One of my best friends was back in her home state for a family event the other week. Because she and I text nearly every day, I dropped her a quick line:
Me: Thinking of you. Hope you’re having a good time down there!
Her: It’s pretty brutal so far, not gonna lie. But I’ll survive! Also…. Why did I think I’d have the bandwidth to work while I was here? 🤨
Me: Because almost all of us from dysfunctional FOO’s overestimate our capacities when we’re apart from them and forget how draining and taxing it *actually* is to be around them…
Her: Omg. You’re so brilliant. This should be the subject of your next email. Things to remember as you’re preparing to see your family for the first time post-COVID.
And so here we are.
Now, to be clear, while my best friend called me brilliant, I think she’s actually one of the smartest women I know.
And yet, even with all her brilliance, she – like so many of us – was still prone to what I call the “FOO amnesia” (family-of-origin amnesia) that tends to happen when we travel “home” to see them after long periods of time.
If you relate even a little bit to this experience – overestimating your abilities and capacities when you see your family-of-origin – scroll down to learn how to take care of yourself if a visit with them is in the cards anytime soon.
Family-of-origin amnesia is not, in any way shape, or form, a real clinical term.
It’s my own somewhat cheeky phrase that I’ve used over the years to describe my experience and that of my clients and friends when we fall into any of the following mental and emotional sandtraps:
- “I’m sure I’ll be fine and perfectly capable of doing everything I’d normally do in my normal, everyday life when I visit my family over the holidays.”
- “I’m sure this time will be different.”
- “I’ve done so much work in therapy this past year; I doubt I’ll get as triggered as I have in the past.”
- “They’ve tried to be nice-ish lately. Maybe I should change my habits and actually stay at their house this time, it’d help me save money.”
- “It’s been almost two years since I’ve seen them. COVID has changed us all. I’m sure things will be fine this time!”
You get my drift.
Family-of-origin amnesia is anything that overestimates our mental, emotional, and physical capacities and anything also that takes on an air of magical (unrealistic) thinking about ourselves and them based on limited, false, or non-existent data points.
Please hear me out: No matter how “smart” you are, no matter how much therapy you’ve done, it’s normal and natural to have family-of-origin amnesia.
On the one hand, it signals hopefulness and optimism that we would assume so much of ourselves and them.
After all, it’s human nature to crave strong, close connections to the people who raised us.
But on the other hand, common though this experience may be, despite its hopeful origins, family-of-origin amnesia can certainly backfire if we find ourselves knee-deep in a visit, triggered into feeling like our old thirteen-year-old self without the necessary tools and support we need to steady us.
So if you’re personally prone to family-of-origin amnesia, if you, like so many of us, will be seeing your FOO as COVID lifts and the world assumes a semblance of normalcy again and long-delayed visits get put on the calendar, here are a few of my top tips to combat the FOO amnesia and to take good, supportive care of yourself while you see them:
Five Tips To Take Care Of Yourself While Visiting Your Family-Of-Origin:
All of my tips stem from one central idea: When visiting your family-of-origin, assume you’ll be triggered and plan accordingly.
Planning accordingly may look like:
1. Spend any disposable income on staying somewhere else and getting a rental car. The last thing you want to feel when family dynamics trigger you back into your thirteen-year-old emotional state is to not have options to leave and take care of yourself. You probably didn’t have a few hundred dollars to drop on a hotel room when you were a teen, but you might now. Forgo the streaming services and takeout for a month or two if you need to save up. Feeling like you have options and escape routes is priceless and that’s what staying somewhere else – anywhere else – and having your own means of transportation so that you don’t rely on your FOO can mean: freedom and options.
2. Set firm boundaries on how long and in what context you can spend time. In the spirit of assuming you’ll have a hard time, plan limited and somewhat supportive amounts and kinds of contact versus leaving things open-ended. For instance, maybe you’d feel okay grabbing breakfast with your family for two hours at a diner downtown in public rather than committing to spending a whole, unstructured day at their isolated home in the suburbs. Check in with yourself about what kind and amount of contact with them feel doable for you and then make requests and set some boundaries around it.
3. Clear your schedule of commitments but line up a plethora of possible supportive, non-committal choices. In my friend’s case, she kept people-facing appointments on her calendar for her visit home. What’s tricky about this is that work, particularly when we have to interface with others and appear regulated or even hold space for them, can feel triply challenging when you’re feeling taxed and drained from contact with your FOO. Instead, and if possible, try to reduce anything you have to commit to that require you to be a certain way – work, dinner reservations, group plans with tickets – and instead pre-create a list of non-committal options that you can pick and choose from when and if you need or want to, depending on how your capacities feel. This might mean curating a little list of walks, hikes, local sites, good restaurants that don’t require reservations, a stack of movies to stream on your phone. Things that you can pick and choose from without the pressure of having to show up and show up in a certain way.
4. Get your emotional supports on standby. In the spirit of underestimating your capacities, make sure you have some great emotional supports on standby during your visit home: keep your session with your therapist (I personally love doing sessions with my clients while they’re seeing their family-of-origin, sometimes our best work comes out of those trips!), let your BFF’s know in advance that you’re “heading home” and ask them to check in on you by group text daily, have the schedule and URL links and phone numbers to some 12-step meetings preloaded into your phone, etc. An excess of emotional support won’t hurt you, but an absence of it may be hard felt.
5. Build practices/things into the trip that make you feel like you. Finally, consider building in the practices, routines, and behaviors that make you feel like you – the adult, empowered, functional you, not angry, resentful, collapsed thirteen-year-old you – when visiting your family of origin. What makes you feel like you? A strength workout on the Peloton app? Reading professional development books and articles? Looking at photos of you and your friends on your phone? Whatever makes you feel like your grounded, best adult self, weave that into your daily plans.
Again, the entire idea behind these five tips is a core tenant: when traveling “home” to see your family-of-origin, don’t overestimate your abilities, underestimate them.
And then, if you don’t get triggered if it’s easier and better than you thought, great!
But, for now, to take the best possible care of yourself as an adult, err on the side of overpreparing your supports and underestimating your capacities if you, like so many of us, will be seeing your FOO again after this long COVID experience.
What’s one tip or trick or practice or behavior you employ to take care of yourself when traveling “home” to see your family of origin?
Leave your wisdom in the comments below so our monthly readership of 20,000+ individuals can benefit from your experience.
And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.