The Family of Origin Experience

[fa icon="calendar"] Apr 19, 2023 8:00:00 AM / by Maj Donovan

The Retreat Post- The Family of Origin Experience

I grew up in an alcoholic family.  As such I wasn’t imbued with a healthy sense of self.  I struggled with issues of low self-esteem.  I searched desperately for parental validation and proof that I was loved and worthy.  I was a child dealing with a very adult issue.  I had two alcoholic parents, and I didn’t have the coping techniques to deal with their alcoholism.

So, I did what any child does in a traumatic situation – I blamed myself.  Thoughts like, “If I kept my room clean, if I was quieter at the dinner table, if I didn’t get so muddy when I played outside, maybe my parents wouldn’t drink so much, maybe they would love me.”  I desperately wanted their validation, but they were emotionally and physically incapable of giving it. 

Fast-forward into my adult years and I still struggled with issues of validation and self-worth.  This came to light when I was on my last tour in Iraq.  I had been submitted for an award at the end of my tour, but it was an award of a lesser degree than I thought I deserved.  I went to a trusted Pastor to talk about it, and he interrupted me half-way through my rant and asked me a simple question.  He said, “John, were you abused as a child?”  

“Well, yes”, I stammered, “but what does that have to do with my award?”

He responded with this, “John, when will you stop looking for earthly validation of your worth and realize your Heavenly Father has already validated you?”

His comment literally took my breath away.  I felt like a child again just begging for my father to tell me I was OK and that he loved me.  I was recreating my family of origin experience. 

Do you struggle with family of origin experiences?  Are the scripts that were written in your childhood home still being acted out today in your adult life? Do you want to avoid bringing those scripts from your family of chance into your family of choice?  

I had an adult friend who seemingly had everything going for him, i.e., sobriety, good looks, financial wellbeing, but he had the worst luck in finding a life-partner with whom to spend his time. One evening while we were having dinner together, he remarked, “Do you see that gal over there? I nodded yes and he said, “She has a lot of issues”.

I asked him, “Do you know her”.

“No,” he replied.  “I’m just really attracted to her.”  

My friend was self-aware that his picker was broken. He knew he had come from a home where there was a lot of chaos, and it was with people who were chaotic that he felt most comfortable. He knew he had a track record of being attracted to people who were contrary to his emotional sobriety.  He knew he had to make different choices, but how? 

Is self-awareness the key? 

Self-awareness is important, but it’s not the whole answer.  Self-awareness is the equivalent of Step Zero, that crucial step that is a precursor to Step One but isn’t enough to keep us sober.  Step Zero is the awareness that I have a problem, but as we all know bars and night clubs all over the world are filled with people who are aware they have a drinking problem, but they haven’t done anything about it.  

So, if self-awareness isn’t the answer, what is? 

The answer is three-fold.  It comes in the form of awareness followed by a spiritual application, followed by action and more action. After we are aware of the problem, we seek out the help of our Higher Power in addressing it.  This is the equivalent of taking steps one, two and three.  We recognize the havoc; the unmanageability and we ask our Higher Power for help and direction.  We sincerely ask for God’s help, and we remain open to the answers as they will present themselves.  We know that trauma and adverse childhood experiences may describe us, but they don’t define us.  The problems may seem overwhelming, but they are not insurmountable.  We are moving forward, and we don’t have to trip over something behind us. 

Once we have completed these steps it is time for action and more action.  Contemplation, awareness and asking for help is a start, but it is putting helpful suggestions into action where we will begin to experience change and growth.  As Herbert Spencer reminded us, we must remain open and avoid “contempt prior to investigation.” 

Our answers will come from many sources.  Solutions will present themselves from our self-help meetings, spiritual advisors, sponsors, and the professional community. We remain patient, but diligent.  We put into action these comments and suggestions from these trusted sources.  It is also helpful to remind ourselves that change is awkward and often uncomfortable. Some of the feedback we receive may seem unnecessary or inaccurate.  This may happen, but if I’m hearing the same thing from several sources, it’s probably a strong indication that I need to make some changes in that area. We put forth the footwork and leave the outcomes to our Higher Power. 

The world champion golfer, Ben Hogan, had this to say about making change, “Reverse every natural instinct and do the opposite of what you are inclined to do…” Although Hogan was talking about the golf swing, this is very applicable to making changes in our life from a traumatic family of origin experience.  If things are starting to feel warm and comfortable, it may mean we’ve fallen back into some old patterns of behavior, or we are bringing people into our lives who are reminiscent of our family of origin. 

Growth is not linear.  It is full of ups and downs.  In our early recovery, we may experience periods of great growth, insight, and wisdom followed by periods of listlessness and seemingly nongrowth.  At times it may feel like two-steps forward and one-step back.  That’s normal – be patient with yourself.

However, if we stay on the path, we remain open, honest, and willing, we will begin to put new, healthier behaviors into action.  Slowly we will begin to turn unconscious, unhealthy behaviors into unconscious healthy behaviors. We will naturally want to surround ourselves with people who bring out the best in us and not the worst. We will be attracted to people who make us better not bitter.  And we will rewrite those scripts we learned in our family of chance, and we will bring new and healthier scripts into our family of choice.  


Topics: Alcoholics Anonymous, recovery process, alcoholism, Recovery

Maj Donovan

Written by Maj Donovan

Maj Donovan is a person in long-term recovery with over four decades of sobriety. He is an author, blogger, lecturer and teaches a monthly workshop at “The Retreat” on the 12 Steps and Sponsorship.

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