Karen MeagerThe article is courtesy of Karen Meager who is a Co-Founder of Monkey Puzzle Training & Consultancy Ltd, a leading provider of leadership and personal development and NLP qualifications in the UK. She is an NLP Master Trainer, Coach, UKCP registered Psychotherapist and author of Real Leaders for the Real World and Time Mastery; Banish Time Management Forever. 

Real Healthy Families

We all live in a family system – even if we don’t day-to-day have anything to do with other family members. People are often surprised at the degree to which they are powered by the autopilot of the past, created in the early family system.

The bonds created within a family are very strong, even if we don’t like them and the power of the family system is such that it shapes us all at a deeply unconscious level. It’s not unusual for perfectly respectable adults to turn into stroppy teenagers when they visit their parents as the deep anchors of childhood are activated. The unconscious bonds that are created within the family system impact and influence us all throughout our lives.

Why is this important in Coaching? Why understand the dynamics of their families as part of a person’s personal development? With so many ‘here and now’ type interventions available isn’t this just wallowing around in the past?

The simple answer is that the family system in which we grew up has shaped us much more than many people are aware of or choose to believe. The strength of the family bonds is well documented in most modes of psychology and whilst there is much debate about the causes, they are in agreement that what happens to us early, particularly before the age of 5, is critical in our human development.

It is a common mistake to assume that only traumatic upbringings or unpleasant events contribute to later difficulties for people. Most of our clients had pretty normal upbringings, with normal life ups and downs. The difficult childhoods are fairly easy to unpack as the behaviour is extreme and can generally be viewed as unacceptable, the ‘normal’ ones less so because the passive or subtle behaviour has more scope for subjectivity. A mother can be caring or smothering depending on your perspective. The human being also normalises subtle behaviour looking back because they can justify it ‘she was just being caring’, what is often missing is how they actually experienced that behaviour as a child ‘trapped or suffocating’. The link gets broken in the adult’s mind which rationalises the situation but disconnects the person from their experience, which keeps it packed up inside.

The key is to do enough work around the family to bring to conscious awareness the patterns, and relational skills that they learned. The awareness enables letting go and forgiveness to occur and allows the development of strategies to cope better in future to similar triggers or circumstances.  This is not about doing so much that the work becomes a rewrite of history or makes the person feel worse about themselves or others as a result. It’s a fine balance that takes a skilled practitioner.

The Power of the Family System

In talking about the power of the Family System let’s look at the what early family experiences teach people:

  • How to cope
  • How to fit in
  • How to stay safe
  • How to get your needs met
  • How to trust
  • The balance of responsibility

These are primitive learning strategies, stored deep in the reptilian or mammalian brain, so uncovering these is unlikely to happen easily or quickly. They are – if you review the list – the key foundation blocks of most of the later adult life skills and issues. The problem with not addressing them is that because they are so deep, they can hijack all the good cognitive work you do or cause you to develop so many coping strategies to get around them it’s exhausting.

Understanding what was learned in the context of the family system helps someone to work out where the appropriate responsibility lies. A lot of people struggle with holding and maintaining appropriate boundaries with others because boundaries in a family systems are notoriously messy, even in the most healthy family system. Enabling people to unpack this empowers them to design better healthier boundaries going forward. We either tend to take too much responsibility for things and other people – more than our 50% or let other people take too much responsibility for things that we can do or influence – less than our 50%. In families, this means at a basic level we either blame ourselves for everything that went wrong or blame other people.

Virginia Satir was a renowned family therapist and at the heart of her work was the drive to empower individuals in a family system. Virginia looked beyond the over simplistic approach of blaming the parents, and instead looked to understand the whole system, the parents upbringing and patterns of behaviour passed through generations. 

The Satir Categories

In learning Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) we are familiar with the Satir Categories which come directly from Virginia’s work. In families these roles are adopted in relation to each other, so producing the family system.  The categories are:

  • The Blamer – blames others
  • The Placater – takes the blame, keeps the peace, enables the Blamer
  • The Distractor – distracts with humour, erratic behaviour or simply changes the subject
  • The Super Reasonable – tries to show no emotion, applies logic, doesn’t take care of the emotional needs

For example, consider the situation where a mother adopted the Blamer role and blamed the father who adopted Placater to appease her and keep the peace. Then the children come along and need to fit into the dynamic already in existence. The first child could adopt Distracter, being cute and funny to stop Mum getting angry, or model Dad and placate her. They could also model her Blamer behaviour if it appears to get some beneficial outcome. When a second child comes along, they have to adapt to all the existing roles present. In stressful situations, this dynamic becomes fixed and predictable and many people find that there is a pattern going way back in their family tree.

The first step is getting conscious awareness of that which was previously your autopilot. When working with individuals on their family, it’s important to get conscious awareness of which stress roles were adopted in your family and how they played out. This is not about blaming parents, who were doing the best they knew, it’s about getting awareness to decide how to break the pattern.

The Five Freedoms for Health Families by Virginia Satir

  1. The freedom to see and hear what is here, instead of what “should” be, was, or will be.
  2. The freedom to say what you feel and think, instead of what you “should” feel and think.
  3. The freedom to feel what you feel, instead of what you “ought” to feel.
  4. The freedom to ask for what you want, instead of always waiting for permission.
  5. The freedom to take risks on you own behalf, instead of choosing to be only “secure”.

Virginia adopted some useful assumptions in her family work, you will probably notice the alignment with some of our own NLP Presuppositions. Her’s were specific to families and included:

  • Change is possible. Believe it.
  • No task in life is more difficult as the role of parent. Parents do the best they can do given time the resources they “see” available to them at any given time.
  • The major goal in life is to become own choice makers, agents and architects of our life and relationships.
  • The most challenging tasks in life are relational. Simultaneously, relational tasks are the only avenue for growth. All challenges in life are relational.
  • Most people choose familiarity over comfort, especially in times of stress.
  • Appreciating and accepting the past increases our ability to manage present.
  • Coping is the manifestation of our level of self-worth.
  • The higher our self-worth, the more wholesome our coping.

At our session at the NLP Conference on 29th April, we will be delving deeper into Virginia’s approaches, looking also at the work of John Bradshaw on families and exploring some approaches you can use in your work, and for yourself, to elegantly unpack family systems and dissolve the unconscious bonds that hold us back.

No-one has the perfect upbringing. Even the most balanced educated parents couldn’t see inside your head and know how you reacted or what meaning you made of your early experiences. By understanding the dynamics of families you and your clients will become more accepting or yourself and others, create and maintain healthy boundaries with others and build a better relationship with your family – whatever that means for you.