CNM 044: Exploring Your Family Of Origin For Hidden Patterns – with Johanna Lynn

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Welcome to the show!

Today’s guest is Johanna Lynn. Johanna’s work revolves around the dynamics of family relationships connected to our well-being and success in life. She runs workshops and helps individuals reach an awareness of how their painful patterns are most often linked to the patterns in their family of origin, and helps them get to the root of these issues.

We talk about something called epigenetics and how it plays a role in who you are. And we talk about why your beliefs and behavior patterns are almost invariably linked to your upbringing and the people who raised you, and how Joanna helps people excavate this.

We’ll get to that interview is just a moment.

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Alright, back to our interview…

Interview with Johanna Lynn on the Family Of Origin

Brian: Johanna, welcome to the show today. We’re so glad to have you.

Johanna: Oh, thanks, Brian. It’s great to be here.

Brian: I want to jump into the first question.

Question: Being that your expertise revolves around the family of origin, I want to ask a question that I think a lot of people have when they go to a therapist or perhaps somebody who does the line of work that you do. There’s always a lot of talk about going backwards to explore our past when we’re feeling stuck. I’m wondering, why do we always hear about that need to go backwards?

Johanna: I think if we don’t look from where the pattern comes from or where we’re stuck, it stays our reference point. It’s where we make our decisions from. We really want to make change from that forward decision-making place so that we’re not making decisions about tomorrow, next week, next month, based on the painful parts of our past. The longer I’m in this work, the more I’m really aware that our family is the greatest pattern maker of our lives.

Brian: Yeah. I’ve heard that so much and I’ve come to believe it to be true myself. I believe I still have some work to do there. There are some grey areas that I need to explore but I am believer in that. I want to get deeper into that and try to understand that. I have a scientific mind and I can be a little bit of a skeptic. I like to explore things from all angles to make sure I’m confident in what I believe, and can really endorse it. I’m wondering if we can go back into the science of this and have you help us explain that.

Questions: I understand that there’s a gentleman, Dr. Bert Hellinger, and a type of science called epigenetics. I was wondering if you could explain what that means to us. Who was he and what does epigenetics actually mean?

Johanna: Absolutely. What’s really interesting about your question is it dates back almost 50 years now. Bert Hellinger is a German psychotherapist that has written – I don’t even know the number of books – many, many, many, on how we hold the family in our bodies and how we live out these relational patterns, these unresolved pieces of our family history so that we can understand the influence in our day-to-day lives.

Over the last dozen years or, we’ve seen science finally catch-up to what this work has observed for almost five decades. The new emerging understanding of science is that the unresolved experiences, the traumas, and how we relate gets imprinted onto the very DNA of our system right from our parents and our grandparents.

What that means is – let’s look at it even from an evolutionary perspective – we are born ready and prepared to deal with the experiences that our grandparents and parents lived through. That might look like the body’s way of safeguarding – meaning, ‘If I ever find myself in a war again, or if I’m ever dealing with famine, the body knows just what to do’. Where that might get us into trouble is that right in this moment in history, we’re not faced with challenges like that. So instead, we might live with a hyper-vigilance, high anxiety, or we’re always on edge.

Once we can begin to look at where these things come from, we can really get a handle on the responses that we’re having in the world. The recognition of this work is we are not simply the individual faced with fears, challenges, and things that are the human condition, but we’re really part of a larger picture. I often like to say we’re a lot more like a computer in the sense that we share an operating system with our parents and our grandparents. Their experiences are really influencing how we view life, our perceptions, and beliefs, so much more than one would really realize.

Questions: When you say that, are you talking about that from a literal standpoint? What I mean is certainly we have exposure to our parents and grandparents – most of us, hopefully – when we’re young. We’ve lived in the same time period and we’re influenced because we’re in the same environment. Is that what you mean? Or are you actually saying that some part of our DNA or our genes is carried through? Let’s say, our grandfather has a trauma – is that trauma somehow imprinted into our DNA and carried through to us?

Johanna: That’s exactly what I’m saying. When a trauma happens, it changes the way our DNA expresses. Now, this is what’s given to you through your mother and father through you.

What’s very, very interesting is when women carry babies. When your grandmother was five months pregnant with your mom, all the eggs for all the children she would have were being grown in grandma’s womb. The very first imprint of who you are and what’s going on for grandma – whether she is feeling loved and supported, or there are a lot of financial strain, worry, and stress – this is the initiation, the first expression of what life will be like for you. We are impacted so far before our very first breath.

Brian: That is absolutely surprising and fascinating to me. I’ve heard of nature versus nurture but it’s almost like you combine the two together. When you’re talking about your grandparents, environment might have affected them in a way that actually literally carries through into their genes (which is the nature part) and that gets implanted into you eventually. I’ve never really heard that concept before. It sounds fascinating.

Questions: How do we know this for sure? Is this the science that you’re talking about that’s been catching up in the last 50 years?

Johanna: Yes. The work began about fifty years ago. The science is much fresher than that. We’re looking at about the last twelve years.

Brian: Okay.

Johanna: There’s an amazing scientist out of Mt. Sinai, her name is Rachel Yehuda. She’s looked at “the stress that affected one generation will be played out in the next.” It may look a little bit different, meaning, our grandfather was a prisoner of war – let’s give a really extreme example – and your dad was emotionally closed or very guarded based on how his body expresses the trauma of his father. And now you, the grandson or the granddaughter, expresses it differently yet, perhaps with high anxiety or fear of being, let’s say, in an airport or busy streets. Large groups of people make you feel very, very nervous and you think, “Gosh, I’m not that way in any other part of my life, how does this make sense?” A lot of what this work does is it makes sense of what you’re up against because we’re looking through the lens of family history.

There are many, many clients that I’ve worked with that have seen every physician, naturopath, allergist, everybody you can imagine, but those specialists are not taught to look at and include all of the family history to understand what might actually be at the root of why there is chronic depression and a lot of nervousness around stepping fully into a long-term committed relationship. All of these places and feelings come from somewhere.

Brian: Yeah. I’m going to choose to look at this as very good news. I hope the audience does as well because what I just took away from what you said is that – for some of these issues that we deal with in our lives that are keeping us stuck, it doesn’t mean that there’s something about you that’s broken, it could very well be that you’re dealing with, let’s just call it, baggage of previous generations – and there are things you can do to overcome that. Like we say, sometimes, it’s not your fault, it’s just bad programming. It seems like there’s actual science to back this up now. I think that’s, hopefully, good news to a lot of people. Moving on from there, let’s talk about what we can do about it.

Johanna: Yes, of course. To that point you were just sharing, Brian, one of my most influential teachers wrote a book and as you were sharing that, the title popped into my mind. It’s called, It Didn’t Start with You But It Can End With You. This idea that what we might be looking at in regards to what you’re challenged with today, the resolution may live within your family system. People that have the type of training that I do know exactly what to do with that. So yes, let’s move into, “Okay, now we know this is a larger systems issue, now what?”

Brian: Yeah, absolutely.

Question: Before I ask the next question though – I’m glad you mentioned the name of that book – if somebody else wanted to look deeper into Bert Hellinger’s work or epigenetics, are there any particularly good resources you would point them to?

Johanna: I would start with the book It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How To End The Cycle by Mark Wolynn because it really points to many case studies of how this applies in real people’s lives along with some of the most up-to-date science and reference points from there. What I love and appreciate about this book is it’s got a lot of exercises and things you can do for yourself; self-inquiry and things to move these stop points forward. It’s a beautiful book. It certainly reached the best-seller level.

Bert Hellinger has written dozens, and dozens, and dozens of books. My favorite is called Rising In Love. I’m pretty sure you can just find that on Amazon. Epigenetics is everywhere right now including of the front cover of Time Magazine. It’s reaching more and more people and it’s becoming more mainstream. Even just to look at things under the title of epigenetics, you’ll find everything from diet to exercise to temperament under that topic.

Brian: Great, thanks for all those. Now, like we were saying, let’s talk about how we can overcome this. It’s wonderful to have you on the show because it seems like you’re very dedicated to helping people overcome this exact thing.

Question: When you work with somebody, what is it that you actually talk about with your clients in their sessions?

Johanna: Great question.

I love to get started with the new case because I always joke with my clients that I’m much more of a detective than a therapist. I’m really looking for how we put the inner map of their world and how we make sense of the challenges that they’re up against today. I’m asking a very specific set of questions that really have to do with the facts of the family, things like, “Did your parents stay together?” “How old were you when they separated?” “Are you the youngest?” “Are you the only child in your family?” I certainly lead by what the client is bringing forward. Within their family history, there may be twelve different things we could really look at.

But they’re coming to see me because they’re worried about their teenage son, or their marriage is coming apart, or they’ve been sad and depressed for as long as they can remember and they just can’t continue to carry that. These sessions are all about what’s influencing today’s challenge and then connecting that to what’s unresolved.

I really have created the term ‘the family imprint’ – how has that imprint influenced how you’re feeling today and what patterns seem maybe impossible to break free from? The other piece I also bring in when I’m working with my clients is their early life experiences; the things their body may have record of but they have long ago forgotten, it’s not in the conscious level. A lot of what I’m looking for are these invisible influences – whether that be from the family or early life – that really is the key to freedom that lets them step-back into their own lives with a lot more clarity and ease.

Questions: What’s the ultimate goal that you have with each client that you work with? What are they really trying to achieve and how do you know when they’ve hit that milestone?

Johanna: I think the first step with each client is really an awareness, this awareness of what’s influencing the current pattern so that they’re not feeling like, “Oh, geez did I ever mess up?” or “How am I going to overcome this?” We really create a broader, larger picture so that resolutions feel much easier to grasp hold of, and implement.

Now, I tend to look at each client – and myself too – as if each life of ours is like a cup and it’s filled with all the experiences we’ve had. When you really look at this intergenerational perspective, this cup also holds our parent’s and grandparent’s experiences. And what we’re looking to do is metabolize or to integrate a lot of what’s stuck or even the stored pain that’s there that’s been keeping them back in this loop in the way of thinking and the way of responding. So we’re really opening up new perspectives with life and new ways of being in our relationships.

I think your question about how do we know when they’ve landed at that place or really achieved that result is that people come back to me saying, “I’ve never felt this happy and connected in my marriage,” or “Geez, my teenage child would just close the door in my face, but now we’ve got a lot more openness and connection.” The result is very much connected to what they’re coming to see me for in the first place.

Questions: What kind of obstacles are people hitting along the way? I’m sure there are a lot of different things people deal with, but what are the biggest, most common things that get people stuck and how do you work around those things?

Johanna: Let’s use an example here, Brian. Let’s say I have a client whose parents really let them down – whether that be emotionally, financially, or physically – there’s just this loss of trust with the parents. What exists in their body – literally, right in the musculature of their system – is feeling defended, feeling like, ‘I’ve got to keep not only my parents but my lover and my friends, at arm’s length because if I let anybody in too close, I have this fear of the rug being pulled out from under me again.’ As we begin this work, a lot of the times it means dissolving some of those guarded places, some of those self-protection strategies. In order to do that, we have to access that vulnerability and look at the deeper pieces.

Sometimes an obstacle might be what is keeping them emotionally safe, but at the same time is keeping them from all the things they want – more intimacy and connection in their marriage, a greater ease with their children, having relationships that work when you go into your profession, or friendships that can really feel supportive. If we’ve got everybody at an arm’s length, how do we let that in? And maybe the result is we feel lonely and disconnected. The only way we can really shift and change that is by moving through that obstacle and dissolving some of those guarded places.

The way we can really achieve that – if we go back to that example of the parent letting the client down, the client really feeling that they can’t trust the parent – is to understand, ‘What was behind mom’s distraction?’ Or if she wasn’t really there for you and you couldn’t really trust her love, ‘What happened to mom that had her show up in that way?’ Let’s say we go back a generation and we find out, ‘Oh, wow. She lost her own mom when she was seven or eight years old, and then to cope, dad and grandpa became alcoholics.’ So now we’ve got a broader understanding of, ‘Why is mom disconnected? Why couldn’t she be there for me and I lost my trust?’ In that moment, we don’t take it as personally. We have an understanding of, ‘No wonder she was disconnected.’

At this point, it’s not about the distrust anymore but the cultivation of this compassion around, ‘No wonder mom was this way.’ It gives us the ability not to personalize the situation. I know it may sound strange because it is our parent, but parents are people too, and of course they bring with them their influence and experience of how they were parented. It lets us be much more free so that we don’t carry what’s unresolved into our marriages, how we parent, and even into what we bring to work, because who we are in our family system is how we show up professionally as well.

This has so many implications, Brian, in where it leads, and it influences us all over the place in our world.

Questions: When it comes to intellectually unlocking why certain things have happened so that we can stop blaming and start having more compassion – I can see how that could be incredibly useful.

I often hear things like, “An intellectual understanding of something is great, but a lot of times we need to take it past that and process certain things that might have come up as a result of this conflict (or whatever this block is).” Do you find that just simply having an understanding of these patterns and why things are the way they are unlocks that and lets people have, let’s say, a breakthrough? Or do they also need to do some sort of emotional healing?

There are things like EMDR therapy (which we’ve talked about here on the show before) that help you process through different traumas; do you recommend help, or do you help them through things like that too, or do you mainly help them just understand the history of their family?

Johanna: I love that you brought that up. The awareness is just the first step. I don’t think any of us can change out of long how, let’s call them protection practices, keeping ourselves emotionally safe, or any of these larger things, if we don’t have an experiential piece that allows something to shift and change at the level of the body. This work absolutely goes into resolution at the body level as well. I’ll often bring that famous Einstein quote forward to my clients and just kind of joke with them that, “None of us can solve a problem at the same level of mind that created it.”

If we’re just working at the level of understanding or new information, that’s only a small part of the puzzle. But the other piece is shifting the inner images that we hold – the way we see ourselves that really guides and shapes our lives – this work goes along way toward changing some of those inner images from what might have felt frozen, protective, or even rejecting of the parents or a family member, and making them be a much healthier inner image that is life-promoting and life-expanding instead of protected and constricted.

Question: How long does it typically take your clients on average to achieve what it is that you’re helping them with?

Johanna: There are some clients that come to see me where a single experience – whether that be at a workshop that I hold with others or a one-on-one session – kind of cracks open the larger picture and what has now been realized. We can’t ‘un-see’ what we have seen.

For others, it’s been a more long-standing situation where I would see clients over about three sessions. I usually like to space those out by a month or six weeks because I like to give lots of homework rich in neuroscience. We know now what works for the brain, how we really usher in this deep long-standing change so that not only the session that we’ve done has time to take root, but there are also things that my clients can do to take the driver’s seat in their lives and really make those long-standing changes they’re looking for. And after those three sessions, they’re seeing their life and they’re coming back into their relationships in a different way. That’s usually how it goes, anywhere from a single experience to about three times.

Brian: Okay, great.

Question: As we get ready to wrap up here, what haven’t I asked you about yet that you’d like to bring to the table here to talk about?

Johanna: I was thinking about your audience, Brian, those that might find themselves in a codependent relationship and how this piece of all this inherited family stuff may actually have a huge influence and may give them some new insights about the relationships they find themselves in.

For those of you who find yourself feeling codependent and not sure how to get out of that, my first invitation for you would be to look at where that blueprint comes from. In my work, we call it a merge, when you live life like a parent, or you took care of a sad mom, or walked on egg-shells with a really angry dad, our language of love and the way we look at love – it feels more like when we love someone, we fuse with them. We’re more aware of, ‘What does my sad mom need or what does my angry dad need to keep a lid on that?’ And then we become primed to look at, ‘Who we’re in relationship with?’ ‘What is it that they need from me?’ ‘Who do I need to be to make sure this relationship continues?’

The first step, as Brian and I had been talking about, is the awareness of, ‘Wow, this is the way I learned to love from my family,’ so that we first can start off with a little bit of compassion for ourselves. I think we can all be so much harder on ourselves than we need to be because that never gets us out of anything.

The second place to begin to look at is, ‘What is it that I really need from this relationship?’ Because so often, when our first instinct is to look at what our partner needs, who’s being left out of that equation? We are. We’re out of our body over there assessing what they need before we’re even aware of our own needs. Getting some clarity there can really, really support you.

The next step is the recognition that there may be some ‘family of origin’ work to do here. This is actually not a relationship issue, but this has to do with the family imprint of how you love, and beginning to unravel that in your own body; beginning to explore, ‘What might be unresolved in how I relate with mom whether she’s still living or no longer here. Are there places where I’m angry or upset or things feel like unfinished business with dad?’ Beginning to even ask yourself, ‘What do I blame them for?’ And beginning to explore how these relationships, the internal relationships you have with mom and dad may be influencing how you feel about your partner. Because here’s the truth for all of us in loving relationships – what’s unresolved between us and our mom and dad will be lived out again in our intimate relationships.

Brian: Words of wisdom there. It seems like there’s an ever-growing notion that, as we live in Western society here, there’s so much emphasis placed on us as the individual. I suspect there’s a tendency that we sometimes don’t realize how much we are impacted by the ‘family of origin’. We move away, we do our own thing, and that doesn’t even occur to us. Great words of wisdom there.

That was some very thoughtful advice that you thought about in this particular audience. You gave them some good instructions and a framework on what to do.

Question: If you were going to sum up your some concise words of wisdom, what would be your biggest piece of advice for a codependent person?

Johanna: For your listeners, the biggest piece of advice would be to really consider, when we’re noticing what the other person needs in our relationship, we’re not noticing what we ourselves need. So, what if for the next 30 days, it was a simple practice of, with all that goes on in day-to-day life, you brought yourself back to, ‘What is it that I need in this moment?’, so that it’s a learning pattern at the deepest part of yourself to ask what you need first; to know that it’s a memorized experience in your body to look out for what everybody else needs first.

So, we could create a new pattern inside your body that – even if it’s every little thing – you go back to ‘What it is that I might like?’ ‘What is it that I need in this situation as a way of rerouting how to move beyond that pattern of relating, that pattern of looking for what everybody else needs first?”, and you get to come home to yourself and find that information in your body for what you need for you.

Brian: Beautifully said. Thank you, Johanna, so much for coming on the show. We haven’t had anybody talk anything about in this topic before in this much detail, so I think this has been fascinating. I know the audience is going to get a lot of great info out of it, so thanks for bringing your expertise to the table here.

Johanna: Oh, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me as your guest.

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