It is a cliché in a session when the therapist asks, "Tell me about your parents." In educating new therapists (which I have the privilege to do for the University of Michigan and Wayne State University) I encourage them to avoid this kind of a statement. I encourage them not to say anything that sounds too much like it might come from a New Yorker cartoon. So the phrases, "How does that make you feel?" is out. And so is "tell me about your mother."
That said, the reason for avoiding the cliché is so that the therapist doesn't come off looking too much like a stereotype to the client, not because it isn't a good question. In fact, it is an excellent question—one of the most important parts of a good psychotherapy is coming to terms with one's family of origin. ("Family of origin" being the clinical way of saying "your folks.")
These days, many clinicians are trained in behavioral methods that minimize the relevance that the client's family has on the the client herself. I was in these methods, and practice them often. "We don't look at the past," I was instructed by well-meaning professors and others. "We stay in the here-and-now. We look at what is going on for the client in the now, and then we work with them to make the changes they want to make."
That sounds wonderful. And frequently, it works—in that it reduces some symptoms that often cause people to feel unhappy. And for people who are seeking symptomatic relief, this is a perfect fit, and where they stop psychotherapy. Success.
But the trouble is that some people want more out of therapy. Some people want inquiry and insight. They don't just want to have a specific symptom reduced; they want to get better. And, contrary to what the behavioralists may tell us, our families are a part of our here-and-now. The parts of my parents that I carry around in me won't be silent just because a therapist wants to focus on some new intervention or technique. Those voices and those memories are loud and clear in my head, even if I am no longer encouraged to share them.
Our culture has prepared a fertile ground for this kind of forgetting of our past. We are reminded of Miss America that we can be anything we want. We are encouraged to get the latest and greatest technological gadget every time a new one comes out. We view adults who live at home as having "failed to launch." Everywhere we look for the quick fix, and for the easy way out. Teach me to be a millionaire in a year, or how to work a "4-hour-week." Quick fixes are in; long processes of hard work are out. It is not hard to see why psychotherapists are encouraged to provide a 12-week cure.
Let me digress for a minute, and in doing so I am going to say something cliché: As I get older, I begin to appreciate the wisdom of my grandmother. And while I appreciate both of my grandmothers, I'm thinking here of my father's mother. She was a quiet, humble, and devoutly Christian woman who lived in a very small rural town in the northern part of Michigan's lower peninsula. One of the things that I remember her talking about is the families of the folks who lived in and around her town. "Blood will out," she would say, as well as "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
It's interesting to me that the sciences of mental health are beginning to come back to some of these old-fashioned ways of thinking. If you want to be happier, they tell us, make a list of everything you are grateful for. If you want to feel good about yourself, tend to your close relationships. If you want to have a positive emotional experience, focus on forgiving yourself and others. How fascinating that, as we go forward in psychology, we seem to go backwards in values: Count your blessings. Be kind to other people. Forgive. Don't be a stranger. These days, a convention of mental health professionals can sound a lot like a small-town quilting bee-—and for a good reason: These particular techniques are the tried and true strategies that kept people sane, kept them close together, and helped our ancestors survive.
And so I wonder how long will it be before we come around to "who are your people?" I suspect that this will be presented as a revelation in mental health science--that your family matters in who you are in the world. I cannot help but believe that there is value in knowing where we come from. And so I think there is a place in good psychotherapy for understanding one's family, because by knowing who our people are, we know who we are.
Our legacy, our inheritance, is not a punishment or a curse. It is nothing less than the sum total of the forces that brought us into existence, and that shaped us into who and what we are. The stories of triumph and anguish, the world-view of our families, the attitudes and beliefs about the world that we learned from our parents... As humans, we are a combination of all of this added to our own authentic selves. There is tremendous power in looking that legacy in the eye, and consciously choosing to engage it. And I think that is valuable work worth doing.