The impact of family on health and illness and vice versa has long been an interest of mine.  I was reminded of the depth of this impact when working with a client last year. He has kindly given me permission to use one of our sessions as a case study to share what the impact can be like and what can help.

You are aware of the impact of family on health and illness given you have most likely lived through or are living with a serious health issue, whether yours or a loved one. There’s a practical, emotional, social, and financial impact, and the impact on family relationships. And all this can have a physical impact on you.

The impact of family on health and illness or injury can be wide and varied and I can write a lot about it. But in this blog I am focusing on how what we learn in our family of origin and how the family functions can impact our health.

Picture of a family having dinner together around a table, a mother, father, two daughters and son. The father is saying the eldest daughter is ready to return to university as they don't want her to get too far behind. The mother is saying it is too early as Lisa's chronic fatigue has only just started to improve a little. The younger daughter is thinking, "Uh oh. Mum is frustrated with Dad." The son is thinking how he wishes for sausages for dinner rather than all the vegetables they are eating. Lisa is thinking that she wishes her Dad would listen to her Mum. This demonstrates the impact of family on health and illness.

Anthony’s dilemma

The client, Anthony (not his real name), talked about his health issues. He had a badly broken leg which was still healing, back issues, and was ‘living on borrowed energy’. He also had a variety of projects in his professional life on the go and was wondering if he should put some on hold or even stop focusing on them so he could look after himself more.

Anthony spoke of his back pain and feeling something in his back pushing him forward, but also something pulling him back. He said he felt these sensations his whole life. He wanted to do something about it.

Anthony said, ‘I can be better, and get more work, but I can’t fulfil my existing commitments. I run around and do things. What is it in me that does this? But I do manage to take care of myself.’

I noticed Anthony described the pushing and pulling as not being done by him and that he had been experiencing it his whole life. To identify if Anthony felt that he had any role in this pushing and pulling, an ownership of sorts for it, I asked him, ‘Who or what is doing the pushing and pulling?’

The impact of family on health and illness

Anthony started to talk about his father and uncle. They were the authority figures in his family. He felt he needed to live up to their expectations throughout his life. Anthony described himself as a ‘people pleaser’. He described their expectations as the pushing forward feeling in his back. He said it felt like a burden. Anthony felt the pushing forward sensation where the pain was in his back.

How might the dynamics in your #family relationships be affecting your #health and #wellness? Click To Tweet

Anthony described the opposite feeling of being pulled/pushed back – the feeling of a cool breeze which balanced his energy, feeling more content and that he could let go. But he also said, ‘If I go too far, you (meaning himself) feel guilty and bad.’ (He leaned back as he said this.) He paraphrased what he told himself at these times, ‘Too weak. Don’t have a spine. Have to show up and be present.”

He talked of himself being in the middle of the pushing forward and pushing/pulling back sensations, not being able to please himself at a deeper level and not letting go.

A picture of a young man feeling caught between his father's expectations of him and his dreams and desired future. He feels the family expectations hitting his back and he is actually experiencing back pain. This demonstrates the impact of family on health and illness.

The implications of this impact of family on health and illness

As in Anthony’s case, sometimes family dynamics can have a negative impact on our health. He was being caught between family expectations and wanting to do something different, between pleasing his family and pleasing himself.

Sometimes the issues and conflicts in our #family can impact us so much our #health suffers. Read more about that here. Click To Tweet

This is a classic conflict – On the one hand, we want to belong to our family and be loyal to it even if the strategies we are using to do that are outdated. In Anthony’s case, he used the strategy of people pleasing to do this and continued to even though his father and uncle have died. On the other hand, we also want to be free of our family and be our own person.

Sometimes we end up seeing this belonging vs autonomy dynamic as an either-or choice – we can either remain loyal to the typical family dynamic or risk alienation. That pull to belonging can be very strong. But there can be a negative impact on our health in doing that which is also very strong. And after a time, you can no longer ignore the impact on your health. So what do you do?

Acknowledge how your parents’ history contributes to your history

We talked a little about the history of his family that would have contributed to his father’s behaviour towards his wife and children. The father had lived through some very traumatic experiences in his own life. His first wife died in childbirth leaving a premature son (who lived).

The father followed family expectations to serve in the military, and during World War II fought through an intense battle where most of his comrades, who were also friends, died. He survived and lay with his dead comrades for 24-48 hours until he was rescued. As a consequence he suffered from PTSD and turned to alcohol to cope. He remarried and had several more children. He also fought with his second wife a lot.

All of the father’s experiences including the traumatic ones would have impacted how he related to himself, his wife and others, including how he parented his children. The impact of the traumas the parents experienced then filter down to the next generation.

#trauma can impact our #health physically and mentally. But the traumatic experiences of your parents can also impact your generation. Read how here. Tell a Friend

Anthony was the youngest in his family and talked about the role he played in being the messenger between his mother and father. He also talked about how people pleasing was one way to deal with his father’s behaviour and to try and make things ok within the family. Trying to make things ok within a family is a lot for a child to try and do.

Not only was Anthony caught between meeting family expectations and his own expectations, between pleasing his family and pleasing himself, he was also caught in the middle of his parent’s relationship.

Transforming the negative impact of family on health and illness

With Anthony I had him set up a visual map of his family. He used pieces of paper to represent his father, his mother, his father’s first wife who died in childbirth, his uncle and himself. We looked at the relationships between these family members.

I then had Anthony step into the shoes (so to speak) of these family members to gain greater insight into what their lives must have been like, and how they may have felt about that plus their relationships to the other family members.

During the exercise we also said a few sentences to the various family members to acknowledge everyone’s situation and the role they played in the family issue we were discussing.

A picture of small wooden dolls representing various family members. The family constellation methodology can help you look at the impact of family on health and illness and gain new perspectives.
Setting up a visual map or constellation of family members to gain new perspectives on an issue.

A key thing when saying these sentences is not blaming or judging anyone for what they did. Even if their actions were wrong. The sentences acknowledge what happened and what you will do going forwards. This brings ease to your feelings and restores a sense of movement to your situation. But if blame and judgement remain in the content of the sentences you say or how you say them, then the conflict remains. That doesn’t help you to move beyond the issue.

To support the client to generate these sentences, a common question I ask is, ‘If that family member(s) were standing before you now, what would you want to say to them with no blame or judgement?’

Picture of the Return to Wellness lily with the following words superimposed on it: If your family were standing before you now, what would you want to say to them with no blame or judgement? Just to acknowledge how things were, are now and how you want them to be? This is a key aspect of the family constellation methodology which can help you evaluate the impact of family on health and illness or injury.

Reframing and changing the impact of family dynamics on your health

For Anthony, the exercise brought a sense of calmness. He mentioned the pain had lessened in his back. His said his spine was straighter, he felt relaxed and quiet within himself. He was questioning whether he needed to continue with certain professional projects. He talked of ‘being welcoming and content with whatever we learn and how I am living.’

This work is called family constellations. It highlights the hidden dynamics within a family which can impact our emotional, mental and/or physical health. Revealing these dynamics and acknowledging everyone’s role, issues and needs, gives you greater understanding into what happened. (And not all family members need to be present or even alive.)

This wider perspective and awareness in turn gives you greater choice of strategies to deal with your family and manage your health going forwards. It also restores a sense of balance within you. Your internal foundations of your sense of self and where you belong in this world feel more aligned and strengthened. You have a new kind of energy which restores a sense of movement.

An image of seven generations of a family. It resembles a peacock. You are in the bottom middle. Connected to you and situated above you are your mother and father. Branching out from them are their mother and father and so on back seven generations. This picture is courtesy of The Centre for Systemic Constellations.
This picture is courtesy of The Centre for Systemic Constellations. B Babcock added the annotations.

What’s it like for you?

Which dynamics in your family have or are negatively impacting your health? What contributes to those dynamics happening? What would you like to do about them? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below or alternatively email them to me (contact form in sidebar).  

If you are affected by a serious health issue and would like support to explore family relationships to improve communication and connection, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2019

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