Family-Of-Origin, Nature And Nurture

One of the more enjoyable and productive therapeutic collaborations occurs when we find a useful, accurate developmental context for how your family operates (or operated.) It can be called “family-of-origin” work*, but that has many schools of thought and various theoreticians and practitioners. Even though I’m touching on vast subject areas, including the roots of family therapy practice, I’ll keep my commitment to make this post re ‘nature nurture’ brief.

Nature Nurture

Describing this practice as briefly and simply as I can, it’s based on the “nurture” side of the “nature vs nurture” debate (about how human beings develop.) The theory is that how you interact in present-day situations and problems can be understood essentially as either reactions or re-enactments of behaviors/patterns that existed in your family-of-origin. This is familiar to people who have been in therapy. And I don’t doubt its power and usefulness; I use it too, in various ways and times.

The Big Picture

We each generally have ways of describing the family we grew up in. We can construct a kind of big picture or “map”, and do this in a variety of ways. We can use a central family member, a pattern of family interaction, or a tragedy, to name just three examples. We believe these descriptions are useful ultimately for what they say about us, how we typically behave, or how we refuse to behave any further. A therapist should bring forward a different but equally useful picture, as one way of thawing out what seems likes a frozen set of problems, then or now.

One the one hand, your family attachments influence how you respond to good things, and problems. On another, your own personal development, much of it developed after you left home, creates new ways to respond, a way to express your individuality. Seeing these two possibilities is one way to understand differentiation (See my pages entitled “Therapy Links” and “Couples/Relationship Therapy”)

Epigenetics (Nature)

A similar point can be made regarding genetics. Our “hardwired” neurobiology, developed originally in utero  (call it “nature”) influences things, but does not determine them absolutely. The “nature” perspective begins by realizing that genetically you are the result of both parents (and the many that preceded them) – not one parent to the exclusion of the other. You express your genetic heritage in a variety of ways, but genes don’t “cause” behaviors. Rather, behavior in this model is better understood “epi-genetically”; life events cause genetics to be “expressed” in particular ways (Example 1): a family history of maternal alcoholism does not “cause” you to choose alcoholic beverages. Rather, if you choose to drink, your genetics greatly influence your experience with alcohol.)

Family-Of-Origin (Nurture)

Family-of-origin work is systemic in nature (meaning, it describes a system rather than a group of individual diagnoses) but it’s a “micro” approach. It works best when understood along with elements of “nature”, and larger “macro” contexts, like multi-generational family history, racial & ethnic culture, income & socio-economic status. This holistic approach brings nature and nurture together into a broader human “ecological” perspective.

* for those who wish to research this term from two well-established perspectives, the work of James Framo and Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy stand out.

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