Updated: Jan 17, 2022
Written by Brandi Wilson, PLPC
Each time I drive back to my hometown, I often feel this inconsolable twinge in my stomach. It usually remains there for the entirety of my trip and though I manage to push this sensation to the back of my heart, I still find myself rehearsing my lines for when I am asked about my “frequent absence” despite living less than 30 miles away.
I never truly can come up with an answer that feels honest.
The only truth that feels fitting in those moment are, I am a piece of shit and I don’t prioritize the ones that I love.
Over the years I never fully understood my resistance to going home -- and while my avoidance grew stronger, so did my guilt. It wasn’t until I began noticing the same patterns in my clients where I started questioning why so many of us struggled with being around our families and furthermore, why we didn’t know how to navigate being around people that loved us.
For myself, the burden that I carried was “leaving my family means I do not love them”. When I thought about what I wanted out of life (travel, re-location, independence) I would feel a sense of shame that was directly connected to this belief. So I did some internal digging around my ancerstoral history and thought about how less than 200 years ago it was important for slaves to bind and protect one another. Many of our families were broken apart and sold into pieces. It would make sense that once my ancestors established safety with one another, separation felt dangerous; contributing to why African-American families often come from a collective way of living.
As my curiosity grew, so did my clinical efforts. Using the Internal Family Systems (IFS) framework, I began working with my clients on identifying certain beliefs that might have precipitated from their family of origin, as well as, discussing how these beliefs impacted the client's sense of self and the relationships with their families. We began talking about why their family's belief system trapped them. It became clear in the work that these ideas had stood the test of time, and often went back generations. Most importantly, these beliefs were often derived from traumatic situations survived by the family.
My clients will speak to their burdens in the following ways: “I have to be strong and unproblematic”, “ I can’t afford to mess things up”, “I don’t have the privilege of having emotions”. The most frequent response is "We can’t share feelings in our family without fighting" or my personal favorite, “We don't do feelings in our family.”
When these beliefs become outdated or out of alignment for our mental health, they become roadblocks in our relationships.
As I am writing this piece, I think it’s important to pause and explore what burdens or beliefs you might be carrying. I’ve come up with a few questions to help you think of how your own family's shared beliefs might have impacted your sense of self. Burdens are neither good nor bad, but if not understood they can be limiting to you being your most authentic self. I would like for you to explore these questions at some point in your day and process them with a trusted person in your life such as a friend or mental health professional.
Think back to something really hard that happened in your family system, jot down what beliefs came out of this situation. Cite the examples provided above if you need some help.
Now write about how these beliefs might have impacted you personally, or how you view yourself in the world.
How do these beliefs impact your behavior?
What would happen if these beliefs no longer existed, how would this shift who you are and how you show up in relationships?
If you made it to the end of this exercise, you might have a better sense of how burdens can impact us. If you really want to challenge yourself with this idea, write this exercise from the perspective of another individual in your family. See how this helps you understand them differently, but more importantly understanding the cultural significance.
As my clients dug more into the origin of their beliefs, it became clear that these burdens were often shared by each member of the family, sometimes out loud and sometimes in more internal ways.
"Legacy Burdens often represent the energy that disconnects family units, or connects families through disharmony"
I found that when we let go of these beliefs, we can be our truest selves; however, when burdens are untreated and significant enough it can breed what looks like addiction, anxiety, hyper-independence, fragility, learned-helplessness, and so on. Legacy burdens essentially are the beliefs that get passed down to us, we absorb them into our day to day interactions and they become our way of being. They become us in a sense.
When we began understanding and extracting these beliefs more intentionally, clients would report an increase in feelings of self-compassion, along with feeling more capable and grounded within their family relationships. Their boundaries strengthened, along with their ability to empathize without feeling shame. Personally, I found that this work also helped me appreciate my family more which in return helped me make a greater effort to see them.