ERP 431: How Our Intergenerational Connections Inform Our Ability To Set Limits & Boundaries With Others — An Interview With Johanna Lynn

By Posted in - Podcast July 2nd, 2024 0 Comments

Setting limits and boundaries with others is a fundamental aspect of healthy interpersonal dynamics. Yet, many people struggle with asserting themselves due to ingrained patterns from childhood or societal expectations that prioritize giving over self-care. This difficulty often leads to overcommitment, resentment, and a pervasive sense of being taken advantage of, all of which can strain relationships and undermine personal well-being.

In this episode, you’ll discover actionable strategies to set and uphold boundaries in your relationships. Learn how to prioritize self-care without guilt, assert your needs effectively, and cultivate healthier dynamics with others. Gain insights from real-life scenarios and expert guidance to navigate interpersonal challenges with confidence and maintain your well-being.

Johanna has been connected to the world of separation and divorce for decades, originally due to her personal situation, then as a systemic therapist focusing on restoring relationships for the past 12 years. Johanna is the founder of The Family Imprint Institute with an international private practice.

In this episode

05:14 Johanna’s personal experience to professional expertise.

7:24 The intergenerational influence on boundaries.

15:54 The profound impact of unresolved family trauma on present behaviors.

23:54 Recognizing poor boundaries and their impacts.

27:58 Recognizing and addressing overgiving.

44:09 Healing past patterns for healthier relationships.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Reflect on your family history and identify patterns that may influence your current relationship behaviors.
  • Practice introspection to recognize and address unconscious behaviors learned from your family of origin.
  • Pay attention to your body’s cues and recognize signs of depletion or imbalance in your relationships.
  • Prioritize setting healthy boundaries to avoid overgiving and emotional burnout.
  • Engage in self-reflection to understand how past traumas might shape your present relationship dynamics.
  • Balance giving and receiving in relationships to maintain equity and avoid feelings of emotional indebtedness.
  • Consider mapping out your family tree to visualize intergenerational influences and their impact on your behavior.
  • Practice responding differently to familiar situations by staying rooted in yourself and acting with intention.

Mentioned

It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

ERP 386: How to Identify & Shift Unconscious Patterns in Relationship – An Interview with Johanna Lynn

Connect with Johanna Lynn

Websites: johannalynn.ca

Facebook: facebook.com/groups/1470185283292404

YouTube: youtube.com/@TheFamilyImprint

Instagram: instagram.com/thefamilyimprint_institute

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/johannalynn

Pinterest: pinterest.ca/family_imprint

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Johanna, thank you for joining us.

Great to be here with you, Jessica. 

Yes. You were on previously, and we talked about the intergenerational lineage and the impact on one’s experience, particularly as it relates to relationships. So I’ll make sure to have that link on today’s show notes. 

Would you like to share, for people who are just getting to know you, where you’re coming from? As we orient to the topic of boundaries, where would you like to start just as far as how this is important to you and how you got interested in it? 

Yeah. So I’m the founder of the Family Imprint Institute, and the name kind of gives away my perspective. We are really imprinted by our family of origin, and I think much more than people realize. It’s not until we hit a bump in the road in our life, whether that’s in our marriage, or with our parenting, or professionally, do we start to sort of realize: Ah, doing that thing again, and where does that pattern or that way of relating come from? We usually don’t have to look too far back in our timeline and in our history, to really determine: Ooh, I’m doing that people-pleasing thing that I saw my mom do, or I’m avoiding conflict the way I saw my dad do it, or I’m playing something out this way my sibling and I get stuck in stonewalling or withdrawing. So who we are in our family is who we end up bringing to work, how we show up in our marriage. So I like to shine light on that historical part of ourselves that ends up invisibly running the show, and until we shine light there, we’re just doing things by default. 

Yes. I have a question around that, and I also just want to acknowledge what you’re describing is a bigger network. I think particularly, I’ll speak from the American perspective as an American person, that there tends to be this independent reference of I am my own making, and perhaps don’t emphasize as much as the network, the lineage, and the intergenerational impact. Am I hearing that right, that that’s very much what you’re helping people recognize?

Definitely, and I can really relate to what you’re saying. We moved from Canada—I grew up there, lived my whole life there—two years ago to Mexico, and Latin cultures really seem to embrace this work. They’ve heard about it. They know about it. This work is out 50 years old, and when I would mention it to my U. S. friends or my Canadian neighbors and friends, they say: What? What are you talking about? What is this? Whereas here in Mexico, they know all about it, it’s like the first reach-out if they run into a problem in their lives. So it is an interesting difference culturally as well.

Right. It’s part of the fabric, if you will, or part of the collective consciousness, that it’s not that different than one would see themselves. That it’s like, I’m in a family, I’m in a network, I’m in a community, and the interconnectedness of that and the impact of that. Even as we’re going to look at an individual, likely, and the impact of the bigger system of family, you’ve referenced the modeling or being in a position to witness parents showing certain dynamics, as you were just describing. Do you believe it’s both genetic, both nature and nurture? 

I think there’s a big part of that. But to be honest, because I’ve been in this work for so long, whether I’ve worked with someone who’s adopted or estranged from their family, or I don’t know, was raised by their grandparents, there’s very interesting pieces about this imprint. So that really leans on the science of epigenetics. So as I mentioned, this work has been around a little over 50 years. Epigenetics has been on the scene for maybe 15 years, and it’s really shown through science that in fact, we are imprinted at the level of the DNA. Traumas, unresolved emotions, kind of stuck points and hurts that our grandparents had, that our parents lived through, we’ve got it. 

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“If we use a computer analogy, it’s like, we don’t arrive with a clean hard drive. We share that operating system with our parents and our grandparents.”

So we might think, as the individual: Oh, this is just me, this is just how my relationships go. But actually, it’s informed by a much deeper place, and if we follow that thread, we can find resolution so much faster to what we might be struggling with today.

Thank you for acknowledging that. Because so often, and myself heavily, we look at those early learnings in childhood or early upbringing, those attachment systems of how we are bonding. I do believe that’s very significant for one’s development. And also, I would also agree, the epigenetics, the trauma, the imprint that you’re describing genetically, also lives in us. I don’t know that that gets as much acknowledgement, particularly you’re saying I think when someone hasn’t grown up with their birth parent(s), and then later learn, it’s so illuminating. Like wow, there’s some similar threads here despite not ever really living with them, that I actually replicate or am impacted by.

Yeah, it’s living life like a parent. It can be kind of eerie, actually. I think you nailed something so important that I almost think it’s at that crossroads in a way, we’ve got to take both into consideration, that epigenetic imprinting, but also that attachment sciences. I would say, the first five years of our life, it sets up what one body of work I studied called a primary scenario. It’s sort of this imprint of our early life, and then it just keeps replicating. They don’t listen to me, or I’m always criticized. And here we find ourselves in our 40s and 50s, and: Oh, that’s still what I’m feeling, that’s still what I’m experiencing. So until we go back to that early lifetime, we can be stuck and recreating those same painful places.

Yes, the perception, the interpretation, that we will likely see through that lens of early learning, and also family genetics and impact of the lineage. Is that right? 

Yeah, it’s almost the two lenses we see through.

Okay, well, thank you for just giving us some scope here. Is there anything you want to share personally, just around how this became important to you?

Oh yeah, it’s quite the story. As one does, you get the newsletter, you’re reading through. It was a very small, little description, from who ended up becoming my most influential teacher. He happened to be traveling to Montreal, and at the time, it was only a couple hours away. I was working at a busy Integrative Health Clinic at the time with my clinical hypnotherapy practice. So I thought, wow, this will really add to what I’m doing with my work. It was one of those life-changing moments where it just totally changed my trajectory and the way I saw supporting people, really bringing in this whole intergenerational piece. So it was years of study, and just really changing my direction and how I understand people, where we get stuck, and how to heal. Personally, I was recovering from a very painful divorce, and it helped me to really make sense of myself.

Do you want to name your mentor?

Absolutely. So his name is Mark Wolynn, and he wrote a bestselling book called It Didn’t Start with You. Highly recommended, it’s a good read.

Oh my gosh, I remember mentioning it without even knowing that that’s who you had studied with. I find that book to be an incredibly powerful resource, I would also recommend it. 

All right. So how do we look at boundaries? Like, where would you like to introduce the topic of boundaries in the frame of what we’re talking about, a systems perspective, the intergenerational family lineage here?

I picked up a bunch of different boundary books, in hopes that it would be something I could share with my clients, kind of an in-between session support. I was sadly disappointed with a lot of them. It was very surface and “just say no” kind of stuff. I mean, if it was that easy, we wouldn’t be picking up a book or struggling with it at all. Then it really got me thinking that a lot of the time, we’re not looking at these situations systemically, and we maybe don’t understand how setting boundaries is so difficult for me. Like, what did I come from in my family that has that feeling so difficult to be able to do? So if I grew up taking care of a sad mom or an addicted father, my whole default is to notice what the other needs in the child version, so that I can be okay. I’m going to kind of hoist up mom so that she’s okay, in hopes that I’ll get what I need. 

So our whole nervous system grows and develops to look outside of ourselves first, and it can be so disorientating to actually choose: Well, wait a minute, before I promise to help that friend move, am I on the last parts of energy and I don’t have anything left to give? Instead of just, it’s easier to say no, it’s easier not to risk disappointing someone close to me. Then we’ve got these really vague and thin boundaries, and we end up letting ourselves down over and over again.

Well, you mentioned your earlier work, and that was hypnotherapy. Do you believe a lot of this operates on an unconscious level? 

100%, they’re very much invisible themes. It’s almost like, what’s that knee-jerk response? When someone asks me, I say whatever that pre-programmed thing we feel we need to say to be a good friend or to keep the relationship good. We don’t maybe take a moment to just say: You know what, let me think on that, let me get back to you later today. Just to check in with our body first. Can I really help that friend move? Do I really want to accept this invitation, even to fun things? Because sometimes when we give our body time to reflect, the body says: No, let’s just watch a movie, let’s just read a book, let’s go to bed early. That’s really what the body wants, instead of fulfilling what the other person might be wanting from us.

As you’re giving an example, I would even bargain or say for myself that setting limits and boundaries, or pausing to check in with self before just responding to a friend or co-worker or someone in my community, that that is less difficult than a significant other. In my own journey, I will say a lot of these patterns have been expressed in my romantic relationship.

I talk often on the show about using the material that exists in the dynamics of relationship as opportunities for growth, and seeing it as curriculum for developing. It never really looked like that for me in the beginning stages. I was always like, why is my partner behaving like X, Y, and Z, the ways in which we would move together? Then when I would really look at what was in it for me, and the deeper layers that I wasn’t aware o and wasn’t conscious of, it was a direct tie to my early learnings. Even as I’m saying this, Johanna, I’m like: Oh yeah, and the epigenetics.

Can I share a story? So some people know this story, not the full version of what I’m going to share here, and it’s not even a full version, but the greater version as it relates to our topic. I had a really significant relationship prior to my husband, and my husband and I have been together 18 years. But I thought this person, we were going to get married. But we were running into all this conflict, and I found him to be very critical, and I was defensive, and we’d just go on and on and on in these loops. Well, through the process of us ending the relationship and my grieving process, I recognized I had had a fear of abandonment, and just recognized the loss that I don’t know that I had really fully gotten in touch with on a somatic level. I lost my biological father when I was three months old, and there were several losses. So that’s the nurture, that’s what I observed and experienced. But then in my PhD program, I’m assuming you’re familiar with the family constellation work. But do you want to describe it for people really quickly? 

Yeah, it’s a profound approach, in that it keeps us out of the mind. It’s experiential. We can step into an experience and have someone we don’t even know hold a representation for, let’s say the ex-husband, our mother or father or sibling, even a sibling who let’s say died before we were born. Dead or alive, it really doesn’t matter. So that inner image that we’ve held of the relationship or the person, we get to see it, here out in front of us, and have a different relationship with how we carry it. It’s remarkable, impactful. Often people tell me, one session of that is like years’ worth of therapy. It’s just such a deep dive.

Yeah, I felt like my session was very powerful. Just for listeners too, I describe it as like, your most immediate family tree, you can visualize it mapped in the room, and you have people that are shared participants play certain family members. Well, I know my mother’s side, I don’t know my father’s side, hence he died when I was really young. and then my mother, it was in the early 70s, they had been dating but they weren’t together or married. Anyway, long story. Ironically, Johanna, when I was doing work with his father, so my paternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother, there was such profound healing. Because he didn’t know his biological father, and there was a whole circumstance around that. But what I’m describing is this grief that I had known loss, and then doing healing work and having that epigenetics of his trauma and the replication of that. I don’t know if this is making sense.

No, I’m following you.

So fast-forward, even in my relationship dating with my husband, I was in touch with that now having been through that relationship breakup and what I learned, that that fear in me and that anxiety in me of fear of abandonment, I wasn’t conscious about that fear up until that point. But it was heavily operating, either me choosing unavailable men, or people that I was scared to really go deep with; maybe they were super available, and I wasn’t very committal because it freaked me out.

Oh definitely, that’s what I mean by operating invisibly. These are great, real-time examples of where it might sidetrack us. I hear a lot, I’m sure you do too in your practice, the fear of leaving a relationship that’s not so healthy anymore, because it’s better than being alone. Because there’s such a fear of abandonment, that we’re sort of making nice with what isn’t okay, because this is the bigger discomfort. There’s so many ways that it plays out and compresses us into, well, compromising situations.

Yes, narrow windows of operating, and also to your point, maybe very unhealthy or even toxic dynamics we’re saying yes to and participating in. I will echo that, that many clients will tell me I don’t know what my prospects are, I don’t know if I’ll find another person. Or that classic, I don’t know how that phrase goes, but it’s almost like, the evil that we’re familiar with is better than the unknown.

Oh yeah, the devil I know is better than the devil I don’t know. I understand that, because I also have that lived experience of that break with love and connection, and what that means. So I think the biggest thing is, can I sit with that. Instead of I’m going to stay in a dysfunctional situation, can I sit with my fear of what life is going to feel like alone? Maybe we just put our baby toe in there, we just touch it for a minute, and then we go back, and we can spend a minute or three or five, so that it’s less influencing us from behind the scenes, and instead we’re facing it head-on.

So you’re giving some example around what we could do differently than just habitually saying yes, or even people-pleasing. Give us some other examples, if you will, about what it looks like when we’re not having good boundaries, or not aware of our needs or boundaries? 

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“I think if we’re pretty consistently overwhelmed, a big red flag is if we’re resentful a lot. If we look at the phone and we roll our eyes with the “urgh” feeling, when you’re picking up from that friend who always calls when something is wrong or always has all these requests of you. We want to always listen to the body. The body never lies. It’ll be our great guidepost.”

So if those are things that your listeners can relate to, there’s that piece where maybe they don’t want to identify as a people-pleaser. But it’s like: Uh-oh, I’m overwhelmed a lot, I feel resentment a lot. We know that there might be a tendency to give ourselves away for connection, to do what the other person wants us to do, just to make things good. 

I mean, I was just out at a surprise birthday party for a friend a couple of days ago, and there was another event going on at the same time. I overheard three of my friends saying: Well, we better go, she’s going to be really mad if we don’t show up. I thought, isn’t this interesting, the negotiation. I even heard one of them say: I’ll just go because I don’t want to catch shit if I don’t go. So these relationships, even friendships, where I’m going to be in trouble if I don’t show up, instead of the generosity for the friend to say: Well, something must have come up, or choosing something that they needed to do for themselves. So that tenuous pull around, who do I need to be, what part of myself might I have to give up, in order that you’re not mad at me? So how much of that are we balancing?

Yes. It occurs to me that many of us are living in a state of overwhelm with either over-full schedules or the various demands. So that one might actually do an inner check and recognize it is important, but also, a lot is important; the children, the work, the sleep. I mean, sometimes it’s very difficult. But something has got to give. It’s hard to be sustained when we’re so depleted. 

Exactly. I remember, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the book Untamed by Glennon Doyle. So my big takeaway from that book was having a conversation with her daughter, and she relayed this living principle around, it’s our job to let other people down to avoid letting ourselves down. I thought, wow, imagine if the majority of us were told that by our moms, because her daughter was a teen at the time, and how much would that really reorganize the way we show up as women in relationship. You mean I can let you down to avoid letting myself down? Wow, and what decisions could be different if that was our main priority.

Yes, exactly. I’m referencing some of what I was sharing earlier, in that we might be able to learn from our experience and be able to say: Ooh, I don’t want to do that again, or that didn’t feel good. How can I look at what boundary might I have missed, and how do I slow down and check in before I maybe commit myself, if I know it’s a busy season, or whatever the circumstances are? And we’re also talking about the unconscious motivators. So talk to us a little bit about learning what’s operating, if it’s even this imprint from epigenetics and family lineage, or if it’s just our early learning and life? How do you help people get in touch with some of these tendencies or ways in which they’re sacrificing themselves or not setting boundaries? 

Yeah, I think a great place to start is to map it out, put pen to paper. Build your own family tree. But instead of just labeling it Aunt Molly and Uncle Rick, we’re going to want to look at where did love get tangled up, where was it difficult, where did it stop flowing? So did we grow up with a mom who, let’s say, volunteered all the time, or maybe worked overtime? Some element that had her step out of herself, any kind of over-giving. Maybe it was grandma, maybe it was an uncle. We just want to see what did we see modeled. What lives in my family of origin that I might, not even realizing it, be playing out. That’s sort of the first action step, to see it all in black and white right in front of your eyes. 

I think the next step is to really sit with: Huh, there I go again, sort of hustling for my belonging, sort of really trying to prove my worth by being a good friend or the good daughter. And what is the compromise, how have I been short changing myself? That previous statement that I said from the book, is it a crazy thought to think I would pick myself first over my friend? I think a lot of women have that pull between: Does that make me selfish? Can I really, really, honestly choose that? 

I think for me, it’s this idea of, if I can put a capital S on Self, if I can fill my cup first, and this idea of what’s overflowing from that cup, that’s what I’ve got to give. But if I continue to give and over-give to depletion, well, that harms my own kids or my own marriage or my own profession. We just want to try to stay out of that depletion place. So if we can see the why, where we’re coming from, and also really make an intentional, conscious choice to do what’s best, I think that that starts to change those habitual pulls and where we can get stuck in some of our relationships.

Okay. So it’s being able to almost externalize some of what lives in us, both in our family system, but also our tendencies, and to perhaps really take inventory and assess it a bit. Really ask some of these questions around: where did love get tangled up, where am I feeling overwhelmed or resentful or stretched, or what beliefs and what meaning am I making about that scenario? 

Then we can’t unsee it. Because I think it’s really hard in the moment; we bump into whoever at the grocery store, we get the call, the friend is in need. If we haven’t done that inner reflection and that inner work, we just respond. We just go by what we’ve known, and then we might think afterwards, why did I do that? Oh, there’s that familiar resentment creeping back in. So if we can make a little bit more intentional decisions, we can clear away some of that “Oops, I did it again” kind of a feeling.

You also mentioned the body cues, would you like to say anything about how that might be helpful in the way of looking at some of these unconscious pulls?

Yeah. I think I like to dedicate a practice around listening to my body voice. So am I depleted, and what might I need to do to replenish? Am I feeling: Gosh, this relationship is kind of one-sided? A big part of my work is teaching about the balance of give and take. It really exists in all of our relationships, maybe most of all, our marriage. If that balance is off, the relationship will suffer. 

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“A lot of the time, it’s that over-giver that wants to just fill the gap, because fears like abandonment, fears like we’re disconnected come up. Then we can actually build that imbalance, because we haven’t relaxed enough to let the other person reciprocate; we’re just giving and giving and giving some more. So it can be really a two-way street.”

By listening to the body, we can actually catch up to the awareness: Oh, wait a minute, I actually have given. I have done the last three generous bids for connection or ways of relating in the relationship. I want to be able to see when it can come back. And the nervousness or the restlessness that might come up in the body, because there is that bit of distance now in the relationship, that’s our work. That’s how we take care of the relationship, but also tend to the little girl who’s lost her dad early, who’s mom had to go back to work when she was a little baby. That’s the part that we can keep healthy in ourselves that supports the relationship.

Yes, and there’s some core, either injuries, traumas, beliefs based on learning, and family lineage. Fear of not being good enough, fear of abandonment, there’s different fears that motivate this, and bringing awareness and consciousness to it. Looking at that somatic sense, looking at the patterns of behavior, or what’s actually being lived. I can say, so many people in sessions will describe this difficulty in allowing their partner to come towards them. If I don’t initiate or if I don’t fill the space, they’re not going to pick it up. These are in marriages where there isn’t a fear of necessarily person leaving or a divorce, but that the bond or the intimacy will be lost, that the other person won’t pick it up. You’re really suggesting, can you challenge that? Can you give a little bit of room to see what happens if the person is able to engage, bid for connection, and initiate?

Yeah. I think what I’ve seen happen for years in my practice of that over-giver, it’s almost like the arms are filled. I bought the concert tickets. I made that dinner. Your favorite color is green, here’s a sweater. The other receiver is sort of filled with all of this stuff, and they end up feeling emotionally indebted. I’m talking months and years that this dynamic goes on, and the person that feels emotionally indebted, it’s almost like this guilt of how will I ever make this right, how could I ever find the balance? They can end up stepping aside, leaving the relationship out of that emotional indebtedness. 

So for us to recognize I’m keeping my relationship healthier by really noticing the balance of give and take. It’s almost like one of the main tenets in relationship. If it’s off, we might need to take some steps to how do I get back to that balance. For many of us, that means working with my own tendency to want to over-give. As a recovering over-giver, I’ve walked this path, because I could see the damage it has in the relationship, and the damage to itself. We end up feeling resentful, carrying too much of that weight of the relationship.

I was meeting with a client last week, and she was talking about her children, but just people in general, and having this tendency to give. But she said all they have to do is hint,, and it’s done for them. I’m been talking big things even. Mostly her children, but just a lot of people in her life. We really explored that and ended up having to deal with some significant trauma for her. How much do you see trauma interplaying here with some of these tendencies around not setting boundaries? 

Yeah, it’s huge. It’s like, that’s at the root of why we’re doing these things that compensate, doing these things to keep it together. I think a big thing I notice in our relationship as parent to child, even our adult children, is that parents give, and then give and then give a bit more. 

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“We’ve got to be so conscientious that we don’t expect our child to ever give back to us. The way that we receive that is when we see our children give to our grandchildren. So that’s the only relationship where the balance of give and take is different, systemically, from that larger perspective.”

Because I think a lot of adult children, they get into this hook, where the parent might give out of a sense of guilt, or live closer or visit more often. Then we’re stuck in a different sort of negotiation, a different dance, and that can be a whole another challenge.

Yes. I mean, with this particular client, not to go into too much depth, but she was describing the dynamic of the person in relationship with her feeling resentful. So it’s a little different than you were talking about the guilt. But it was almost as though their agency, they weren’t necessarily having what they probably felt an opportunity to take initiative or to advocate or to negotiate on the things that they were wanting, and feel a sense of like: I had a part in this, or I did this. It can feel controlling for some, to have everything done for you. I don’t believe my client has any intention to manipulate or be controlling, it’s really from a generous heart. Still, the result and the outcome isn’t this. Again, I appreciate it, and I agree with you, the dynamics between parent and child. But just even in relationships in general, it was a theme for her. 

Oh yeah, and you spoke about something so important. It’s like, what’s behind that instinct to give? Sometimes that can let us understand ourselves so much more. A lot of that is, if I don’t do this, the relationship will be less than it could be. It’s some of the ways we go outside of our own boundaries.

Yeah, or as it relates to trauma and just the experiences there. So anything else you want to say about how to work with some of these very intense, maybe even traumatic experiences as it relates? It sounds like you’re saying really giving that attention and that care to solve and doing some of that deeper work. Is there anything else you want to comment on around? 

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“I think there can be so much power in understanding why we’re doing certain things, why we might give ourselves away for connection, why we’re over-giving, so that we can be compassionate with ourselves.”

Instead of getting frustrated or angry with myself: Ah, I’ve over-given again. There’s that piece where we might say, well, any little girl whose situation was this or whose experience was that would get stuck here. So a lot of the times I’ll walk my client through. Like, this thing that happened that’s the issue at hand, if you could go back, how would you respond to it differently? Because a lot of the times, we’re going to have the same situation served up in another way in a month or a year from now, and we give the subconscious mind a bit of practice to say: Oh, how would I ideally like to deal with it? So that we’ve got a little bit of practice for when that sharing of the boundary or really speaking what’s true for us, the opportunity shows itself again, we have a little more clarity, and it doesn’t catch us by surprise.

Yes, thank you for acknowledging that. I know a lot of men struggle with these dynamics too, and just recognizing perhaps circumstances or events that they’ve experienced in their life, that people didn’t respond to them, or they didn’t feel checked in on, or they didn’t feel the support to negotiate very overwhelming and tense experiences. So to have that guidance wasn’t available. So in some ways, we’re going back and looking at what you did need and the circumstance didn’t allow for and you didn’t have the support around, and can we almost re-parent that part or give that part a little more support? Is that right?

Yes. Can we give that to ourselves in the moment, and what would it really look like real-time today? Sometimes it can be as simple as sitting under a tree with reflection. Sometimes we have to do an action step or really clean something up. Sometimes it’s just running through in our own mind. Okay, how would I do it differently, what would I want to say? I’m sure all of us, we’ve been in the shower or at a red light and think: Oh, that’s what I could have said, that would have been the perfect thing. It’s two months later or something. But to really give that some space to reflect and consider.

Johanna, as we’re describing this, I am feeling for myself, and I know this to be true for others, that it’s not always just one trauma or one dynamic that exists, sometimes there’s multiple. As we shed light on it, as you said, we can’t unsee it. Then in my experience, the more light I shine, the more I can choose, and the more aware I can be, and then the more I see sometimes, the more opportunities I have. 

One of the things you talk about a bit is, in early life, if the child was parentified, meaning the child had to care for an adult that didn’t have the capacity for various reasons, whether or not it was mental health issues, or lots of circumstances that allow a parent to not be available. I had some of that in my upbringing, for sure. It wasn’t until, I want to say, so I described 18 years, and really coming into the relationship with my husband with a lot of clarity. I’m not doing what I did in my previous relationship. I’m going to stay conscious. I’m not going to abandon myself. I’m going to take risks and say uncomfortable things, even if I am afraid he won’t like it. Those type of things, and set boundaries and limits. 

Fast-forward, I want to say it wasn’t until maybe two or three years ago, in highly conflictual, not necessarily we were at each other’s, but an intense moment where there was some upset or emotion going on. Even if it wasn’t outwardly displayed, I could feel it. I’m very empathetic. My tendency, Johanna, was to care for the other. I called it triage. I’ve done a lot of therapeutic work around this. But the body, I don’t even think I was aware, it was this internal instinct that just was hyper-vigilantly showing up and it was just attending to someone. Well, in this case, my husband. But I don’t think I really was aware until I could get conscious enough, slowed down enough, really look at those patterns, but also being with my significant other. I think no one else probably would have activated that in the way that he did, because I love him so much, and it’s so close. But allowing myself to give myself more space and slow down and care for myself, before just automatically jumping in to help and attend to someone else. It’s been huge. But I imagine there’s still other tendencies that I’m not fully aware of either, and this is just a growth process. 

So I guess I’m wondering if you would agree, that there’s layers sometimes or things interact as far as different tendencies, there’s a growth process to this. Anything you want to comment there?

You describe it so well. It’s that before we even know it, we’re over there energetically or in the image of it, away from ourselves. So we’ve lost that ability to inform ourselves, because we’re over there with the other person. So if we really drop into little Jessica, the moment of your father is no longer here, that there would be a part of you that looks to mom and her grief and her shock and her experience of what went on, to think I’ve got to make things okay with mom. So we leave the developing part of ourselves to be over there with our parent. It’s almost like, this is what gets braided in inside the nervous system: love means leaving yourself to make sure they’re okay. So this is why it happens like this in the moment, and we don’t even realize it. Maybe until we’re thinking back: Oh jeez, this is how I responded! A day or a week later in reflection. 

So this is where we can start to change that, let’s call it a body reflect, a body memory of this is what I’ve got to do. That we want to even bring in some of the breath, some of the feet on the ground. Some of the, in a way, I’m going to be me watching me, coming into that observer perspective. To just slow things down, like you talked about. 

There’s something so beautiful, I think Ram Das was the one who said it. The best thing you can do for me is work on you, and the best thing I can do for you is work on me. So that ideal of staying in our own lane, metaphorically, even within our marriage, because it builds a deeper trust that: Gosh, my husband, or my partner, if we’re in a same-sex relationship, he or she is going to find that way that’s right for them, and I really can’t know what that is. It keeps the relationship cleaner, I’m not sure if that’s quite the right word. But otherwise, things can get kind of parental really quick. Especially if we’re the therapist in the relationship, we don’t want to therapize our partner. I’m talking to myself as much as your listeners or you. Because it’s so just the way we look at things. So staying rooted in the self and allowing that to inform how you want to respond, it’s a practice.

Yes, it is absolutely. Again, this goes to the thing that I’m often referencing, which is, in the dynamics, as much as we want to point to the other or point to some issue outside, if we can look at what is that helping us see, what is that meaning to us or itself, and what’s the learning there? When you’re describing, I know I’m giving you very little information, there’s so much more and the situation wasn’t quite that. But I feel like there’s a lot of layers.

I think when people have had complex trauma or relational trauma, it’s the repetitiveness to create that braid or that weaving that you’re describing, and how the nervous system responds or interacts with the relational dynamic, and how that can be very grooved when we’re looking at repetitive patterns in relationships. Yes, that people-pleasing, and that sense of not setting boundaries, how quickly that can go to this taking care of other. Or some men would even say, feeling emasculated in the relationship, or a woman who’s feeling controlled and feeling corrected and she doesn’t matter, because the husband in a heterosexual relationship is really leading everything. 

So to your point about balance between giving and receiving, and the health there. Even if people have more traditional norms, there’s a contribution in a way that both people in a heterosexual relationship perhaps—or even gay couple, or someone that isn’t assigning gender to from an identity standpoint, but maybe are taking on gender roles—that there’s an equity to that. Even if there’s a division of it in a way that is different, they’re not equal as far as doing 50-50 on everything, that there’s this quality. You’re describing really paying attention to that, and that’s one signpost to perhaps look into and recognize is, one is willing to look at this more closely and how they’re setting boundaries or not setting boundaries.

Yeah. I remember, as you’re saying that, it reminded me. I was seeing a really brilliant therapist at the time of my separation, and he said to me, blame is the cheapest hit of power going. 

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“If we’re stuck in resentment and blame, the most powerful thing we can do is look at ourselves, look at our part, what are we bringing, how am I contributing to this pattern?”

Absolutely. Well, are we touching in on what feels important here, as it relates to boundaries and what you’re wanting to help people understand about what’s happening maybe on deeper layers, and then also what people can do about it?

Yeah, I hope what I’m sharing feels tangible to your listeners. Because sometimes, in the description of the background or how any of us get to be the way we are, I want to make sure there are things that feel like that’s something I could implement. So that review of putting together your own family tree so that you can really see those tendencies that: Oh jeez, I am sort of critical like my dad, or I’ve got those people-pleasing things going on like grandma dad. We’re just tracking how we know ourselves to be, and some of those pieces, we say: I don’t want to feel resentful anymore, I’d like to feel lighter and more easygoing. So what am I willing to do to step towards that? So I think it’s a bit of both. It’s how do I want to feel in relationships today, and what might I be carrying that actually isn’t mine? So that it doesn’t start with you, that whole philosophy around that book is really uncovering that. So that we can have a clear route forward of the way we want to love and the way we want to be loved, and that encompasses all things around boundaries for sure.

Absolutely, yes. I mean, it sounds like there’s opportunity to work in both realms. If we want to look at the equity in the relationship, if it feels heavy and one is doing all the work, or if it feels like I have all these complaints about how things are going or my partner’s operating, that that is useful information. And also, what might I be carrying that perhaps didn’t start with me?

Absolutely. One of my favorite exercises that I share in a workshop is, I’ll say write down all the things that really bother you about your partner, the things that spark the repetitive arguments or the things you catch yourself thinking in your mind. Just write down a few adjectives, maybe let’s say five or six. Then we’ll take a little breather, we’ll grab a glass of water, we’ll settle in. Then I’ll say, now tell me five or six descriptive words about your mom. Warm and loving, cold and critical. Now tell me about your dad. Was he always there after work, or was he always traveling for work? Was he absent, or was he present? 

I tell you, nine times out of 10, those lists line up. So what’s unresolved with our parents, we tend to just live out in our loving relationships. It’s almost like someone is saying: Hey, how do you want to work with it this time, how do you want to deal with this theme again? And when we can really understand: Oh gosh, this piece that is coming up in my relationship might actually be the very piece, the momentum that allows me to heal what I’ve been carrying from my childhood.

Exactly, wonderful! Well, thank you so much for what you’re sharing here today, and also what you’re doing in the world. How would you encourage people to reach out to you or connect with what you’re teaching? 

Yeah, they’re more than welcome to visit my website, which is JohannaLynn.ca. They can find me on LinkedIn, I write a lot of articles there. I have a weekly newsletter. That’s just my name on LinkedIn. I’m on @TheFamilyImprint_Institute on Instagram, you can find me under my business name there.

Wonderful! And what might people find on your website?

All kinds of stuff. Articles. I really like to write, it’s such a fun topic to really explore. Then different workshops and ways that people can engage with the work. And of course, my international private practice if they’re wanting to book a private session. 

Wonderful. Well, I’ll make sure to have all of those links on today’s show notes. Thank you again for being with us.

Thanks for having me, Jessica.

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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching