Surviving Family Expectations and Pressures

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Sally Baker

Sally Baker Therapist at NLP meeting

Surviving Family Pressure

A while ago I was invited to give a talk at a  'To Infinity and Beyond' meeting in the City of London organised by leading NLP(Neuro-Linguistic Program) trainers Andy Coley and Jo Wilson of Beyond NLP.

I spoke about my therapeutic approach when working with clients dealing with the pressure of family expectations and I explained how I work with them to discover the source of their own negative inner voice so that they can ultimately set themselves free of their limiting beliefs and negative self-judgments. I also demonstrate with a child's music box how childhood triggers can get played out in your adult relationships and repeated in the family structure that some adults create for themselves.

Surviving Family Expectations and Pressures

Our own family background is a popular shortcut in how we define ourselves. When introduced to a new person we might begin with our profession and talk for a while about what we do but if a more nuanced insight seems appropriate the conversation might well turn to sharing stories about one’s family background. And what we say or don’t say can be used to show how far we have come in our own lives, or to highlight how loyal we still are to our roots. Even the absence of a family of one’s own can be a major part of one’s personal story.

We all know that family plays a big part in the creation of our own personal, emotional, intellectual, and social development. It is within our family that we are first exposed to the important influences of our life, the ones that often became the defining aspects of our personality, our emotions, our dreams, our fears.

In essence our identity - the aspects of ourselves that we share widely and the aspects of ourselves that only a few close friends or family know about. For me personally, my family background makes me think about all the things I am versus all the things I’m not. One way to illustrate this is with my name:  Sally Baker

I was born Sally Baker to a father named either Harry Baker or a father called Henry Jackson who was himself born either in 1912 or 1914. The same man who just happened to have two names and two dates of birth on two different birth certificates. It turns out that for the working class of the Edwardian period of over one hundred years ago that confusing situation was not that unusual.

So although in theory there was a 50:50 chance of me being called Sally Jackson I grew up obliviously to that as Sally Baker. In the Baker, family ambition was not encouraged. My mum took books away from me as I was growing up saying I spent too much time reading and that nothing good ever happens to girls who know too much. Hey who knew!

I recall my father often saying to the teenage me that what would really make him proud of me is if I trained and qualified as a nurse. Note not a doctor. That would have been unthinkable. He had me pegged to be a nurse and that was that. But it was his lack of stretch, the lack of aspiration from him though that really hurt me. The fact he didn’t aspire for me to be a doctor felt to me that there was something lacking or unworthy about me.

So in my case parental ambition to succeed at all costs wasn’t my pressure. For me, I felt the inverse pressure of a lack of expectation that my parents vested in me. We all get it that difficult things happen while we’re growing up and sometimes really bad things happen. Caring or careless parenting does not ultimately protect us from negative experiences out in the big wide world. What makes the difference is the story we tell ourselves about those tough, challenging events we all have to deal with. It is the judgements about ourselves that we make that stay with us and that script is often laid down insidiously at the heart of the family when we are young and unformed and powerless.  Within the powerful dynamic of the family, we pick up the subtle and sometimes not so subtle expressions of expectation about who we are supposed to be and our place in the world.

Everyone is shaped and moulded by their experience of growing up in their own particular family and individual personality are shaped by the strategies developed over-time to cope with their own unique set of familial pressures and expectations. It is inevitable that we bring the negative and the positive with us. The story, the judgements we formulated ourselves back when we were growing up are often brought into strong relief in how we deal with the expectations and pressures within the dynamic of our own adult relationships. This can be heightened when it is a common trait that people choose partners who reflect aspects of their original family structure. Expectations experienced while growing up can feel like negative judgements when we hear them from our partners and the opinions of the family you have made can just feel like more added pressure.

One way to explore those old influences is to listen to your inner voice. If on hearing about your inner voice your response is, ‘What inner voice - I don’t have one’, then that is your inner voice. Your inner voice runs a continuous internal dialogue commenting on everything you do and often makes judgments on how well you do it too. For many people, their inner voice is rarely a source of uplifting encouragement. It is more likely to be an unremitting flow of self-criticism and negative self-judgments. Tuning in, and clearly hearing your inner voice is the crucial first step to silencing the draining, and the dispiriting stream of negativity that can happen continuously, just below conscious awareness like a toxic dripping tap.

I encourage my clients to spend a little quiet time, just a few moments, every day for about a week to tune-in to their inner voice. Simply listen and note down the negative statements noting perhaps use of language, idiom, slang or accent. Begin to get a sense of where the negative voice originated - does it remind you of your foster carers voice, the voice of your mother or father or the kind of things said to you by a grandparent or even a teacher. 

The first step towards turning off your negative voice is to gain a greater awareness of your own unique brand of negative self-talk. Train yourself to be more attuned to your inner voice and instead of it allowing it a free pass to your sub-conscious start tripping it up by whenever an old negative thought pops into your head firstly acknowledge that its there.  Just by being aware of it,  by just clocking it starts to diminish the internal negative voice’s power to limit you and then in your mind dismiss it for just what it is -  a Bull-shit thought. Your aim is to turn the doubting, carping inner voice around to being on your team, supporting you and you can do this easily in just a couple of weeks of mindful awareness. An entrenched negative voice backed up with conclusions you’ve made about yourself - the harsh negative judgements that never seem to go away might well require some further leverage and you may need to find yourself a therapist to work with.

There is another way of exploring the pressure of expectations from our family and that is to recognise the triggers from your past so that they no longer bother you today. Triggers are painful reminders that we have formulated to tell ourselves something negative about ourselves.

I’ll give you an example:

I worked with a very successful professional gambler in in the USA via Skype. He had studied gambling and how to reduce risk and he made a good living from it. He found though that he had a ceiling on the amount he could win during any given session. It was enough of a pattern for him that he learnt to bail before he got to that point but he was frustrated as he wanted to go to the next level but felt something changed in himself and his confidence in his own abilities when he reached a certain amount. 

We worked to find out what was being triggered and through the sessions we had he remembered a time from his childhood and it felt to him that it was the key event that was still triggering him today.

He told me his parents divorced when he was still a kid and that his dad wasn’t always that reliable about turning up for visits. He remembered being stressed and anxious as to whether his dad would show up or not as he had promised. Also, the visits were pretty tense and my client, I’ll call him C (although that’s not his real initial) felt under a lot of pressure to be the perfect son to try and hold his father’s attention. On one visit father and son were playing catch with a baseball and catcher’s mitt in the yard. He could tell his dad was pretty half-hearted and bored but at least he was there which meant a lot to him. After a few pitches and catches, C missed a catch and his dad turned his back on his boy in disgust and said ‘ You’re crap - you always drop the ball!.’ C in that instant made a negative judgment about himself and not one about his deadbeat dad. He internalised the judgment that he will always drop the ball and never come good. That, in essence, had become my client’s story that could get triggered by all sorts of events in his life but most noticeably when he was winning.

I use the analogy of a music box. Many women will have had one as a child themselves. They’re a cute thing. They only play one tune and the little ballet dancer inside only does one dance.

She get’s wound up when the key gets turned…..just like C he gets triggered and then he’s straight back into his old story with his old negative judgments about himself - whatever they might be   ‘I always drop the ball’ or ‘I’m never going to be good enough’ or ‘I don’t deserve this good stuff in my life’. People rarely if ever get triggered by the judgements they made about themselves in their childhood to remind them how awesome they are. Gaining an awareness of what gets triggered enables you to interrupt the knee-jerk response and stay connected to your own innate power and intuition.

Just like the negative voice, triggers need to be gently explored and unravelled so that they can be released and resolved for good.  And again overwhelming triggers might require some therapeutic intervention to really see them on their way. The first steps though is to take some time to gentle explore some of that old stuff so you can take back control of how you think and feel about yourself and be on your own team instead of undermining or self-sabotaging yourself time and time again. The desired outcome is improved clarity and insight, improved access to one’s own intuition so that it becomes easier and easier to respond authentically and calmly to family pressures and expectations instead of knee-jerk responses driven by unresolved issues from the past.

Want to make contact?  If you are struggling with pressure from your family or still feel the influence of harsh criticism as you were growing up or perhaps you were raised in a turbulent, angry household that has left you on high-alert then do make contact. You can book an obligation free call with the button at the top of this page.