Sunday, October 31, 2010

Family Mythology (instead of individual pathology)

Earlier today, I had a “first appointment” with a patient. Her concerns were in many respects similar to many patients but her family history is the stuff of epic stories.

I think our family histories (and herstories) are largely neglected in the way we view ourselves. In this present day, most view themselves as discrete phenomenological packages that emerged the day we were born and conclude when we die.  We have somehow become blind or conditioned to dismiss the generations that eventuated our existence. We fail to view ourselves as an extension of a lineage of lives and stories. We have been severed from our family tree or what many call their family-mythology.

Our family heritage/mythology influences us in ways that are sometimes very obvious and at times in very subtle ways. Even if the “facts” of our heritage is not clear, the stories (true or not) leave an indelible impression. Patients have told me they know nothing about their family-of-origin history but the non-verbal attitudes of their parents is as strong or stronger than known historical facts. I often have seen this when my patient is Latino. Perhaps their parents were born in the US and they believe they are thoroughly Americanized/modernized – but their parents were raised in homes that had strong traditional values – those values are powerfully transmitted from generation to generation. I have sometimes said to my Latino patients, “Your consciousness may be very American but you blood and bones (the unconscious) are still nurtured by the Soul of Mexico.”

My patient today has a family mythology going back many generations. A grandfather was a famed captain of industry; she said he was a “king” and his spouse, a “queen. The king and queen begat princes and princesses, one of which begat my patient.

When I asked my patient about their spouse’s pedigree s/he was a bit clueless. The spouse’s lineage was unclear due to a father that was mostly absent due to military duty and a mother, enchanted by wanderlust. Imagine the relational dynamics when someone descended from a long aristocracy partners with a mutt. One has well established expectations of high achievement the other has no established familial patterns for a template of personal values and behavior.

Because the contemporary culture has suggested (and most are too willing to suckle from any breast of information) that we are monads, devoid of generational influence, when conflict arises we naturally assume that the problem stems from the so called “individual pathology” of the two parties. It would be very unusual but very reasonable to suspect that the misunderstanding stems from transgenerational differences. If an Irish-Catholic partnered with North African-Muslim, I think most of us would understand that the couple would have predictable misunderstandings. In graduate-school, there are classes in cross-cultural psychology. It would be good to pay more attention to differing family mythologies.

Sometimes, though not very successfully, I ask a patient about their “family-religion”. What I am referring to is their family-mythology. In ways, it is similar to a religion. Normally when people think of a religion, they think of beliefs, commandments and creeds. A person has a family-religion. 

Part of my family-religion (imparted by my father/patriarch) were the commandments:
  • Thou shalt never draw attention to yourself.
  • Thou shalt always wear something on your feet, except when in bed.
  • Thou shalt never be late.
  • Thou shalt always behave in a manner reflecting your station in life.
  • Thou shalt always be polite.
  • At all times, be ready to stand and deliver the answers demanded of thee.
  • Never contradict thy father.

Imagine some of the misunderstandings that would develop if I partnered with someone whose family religion encouraged one to be bare-foot and where time commitments were “negotiable”. If both parties are fundamentalists with their family-religion it can lead to real acrimony.

It may be asked, “What is the solution?”

My answer is to develop an attitude of appreciative inquiry; think of yourself as a comparative mythologist.

Vive la différence

1 comment:

  1. And yet we live in a "zeitgeist" in which people concretize their mythologies into hard reality and expect others to subscribe to the same belieformation. Indeed if only we were taught at a very young age to keep everything "open ended," where inquisitiveness is a high value instead of the hand-me-down indoctrination which holds so many minds entrenched in intractable dogma.


As always, your comments are helpful.