You can’t choose your parents. Or your brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. If your family of origin was reasonably healthy you probably don’t think much about how you choose to relate to them. You look forward to family gatherings, and keep in touch between times together.

There is always some tension as young people grow up and leave home, but healthy families celebrate such transitions. While still connected, junior develops a life of his or her own. And you’re at least somewhat proud of your parents and the legacy they left you.

But not all families are so healthy. It seems some significant measure of dysfunction is the norm in most families. Volumes have been written on the topic, and the mental health field has provided numerous careers devoted to helping those from unhealthy families learn to function better now.

Growing up in a home with alcohol, drug use, rage, criminal behavior, or violence leaves permanent marks on your soul. Perhaps you were on the receiving end of physical, verbal, or sexual abuse, or neglect. Perhaps your parents split up, or you don’t even know one or both of them. Perhaps poverty, excessive legalism, mental illness, or constant drama affected your home.

Where you come from affects you. How your parents handled conflict, their work ethic, family traditions, ideas about money and marriage and government and God – those are just some of the unconscious ways your own values and attitudes have been affected by how you grew up. Even if those were healthy ways of relating to each other and to the world, you are living in a different world today than they did back then. Blindly accepting all of their attitudes and patterns of life leaves you very vulnerable to changes you will face in your own life. There must be a process of working through even their very best ideas and values for yourself.

If your family of origin was less than healthy the natural reaction may be to throw them all away. The problem is – you learned by example. We repeat what we experienced until and unless we face the reality of what our home was like, and make the effort to learn new ways of living. If you don’t want a repeat it will take some hard work to develop new ways of thinking, of living, and of responding to stress.

Most who grew up in a dysfunctional home will one day have to face the matter of forgiveness. Forgiving your parents may be one of the hardest steps in growing up for many people. But you do have a choice about how long you allow that abuse to control your life. Choosing to let it go is the only way to finally become free of all that junk. That’s a choice you will need to make for your own health regardless of whether or not the one who hurt you accepts that forgiveness. (See my post on Steps to Forgiveness.)

You know you’ve reached real healing and maturity when you can:

  • look at the truth about your family of origin without becoming angry or resentful or ashamed.
  • honor and respect them for the positive things they provided you even if most of it was painful.
  • stay connected without being controlled or manipulated.
  • value your roots without defining yourself by them.
  • learn to take what’s good, and leave the rest.

You love them for who they are today and forgive them for the past, while still protecting yourself from further pain if necessary. You’ve felt the sting, looked reality in the face, and moved on.

And that’s a good thing!

Your turn: What good things about your family of origin have you kept? What have you had to let go of? Leave a comment below. 

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