Like many young adults, I remember feeling convinced that once I grew up, became independent, and created a home of my own, I would be able to break free from some of the less than desirable aspects of my childhood. The problem was, it wasn’t as easy as I expected. The patterns and dynamics of my upbringing seemed to follow me wherever I went. They were a part of me.
I found that whenever I spent time with my family of origin, we quickly fell back into difficult patterns, no matter what I did to personally resist this behavior. And because some of my family dynamics included abandonment and abuse, these meetings could sometimes be very triggering, making me feel out of sorts (or worse) for days or weeks after.
It turns out I’m far from alone with this problem.
Understanding the Impact of Childhood on Your Adult Life
“Many (I would venture to say nearly all) adults have been impacted in some way by their childhood,” says Christine Tolman, a Talkspace Therapist from Idaho. “We become who we are through a combination of choice, genetics, and how we are raised. Some childhood experiences or values were so significant they are woven into the fabric of our being, for better or worse.”
So what can we do if we feel that our childhood experiences continue to have significant impacts on our mental health?
Recognizing your past to help move on
The first step is simply to recognize this fact, says Tolman. Only then can you begin the work of healing, and moving on. It can be as straightforward as thinking about the ways that your family of origin behaves, and considering whether you replicate these patterns in your own life.
“Does your family scream at each other when there is conflict? Do they shut down and stop talking?” Tolman suggests you ask. “Once you recognize those patterns within your family, it may become easier to recognize them in yourself,” she says.
Mindfulness, meditation — and of course, therapy — are great ways for you to begin to explore the relationship between your family dynamics and your own emotions and behaviors, says Cynthia V. Catchings, a Talkspace therapist from Virginia.
Setting Boundaries with Your Family
And if being around your family of origin affects your mental health in negative ways, it’s time to instill a few boundaries, says Catchings.
“Boundaries help to create healthier relationships,” she explains. “It’s typically a lack of boundaries what creates issues among families.”
How to set strong boundaries
What does setting strong boundaries typically look like?
Boundaries mean that you are clear within yourself as to what kind of behavior and treatment you are willing to tolerate, and what you aren’t. “These boundaries may be ones that you share with your family (‘I will not remain in your home if you scream at me’),” says Christine Tolman, “or they may be boundaries that you set within your own mind (‘If someone at the party screams, I am going to choose to leave’).”
The important thing to remember about boundaries, Tolman says, is that you are in charge of setting these boundaries for yourself, but you can’t control how your families reacts to them — and as difficult as that can be, it’s something you will need to learn to accept.
“You can set a limit for what behaviors you will tolerate, and determine a course of action if there are behaviors you cannot tolerate (for example ‘If you choose to scream, I will choose to leave’),” Tolman explains.” The other person has the right to choose their behaviors, and you have the right to choose how to react.”
Voice Your Opinion, Even if Your Boundaries Aren’t Accepted
For me, this is one of the most difficult aspects of boundary setting that I’ve come against. Often, your family of origin will not readily accept your boundaries — especially if they have spent years exercising control over you. It is normal to feel a certain amount of guilt about this, says Cynthia Catchings.
But it is healthier for everyone involved to express their needs, limits, and boundaries — even if that sometimes means that relationships are strained for some period of time. It’s often easier said than done, but expressing your boundaries and sticking to them is essential for your mental health.
Whatever happens, remember this: You are an adult now, not a child. And as an adult, you deserve to have the space to feel safe, loved, and supported. Only then can you truly “break free” and begin to live your best life.