Changing Family Legacies: First Steps

April 21, 2022

Legacies, what a grand word! What do we mean by it? Essentially we are talking about the patterns of care, coping, communication, and harm that get passed down through the generations. Have you noticed yourself relating to your child or your partner the same way your
parents did? This may just be part of a family legacy.

Themes of legacy often come up when you are thinking through how you want to change things about how you were raised. Many times folks will say “I’m never going to repeat what my parents did!” and then somehow find themselves doing exactly that when they become adults. How come? One of the reasons this happens is due to a gap that has been left in your readily available skills. If you say “I don’t want to yell at my kids when I’m feeling overwhelmed” but then  don’t think through what you want to do instead of yelling, when you become overwhelmed, you yell. That’s because it is much easier to use the skill that was shown to you as a child than it is to come up with a new one on the spot.

This can be true across various changes. Your parent drank to manage stress and you don’t want that for yourself? Great! What will you do instead? Your family gave the silent treatment when they were upset and that made you anxious? Totally understandable! What feels
healthier?

Thinking through how we want to fill in these gaps gives us a greater range of available options for when moments come that challenge our resolve. Yet, learning what we don’t want often comes a bit easier than getting specific about what we do want. If you’re feeling stuck here, you’re in good company! Here are some tips on beginning to understand how you want to fill those gaps.

1. Remember how you felt as a child. What made you feel confused? What was helpful or unhelpful? What hurt? What made you feel loved? What made you feel anxious? What made you feel safe? Remembering these experiences can help you begin to hold on to
what is supportive and use those skills in changing what’s unsupportive. I’ll bet there’s some strength in your family legacy!

2. Listen to your body cues now. How do you feel when you repeat unwanted behavior from your past? Tense? Tired? Deflated? What emotions do these sensations correspond to? How do you feel when you’re upholding your values? Strong? Energized? Peaceful? What would it look like to allow all of these emotions and sensations to care for you and show you what you value? Can you recognize that you too are a whole person with wants, needs, and goals that deserve space and attention?

3. Bounce ideas off of another. Whether this is a credible book, a therapist, and/or a trusted
and reliable friend, having outside influence can support you in recognizing options you didn’t know you had, reflecting your strengths back to you, and encouraging you on your
journey to a new legacy.

Please note, changing family legacies is hard and, often, time consuming work. If you’ve experienced trauma or abuse, or begin to feel overwhelmed in trying these tips on your own,
please seek support from a professional.

Remember, knowing you want to change a legacy and beginning to think how you want to fill the gaps creates the starting line. May your journey be meaningful and may the process create
something supportive and beautiful!

-Jen Rutter, LPMFT
Marriage and Family Therapist