Expectations and Your Family of Origin

woman waving as husband and son return home

Have you ever considered why you feel the way you do about stuff? Have you ever questioned your tendency to shove things out of sight, hold onto items or keep your belongings organized “just so?” While many factors can influence our relationship with material possessions, one that we might be slow to recognize is our family of origin. Recently I’ve become aware of how often clients cite their families when explaining their proclivities. Those we spend time with when growing up can play a significant role in how we relate to possessions, impacting both our expectations and behavior in ways of which we may not even be aware. As you reflect on your own family, consider these three possible influences.

1. ENVIRONMENTAL

Everyone grows up living in a physical space and interacting with tangible items. During childhood, the things we own, where they are stored, and how long they are kept is largely directed by the adults who run the household (typically parents and grandparents). In early childhood, we naturally emulate whatever is modeled for us. Furthermore, we may be unaware that the way things are done in our home is not the same as they are done in other homes. In fact, many children are surprised to discover differences as they become old enough to play and visit others.

Some of us may have grown up with parents who were very collectors or “keepers.” Every item that came in was worth keeping. We may have grown up hearing “You should never throw anything away because it might come in handy someday.” Perhaps some of us were reared by parents who struggled with hoarding disorder, causing our relationship with material possessions to be mixed up with shame or regret over the inability to invite friends over to play. In contrast, some of our parents may not have been able to stand visual clutter of any kind, saying things such as, “If I find any of your toys lying around I will throw them away” or “Toys in the playroom only.”

As with so many aspects of life, our parent’s beliefs, words and behaviors about belongings shaped our own expectations of what is normal and desirable.

 2. GENETIC

A second way that our family of origin may have influenced our relationship with stuff is via the DNA that they passed on to us. The study of genetic influence on mental health is a relatively new field, so this idea is largely speculative on my part. However, there has been some research suggesting a familial component to conditions such as hoarding disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The extent to which certain proclivities are genetic vs. modeled (nature vs. nurture) is unclear, and I imagine there will be further studies in this area. At the same time, it may be comforting to realize that some of the struggles we face with shopping, buying, shedding or storing could be coming from a source over which we don’t exert control. Rather than beating ourselves up over what comes naturally, it may be more helpful to acknowledge our genetics as a possible contributing factor, and then seek productive and positive strategies for moving forward.

 3. SOCIOECONOMIC

The socioeconomic setting in which we grew up can have a large impact on how we relate to material possessions. On one end of the spectrum is the child who grew up in poverty, where the primary focus was on saving. The daily mantra may have been, “Waste not, want not” or “Use it up, wear it out, or make do without it.” An individual who grew up in this setting may struggle to release items, even if his/her life is now one of affluence. Similarly, a person who is reared with wealth and a lavish lifestyle may feel pressure to acquire, accumulate and maintain a certain “standard,” even if that is not what is practical or desired.

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Once we are aware of how we have been influenced by our family of origin, it is next interesting to see how we have chosen to respond. I have observed that, in general, human beings tend to emulate what was modeled for them when they were young. This makes sense, as it would be exhausting to recreate all of our values, beliefs, patterns, choices, behaviors, etc. from scratch. In fact, the entire purpose of childhood is to gain skills and abilities upon which we can draw in adulthood. Parents are a child’s greatest and most influential teachers.

That being said, most people also tend to intentionally choose to a couple of specific areas where they plan to “do things differently.” Perhaps your mother constantly nagged you to clean up your toys, and you want your children to be able to relax and play without this constant pressure. Maybe your father was a slob, and you don’t want to embarrass your family the way you were embarrassed by him. It is possible that you fear repeating an undesirable behavior and overcompensate by going overboard in the opposite direction. Alternatively, if your parents different from one another in their views on belongings, you might align more with one parent’s style than the other’s.

At a recent gathering I challenged attendees to answering the following questions:

  1. Who do you think had the biggest impact on your relationship with stuff? (this should be a name)
  1. Place a notation next to the name to indicate if you feel this was a positive (+), negative (-) or largely neutral (0) impact.
  1. Write down an example of an experience you remember with this person that you believe may be impacting your behavior today. Be as specific as possible.
  1. Do you believe you have chosen to emulate the person you listed in question #1 or have decided to do things differently than this person?

We had a wonderful discussion, sharing our memories and considering how they have shaped our relationship with the things we own. If you have never mindfully considered the impact of your family of origin on the way you buy, accumulate, store and shed items, I encourage you to consider these questions as well. They might make for interesting dinner conversation, fodder for a bit of journaling or even a goal or two.

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Have you ever considered the impact that your family of origin has had on your organizing style? Have you chosen to do anything differently as an adult that the way things were done in your family?

18 thoughts on “Expectations and Your Family of Origin”

  1. Aw, I love this and I definitely believe that my own family did help shape the fact that I truly am an organized person as far as work and more. See I always remember my dad telling me that you need to be as organized as possible to be successful workwise. So, I am fairly confident that is why I am the way I am as it was truly instilled in me from an early age.

    1. I love that you have this memory of your Dad’s words! Healthy organizing strategies were modeled for you growing up, and that truly is a gift. I’m sure that now you are doing the same for the girls:)

  2. Fabulous article, Seana! I think about this a lot. I have chosen to follow some of the ways of my parents and have worked to create some other habits. This thought, though, that we (as children) learn organizing skills from our parents was the impetus behind the children’s books that Jonda Beattie and I wrote. I have found that some millennials don’t have instinctive organizing skills and, therefore; are not teaching their children to sort like with like, to put things in a home, and to cull possessions.

    1. I agree that organizing skills are not equally instinctual for all people. Some of us seem to have great instincts, but others honestly don’t know how to proceed. This makes sense to me, as this is the case with so many other aspects of adult life! I love the books that you and Jonda wrote, and I hope that reading those helps parents who feel weak in this area. It starts the dialog and gets kids interested!

  3. Great discussion here, Seana! This made me think of my parents. My mother grew up in a 3-story tenement house and her family saved very little as they didn’t have the room. My father grew up in a 3 bedroom Cape and his family saved a lot. Watching these two continue to navigate the shed vs save mentality throughout my life has been interesting, to say the least! I think you can guess which side I gravitate towards…

    1. Wow… your parents really came from different backgrounds. It can be quite difficult to blend such different experiences, but it can also broaden us if we are open to it. I tend to have taken after my father, so you can imagine that he is the more organized of the two (a bit compulsively so). We had such a great conversation at our last Minimal Quest on this topic that I know most people can relate to the impact their family of origin may be playing in their current lives!

  4. Wow, there is some really powerful stuff in here!

    My father was very organized, with a place for everything and everything in its place, yet he kept a lot of things that “might be useful someday.” I’m like that too, but I didn’t realize the similarity until he’d passed on and my siblings and I were clearing out his apartment.

    1. I also find it interesting that not all siblings, though reared in the same home with the same parents, have the same relationship with material possessions. That is why I believe there is a genetic component. I can see where my approach is similar to my father’s, but I can also see the way I do some things more in the mode of my mother. Just such a fascinating topic, and great for a group conversation!

  5. I found I relate to stuff differently than my mother did when I was growing up. Now that my daughter is almost 18 she is relating to her stuff exactly how my deceased mother did when I was growing up. Genetics, I think so.

    I find that we go on automatic often and I do agree, we rely on what our parents showed or told us. And, when we are in our head too much, we forget to do what is right in front of us which results in accumulating the clutter.

    1. That is very interesting to see the similarities between your daughter and your mother! This whole topic fascinates me. Since writing the post I have been thinking about my children, and how they relate to things and storage and clutter. I totally agree that is possible to get too much into our heads, and then we can get stuck.

  6. So interesting, Seana! I ponder on this frequently. Both my mom and dad were minimalists (before it was a thing). I grew us as a military child, served myself for 15 years and am a military spouse. I find comfort in organization. But I do keep more things than my parents did. Not as a conscious rebellion to my childhood, but certainly influenced by it.

    1. I know someone else who, while largely embracing a streamlined lifestyle, has some regrets that not more was kept by her parents. She also has chosen to keep a few more things, especially items with sentimental value. I have found this whole topic to be fascinating, and it generates great conversation!

  7. What a wonderful discussion! And I love the group exercise you did which lets people think more deeply about their family influences. I was influenced profoundly by my parents and grandmothers. And even in thinking about how my sister struggled with organizing and tracking her things and how my mother reacted to it (not well.) Both of my parents and grandmothers taught me to respect and care for things. But also to evaluate them from time to time as in don’t keep everything just because you collected it. At the same time, both of my parents did like to obtain things from music to books to model cars and more. My grandparents were more of minimalists. I think I got a wide range of thoughts around the meaning of things. But I will say that even though my family appreciated the stuff of life, the more significant, overriding message was that people (and love) come before things. As my mom used to say to me, “That’s the good stuff.” So more than anything else, that’s the message I’ve adopted. Family, people, relationships over stuff every time.

    1. Lucky is the child who has parents (and grandparents) who help model the important of family, people and relationships! Those are the true riches. It sounds like a very healthy relationship with material possessions was modeled for you. I have found the entire conversation fascinating. Our group connected fairly easily with memories of their parents, their environment and poignant moments they recall where things were involved. I think it is healthy to become aware of these influences, if for no other reason than to understand yourself better. There is great value in self awareness, as well in having mercy and patience with ourselves.

  8. The stuff fascinates me. Cassidy and I are pretty opposite about “stuff” but we’ve gotten better at seeing each other’s ways. See my parents still have a ton of our childhood stuff and their basement looks.. atrocious. Yet when we pitch in to clear it out, they’re more than happy to let it go. It made me realize they didn’t have hoarding tendencies, so much as exhaustion from clearing FIVE kids’ stuff, and also confusion about what to keep or not. I think it’s because they still feel badly that we all five lost one of our parents tragically.

    1. This stuff fascinates me as well! We had such a good conversation, sharing memories of our parents doing this or saying that. There can be a variety of reasons why things pile up, including very good reasons, like wanting to make sure we don’t throw out something from a deceased relative that someone might truly want to have. Sometimes we simply lack energy or physical capability. In other cases we are just busy with other priorities. Regardless, so interesting to think about how the scene we experienced growing up might be impacting the decisions we are making as adults today!

    1. This turns out to be one of those topics that makes for great conversation. We all have been impacted in one way or another. I’d say I was more impacted by my father, and I see it more as I get older.

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