Families are the factories where people are made

Photo by  Daniel Cheung

Photo by Daniel Cheung


The roots of our need for seeking support lie deep in our pasts and are often imprinted from our families. No matter how much effort we invest in our development, somewhere in childhood, our path towards emotional maturity will almost certainly have been hampered. Even if we came from a loving family, no one makes it through youth without sustaining some kind of deep psychological injury—what this book refers to as a ‘primal wound’.

We could blame time. Unlike all other living things, Homo sapiens have an exceedingly long, structurally claustrophobic processing time. A giraffe can stand up minutes after it is born. By the age of sixteen, a human will have spent around 50,000 hours in proximity with its parents. A female salmon mother will very sensibly choose a site, dig a nest with her tail, deposit 100s of eggs and then swim away without seeing a single one them again. Even the African elephant, the largest land animal on the planet, is sexually mature and independent by the age of ten.

But humans dawdle and delay in their development. It’s a year before we take our first steps and two before we can think and speak coherent thoughts. It takes close to two decades before we recognized as adults—and we are currently pushing those boundaries further. Twenty years is a long time to be influenced by such a highly irregular, distorting organization we call home, and its even more distinctive supervisors, our parents.

Families are the factories where people are made. Over many long summers and winters, we learn how to scan and assess an environment for nurturing, safety, and success. We are intimately shaped by the ways of the big people around us. We tune into to their likes and dislikes. We come to know their favorite expressions. We anticipate their habits. We know how they will respond to interruption and delay. We are sensitive to their tone when they’re irritated. We know the atmosphere of home in the early spring morning as we wait to go to school and in evening as we prepare for dinner. We memorize the textures of the wallpaper and the smell of fresh laundry coming out of the dryer. As adults, we can still recall the taste of certain foods we had at birthdays and know intimately the tiny sounds a parent made while reconciling the weekly checkbook. We might return home for a holiday as adults and learn—despite our jobs, responsibilities and aching bodies—that we are seven again.

During our elongated development, we are at first, in a physical sense, completely at the mercy of our caregivers. In many ways, we are so frail. The shadows under our bed are out to get us in our sleep. We need help crossing the road. We develop complex strategies for tying our shoes and putting on a winter coat. We need direction writing our name.

We are also exposed emotionally. We are not equipped to understand who we are and won’t be for some time. We don’t know where our feelings come from; why we are sad or what makes us furious. We don’t understand how adults fit into the bigger picture or why they behave as they do. We take what the big people around us say as truth; we can’t help but exaggerate their role on the planet. Our survival depends on it. We are entangled in their attitudes, ambitions, fears and predispositions. In this way, our upbringing is always particular and peculiar.

As children, we are unable to let the inertia and force of those around us roll off our backs. Without a hard shell of our own, we absorb it all.  If a parent shouts at us, it shakes us to our core. We cannot tell that some of their harsh words were not really for us necessarily, that their cause might have been a difficult day at work, or are the aftershocks of their own childhood; it is like an all-powerful, all knowing giant has decided, for good (if unknown) reasons, that we are to be defeated. Everything is all or nothing.

It is also hard for us to reckon with a parent’s disappearance, when they travel or relocate, that they didn’t leave us because we did something wrong or because we are unworthy of their love, but because even adults aren’t always in control of their own destinies.

If parents are having a heated discussion, we think they must hate one another. To children, a conversation with raised voices (throw in a slammed door, some swear words, and screeching tires out of the driveway) may feel catastrophic. It’s like everything safe is at risk of collapsing. In that kind of climate, there is no understanding from the child’s perspective that disagreements are normal part of relationships. They do not understand that a couple may be committed to a life-long union while also wishing that the other go to hell.

Children are equally vulnerable to their parents’ particular beliefs. They can’t parse why they should not mix with another family from school. There is no logic why they should follow particular dress codes or choose a particular religion. They don’t feel as passionately about why they should wash their hands as often as they do or be early for school. All of these ‘isms’ represent a partial understanding of priorities and reality to which they must subscribe because their parents do. 

Childhood has a fixed radius from which there is little ability to escape. There is no other place for us to be like school or a job. Under the supervision of our parents, we start to develop a social network. Even when things are going well, we are more or less in an open prison. Probably why we flex our boundaries by flirting with the idea of running away.

As a result of the idiosyncrasies experienced in our early years, we develop distorted views and unbalanced narratives about ourselves. The family template is established. Without awareness, we will live and relive in that template in whatever group we encounter for the rest of our lives because our brains like to match patterns. Parts of our internal makeup start to develop in odd directions. Perhaps we can’t easily trust. Maybe we become unusually scared or unusually engaged around people who raise their voices. We might not believe complements we are given, can’t tolerate being touched, or become irritable engaging in small talk. We seek familiar templates and patterns and we want to repeat or repair those patterns. If we had an overbearing mother, we might seek overbearing friends, partners, or bosses. Or we might go to great lengths to avoid them entirely. Either way, our response to people who are overbearing will be imbalanced. We don’t need to have suffered something shocking, illegal, evil or malicious for those distortions to develop. The causes of our wound don’t have to be outwardly remarkable, but their impact can often be significant and long-lasting. Some people can survive abusive parents who suffered from addictions and turn out more resilient than another person who survived a schoolyard bully and a distant father. That is how fragile childhood is—remarkable incidents aren’t the only ones that are liable to cause our wires to cross. 

We know this to be true from the lessons of tragedy in great literature. Ancient Greek plays, Russian novels, Shakespeare—drama ensues not necessarily through enormous miscalculations in judgment, but through the tiniest, most innocent, errors. A minor starting point can unleash terrible consequences. Art imitates life and our emotional development follows a similar structure. Our caretakers, in fact our whole family system, did their best with us as children. Yet as adults, we nurse major psychic injuries that guaranteeing more difficult life paths than we might have enjoyed otherwise.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.