix. And I had to run through snow to this place across a highway, across a fence to call my dad to come and get us. And I brought that story up with my dad. And one of the things that was really helpful is hearing my dad’s experience of that day. And it in no way erased the harm that had occurred, which also of course occurred in a context of a deeply enmeshed relationship between me and his wife, my mother. So there’s a lot of context to all of our stories, but it was helpful for me to frankly grow in my understanding of my dad’s heart, my dad’s humanity. And so a lot of people have the fear, I think, Dan, and it’s well intentioned, and that if I engage with some of these hard stories from my growing up years it is going to put me at enmity with my mom and dad, or it’s not honoring of them, or it will put a wedge in our relationship. And what I want to say is you don’t know that, number one, and number two, that largely depends on your mom and dad, how they respond.

Dan: Right, exactly.

Adam: To you.

Dan: And for me, my story, I tried to put some words to in a book called Bold Love, but my dad gave me the data that he was going to die within six months to a year. And the decision was, I will not let this man escape this earth without me at least knowing a little bit about my dad. So I knew with my particular father, if I had opened the door to that question, it would have gone wretchedly. I just began with questions like did you have a crush in third or fourth grade? What were you like in school? Did you study? Was there any area that you found fascinating? I mean, things that I kind of wish my children had curiosity about with regard to me. I began to ask him, and he hated it. And I mean, he would be at times abrupt. There were many times he hung up on me, but I continued. It’s probably one of the most persevere processes because I think the category of honor is not avoiding conflict, is engaging with some degree, I’d love to say it was full in me, but some degree of respect, curiosity, and kindness for those who have indeed done us harm. So that conversation brought us eventually to a porch stoop about six weeks before he died. And not to go into the details, but he owned his own failure of me. And it was one of the sweetest gifts. But that, I mean, it was sweet, but he began to put words to why he saw himself to be such a quiet, disengaged man, and his stories of Iwo Jima, And Peleliu, two battles that he fought in and the heartache, the loss, the death began to help me get a sense of, yes, he failed and he was also failed. He also boar his own trauma. Now we’re not using our trauma to excuse ourselves, nor are we indeed choosing to excuse our parents because of their trauma. It contextualizes it. And that level of connection between you and your dad, that you could hear his suffering. And here something about what brought him. That to me is the definition of honor.

Adam: Yes, yes. And frankly there was so much inertia in me to not engage my father and my mother when she was alive in the deeper things that I cared about. There was so much I don’t know how else to put it, just the inertia of let’s not upset whatever goodness does exist. And I think so many people can relate to that. And it comes from a really precious place in your heart of longing for some measure of goodness with your father and mother. And you don’t want to jeopardize whatever you do have by risking asking for more.

Dan: It, it’s the heart that longs. You could be 70 years of age and your parents off the earth longing for blessing. And most parents have no clue how to bless other than “son, you did really well there.” That might be as close as you will ever get to the kind of blessing. Yet what you’ve put words to is the risk. There is a threat to this process that we do not, again, want to ameliorate it is there. You may lose more, but you also may gain not just your own freedom, but something of the freedom that is available for your parent to be able to hold together that we have failed one another. And yet I was a child and you were the adult.

Adam: Yeah. And it pondering these things made me realize, frankly a fair bit of my cowardice. It was cowardly to not bring the fullness of my longing to my father and ask for more. Yes. It was a… I don’t want to risk whatever goodness is there. And it was also motivated by, I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want to cause him pain. But even that inherent in that, there is the cowardice of I don’t want to suffer difficult interactions with someone who is so deeply important to me.

Dan: And we both have had the benefit of at least one parent who we had the chance to engage before their departure. The story with my mother is a lot more complicated in that I did address I asked her the question of you, you took me when I was 13, 14 years of age to the Moulin Rouge. And then after we left there, we went to a much more seedy. I mean, the Moulin Rouge can be called an entertainment center, but we went to a strip club. What were you thinking? And because we had done some work prior to that she allowed herself a certain degree of honesty that she didn’t know what she was doing. She defended, she explained, but she also had the ability to say, you shouldn’t have had to have seen that at a young age. And when I knocked on the door of mom, I’m not asking for particulars, but what might have been your own history to have been so insensitive to what a 12 or 13 year-old-boy might be experiencing in the presence of naked women. She flipped out. It did not go well. And to this day, I don’t have the ability to know that was a mistake. That was wrong. You shouldn’t have done that. But it doesn’t always go as our heart’s desire. But even through that, even though that interaction was fairly wretched, there was a growing freedom to address other matters. It’s like we didn’t deal with the top, the 14,000 foot peak, but we began addressing things in that 6 to 8,000 foot realm that we would never have been able to do. So for those people who have a parent that likely will not handle this well as a therapist, a as a good friend, how do you invite them to this process?

Adam: You’re the one that taught me that. I mean, you’re the one that taught me, that invited me really to the question of, Adam, would you like to love your father? well, for whatever days he has left on this earth, and when you share with me what you just did about the movement, not just to, we could say confronting your mother about what she did, but then the movement into curiosity about her story and about what she may have experienced that brought her to a place where she was apt to harm you in such an egregious way as a 13 year-old. I mean, that in my mind is one of the most loving engagements that you can have with a parent where you move not only to the place of willingness to name some of the ways they’ve harmed you, but to have some curiosity and a willingness to talk with them about, and how did you come to be a mother or father who would do something like that? And in my mind, when you’re in that terrain, you are playing in the freedom of the gospel. I mean, it is only because of the healing, transformative, resurrecting power of Jesus Christ that we have the freedom to go into those places. I mean, you are truly free in that place. You are have combated shame and accusation to a significant enough degree that it’s not just about, it’s not about blame. It’s about could we name with honesty, the heartache, the harm, the abuse, but also, could we go deeper in understanding and how did you become that kind of person? Because frankly, look, many, for those of you that are married, you harm your spouse, most of us long to be understood to a significant enough degree from our spouse that it’s not throwing it, putting it under the rug. But will my wife have some curiosity about why did I harm her in that way? And that creates, it’s not an excuse, frankly. It makes my repentance more likely. Okay. Because it creates an environment of welcome to all parts of me. Even those parts of me that are frankly not very lovely.

Dan: Well, it, it’s a holding to the reality that there is, well speak about it as epigenetics or as intergenerational patterns and sin, and yet also intergenerational goodness and movement. And as I look at my mother, as I look at my grandmother, and obviously I didn’t know relatives beyond that, these kinds of questions started to flesh out for me and for my mom conversations about what was it like as you were a teenager? Engaging your mother as you wanted to date. And the reality of, can you go from the Moulin Rouge to curiosity about your early dating life? I don’t know if she made a full fledged one-to-one correlation of what I was doing, but there was a larger story that allowed us both to laugh, to grieve, and to honor even if certain things never prior to her death ever got resolved. I think the way you’re capturing it is, can we see our parents as human beings?

Adam: Yes. And do I have a longing for my father to be more of a man tomorrow than he is today? And do I have a longing for more father/son relating with whatever days he has left on Earth? And if I have that longing, and frankly, most of the people in my office have way more of that longing than they want to admit, and it’s a holy longing. Yes. If you have that longing, will you risk the relationship in the name of Jesus for more glory to be manifest on the earth?

Dan: That’s one last major question, because I’ve had the privilege of being in your lovely home, watching and engaging your remarkable children. Now, your wife is stunning, but let’s just focus on your children. They are playful, thoughtful, and at least in a game we were playing, beyond brilliant, beyond brilliant. So they are gaining. I’m not saying that there is not ongoing failure on the part of both you and your wife with regard to we all fail, but there is a capacity on their part to tell you the truth. And that has come at least to some degree as a result of the work that you have done. What do you see them engaging that you would not have engaged in the context of your family of origin?

Adam: Well, number one they will tell me when they are angry at me, they will express it. They will dysregulate me knowingly knowing that they’re doing it. They will make me suffer unpleasant feelings in my body. And when I see that there is a part of me that says, I can die now, because the agony of the healing work that I have endured, and I’m not saying I did it for my children but to see two other human beings more free with nervous systems that are healthier because of the suffering that I chose to do, to suffer the reality of my story. There’s a sense in which that just makes me feel like I have done what I came on earth to do.

Dan: Oh, amen. Well, the one other statement, and then we will depart. They deeply delight in you.

Adam: Yeah.

Dan: Yes. They think you’re pretty cool.

Adam: Yeah.

Dan: And what do you do with that?

Adam: They verbalize the opposite at times. But I’m not disagreeing with you. I have not pondered that before. That notion that my daughter, my 14 year-old daughter, has some measure of delight and admiration for me. But it is true. It’s a very satisfying thing to ponder.

Dan: And I’m not surprised just even though we’re in sort of concluding process, not surprised that the first response was they have the ability to engage conflict and disregulate. But I think one of the hardest things for a parent to actually admit is that in the process of being able to do the disruptive work with regard to our past, it creates a soil for a new kind of relationship with your own children. And the fruit of that is what our hearts want at a level more than anything in the universe. If I received an award or some accolade from someone that’s sweet, but from my children, from my wife, it is gold. And to watch your children look at you as you’re playing with them as what game were we playing? Some salad bowl. Salad bowl. Yeah. And looking at you with some of your excellent quick witted responses. And they’re like looking at Dad with, as my dad, that’s my dad. Now don’t catch me looking at him that way. But oh my goodness, that is the soil of even harder things can be addressed when there is the presence of that kind of delight. And that’s what we want for you. We want that sense of you have the courage to engage hard truths, but you have the ability to, in some sense, engage even harder truths. And that is how worthy you are of admiration and delight. And this is what we’re going to invite you to on February 23rd, a bit more of a discussion of these concepts. So Adam, thank you.

Adam: Thank you, Dan. This has been a enjoyable conversation for me.

Dan: Me too.