ESP 23 The hidden “family rules” that have shaped you (and still impact your life)

familyfightDid this ever happen to you? You think the way your family (of origin) does something is normal, and then, suddenly, you find out it isn’t?

Usually, this happens when you form close relationships outside your family of origin. Fireworks can ensue!

How your family dealt with conflicts, problems, shame, secrets, and tragedies shaped you and learning relational and loyalty dynamics from the previous generations in your family can bring relational repair, health, and hope.


That’s what today’s show is about. I’m glad you can listen, today.


Today’s guest is graduate school professor and marriage and family therapist in private clinical practice, Janet Stauffer, Ph.D.



Dean of Students, Evangelical Seminary

Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy

In addition to her work at the seminary and her clinical practice, Janet is vice president of the Board of Directors at Philhaven Behavioral Healthcare facility. She has led retreats, presented at professional conferences, and published articles in a number of journals. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist and approved supervisor and clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. She also holds membership in the Christian Association for Psychological Studies. Her research interests include genuine meeting through dialogical engagement, loyalty dynamics between and across the generations of the family, and the intersection of faith and therapy.





Each person is born with an inherent longing to connect.


Early childhood experiences shape who we are and how we relate to others.

Our ancestors deliver ways of being to us across generations:


What can be done if the early years weren’t filled with dysfunction and problems?


How relationship can alter the wiring and re-patterning of the brain.


Jim Coen, UVA – The Hand holding experiment.


In close relationships, we end up feeling–not only are you here with me–but somehow you are me. Somehow we are here together.


Before we can help others, we have to be open to ourselves and our own healing. Our wounds can remain as vulnerabilities and our greatest resource.


“I because who I am through my relationships with other people, so that more of me gets called forth as I respond to others in my world around me.”


The still face experiment:


“Foo-Poo” (FOO = Family of Origin) influences our current relationships.


The interconnectedness and “loyalty dynamics” between and across the generations and how during all our interactions we are holding something that has been passed down across generations and in the larger cultural dynamics.


Example from life (Janet, her husband and the Ford Fiesta). Naming the truth in our interactions and being curious about what we hold from generations before us.


Janet explored what anger was like for her mother and grandmother and discovered not just a family secret and the shame that was carried on, but also a a family norm relating to how pain is dealt with.


Family secrets and ways of interacting waiting like land mines that can sabotage our other relationships.


We can also end up carrying or holding visibly or invisibly things that our spouse (or other close relationships) hold as well.


There are options for growth and healing if we can be open, aware, curious and can find courage to turn and face [the other] and remember where our weakness are and admit them.


The power of naming what is happening for us emotionally.


“Honoring my personal truth, personal awareness, my being, and made a claim for myself has a profound impact in my own knowing.”


“Every one of us experiences terror at the thought of finding the courage to turn and face the other in a painful situation at some point in our life.”


A defend or fight mode should be superseded by the prevailing message “You and I are on the team team ultimately. We have a reason to connect and I long for you. But it’s been hard between and here’s something of how it’s been for me… and I want to know what it’s like for you.”


Yet, we cannot think what we say will always help because we cannot guarantee the other person’s response. So there is vulnerability in saying the truth.


Being calm, curious and compassionate even in the face of wounds and vulnerability.


Emotionally self-regulating and contending with emotional triggers.


(In marriage or close relationships) Learning self and other in a whole new way…in a kind of sacred space to grow through the most tender places that we hold.


Telling the other what would help in what feels like an unsafe place emotionally.


Learning to soothe one another.


On core lies we can believe about ourselves.


Honoring when emotional safety is just as important as physical safety.


What to do when it’s not safe to have important conversations.


Martin Buber-We live with an armor around us and bands around our heart and being closed off and unaware and unaddressed.


Asking questions of ourselves to create more awareness and realizing our thoughts and memories are not us.


We limit our imagination about the capacity each of us holds to respond the other, the world around us and ourself.


We can test our assumptions and plant seeds that bring new possibilities for ourself and others.


When we can’t yet name or isolate our feelings.


Giving permission and a soft demand to know what is going on with someone else and helping them find their voice.


The biblical tradition of the garden where God says “Where art thou?” a story about hiding. God’s longing for humankind.


King David in the psalms is modeling openness and receptivity…asking “What is in my heart?” “Who am I?” “What do I hold?”


Being open and still safe. Giving yourself warm, regard, and leaving the self-judgment out.

“Judgment limits the knowing.”


Being present to and growing in recognition of “here’s what I hold” or “here’s what freezes me” etc and asking “how can I be more free?” and then exploring new pathways and practices that go somewhere.


On the spiritual practices and things can people do to move forward.


These ways of understanding what it is to connect, grow and be human are universal and offer hope to those with varied religious tradition and no religious affiliation too.


The spiritual and the Other when it is not defined as “God”.


“God doesn’t limit God’s self to the church or the synagogue or the mosque and we can never fully describe God because God cannot be contained and is always more than what I can fathom or grasp”


Asking, “How do I understand the call before me and how do I invite others and find the place where they are experiencing call and longing and where is this work happening within them. What is being invited forth?”


How we can pass down the best of our generational dynamics and loyalties to our children.


On the invisible family rule of perfectionism and how it made Janet think she could be the perfect parent and how that idea was shattered.


How she approached her son after that point to understand what he was experiencing and being surprised by his reply.


We can never get it all right, but we can be willing to go to our child and ask them about their experience.


Inviting others to know themselves in whatever capacity to do that they can and hold what they say with care and honor.


Enacting moments and accumulating themes and transactions and happenings and asking “Is their a burden they carry or an injury of disregard or diminishment that was not theirs to carry?” which deserve address and caring and honor.


On having a commit to “I will be there for you, and I will be here for me, and I invite you to be here for me,” is a profound act that helps us for the long run.


Despite our efforts, outcomes are not guaranteed and each person has an opportunity to respond uniquely.

RESOURCES for further discovery:

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Guest writer at Everyday Liturgy

ELI’m very glad to have the honor of being the guest writer today at Thomas Turner’s blog:

Everyday Liturgy

Thomas wrote me saying,

I would love for you to contribute a 500 word (or so) post about how participating in a particular church or denomination has helped make you the Christian you are today. The purpose of this series is largely ecumenical, and looks at the positive you gleaned out of the experience. If you had a bad experience that turned into something good later on, I would think you could make a great post out of that…

Some of you may not know just how fundamentalist my roots are.

Here’s but one example:

Several people approached my mom to discourage her from marrying my dad. Why?

Because their offspring would be bi-racial.

Plenty of (fundamentalist) Christian groups at the time prohibited “inter-racial” dating and (obviously) marriage and pro-creation.

Southern Baptists were the slave-owning southerns who coined their monicker at the time of the American Civil War (to them known as “The War of the Northern Aggression”). Northern Baptists, as they were once called, later changed their name to American Baptist and became (typically) more progressive and liberal in their views over time.

Southern Baptists proliferated to many places outside of the the South (to the American North and through missionary work, to all parts of the world), but kept their name and, as you might guess, some of their same notions.

(To be fair, things have changed for the better, mostly. Today, folks in churches coming from that tradition run the gamut of very strict and conservative… “old school patriarchal imperialist southern” -if you will- to more gracious and relaxed in their dogma on issues of race, gender, and other matters.)

(By the way, my dad was Puerto Rican. Are you curious to see what he looked like? Here. Like most conversations about “race” –as if that was an actual thing– it’s really just vestige of a medieval mindset and a preoccupation about skin tones and/or physical features. Sadly, it still is and by people you would imagine would know better. But, I’ll tackle that in some other post.)

I wonder how many of them were relieved that I ended up having my mom’s light skin. 

(This is were Obama and I are alike. Like me, he actually looks more like his mom than his dad. Trust me, it’s true. I notice these things! :) )


So, what was my journey and where do I stand now?

Give it a read and find out!

The “KISS your BLISS” Effect

You’ve heard “follow you bliss,” right?

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.”
― Joseph Campbell

“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
― Joseph Campbell

[This is wiki link for the scoop on Campbell]

Campbell wrote “The Power of Myth”, “The Masks of God”, and “The Hero of A Thousand Faces” among many other works and was an American mythology professor, writer, and orator best known for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion.

Follow your bliss refers to a path you take. The journey and the making of a hero.

(video is cheeky and humorous summary of what happens in a Hero’s Story)

It’s the journey of every great person and every life well-lived also.


(photo source)

My offshoot and focus is “KISS your BLISS”.

Why? Because nothing’s more active than that (and it rhymes, which is a nice mnemonic device).

This is the name for the moment you cross the threshold to adventure and finding your purpose. It’s when you decide you have a deeper calling in this world and living from your core is what counts most. I’m crafting a book on this right now and it’ll be out this fall. I hope you’ll come back for more details soon.

You will find that once you embrace your passion and gifts and kiss them full on the mouth a switch happens. At that point the sides fall off your holding cell and it turns into a go kart. You pick up speed, scream in delight and your passion is infectious.

Make no mistake: It is a risk.
There is true danger involved.

At the KISS POINT you will gain two things:

1. A following–people you splash with your passion who come for the ride, guide you, or cheer you on.

It is also characterize by new and better-fitting opportunities unveiling themselves and new connections and relationships  emerging. You’ll “be on to something” with all kinds of vague but palpable mystery that whispers of the divine. You’ll feel “in the flow” with new energy and a revived sense of purpose.

2. The devils–people (or systems) who are threatened by your passion or jealous of it because they are lacking it and feel empty.

The obstacles will be new too and formidable. You’ll feel a target on your back and a strange level of animosity that has no proper explanation except that which points off the map to something cooperative and moved by the otherworldly trying to thwart you and divert your path. Weird, I know.

This is the Kiss your Bliss Effect.

Sound at all familiar?

Everything Happens for a Reason?…probably not

Part of my journey, spiritually, has been to move from a fundamentalist upbringing, to an Evangelical / post-conservative theological formal training, and then toward “the mysteries” (i.e. mystic tendencies). What brought me there? Tremendous pain. I usually don’t talk of it for too long. Maybe there’s a memoir in me that should come to light, but the progression is palpable.

In “the mysteries” this means that I don’t think of suffering as a problem, sorrow as un-wellness, or bouts of profound unhappiness as a sign that I have too little faith. In fact, most of the biblical characters were kind of tortured souls. It’s a more recent construct that we should think the life of faith has a “Sunshine Mountain” feel to it.

So, I wanted to write out a few thoughts about what Mark Lepper posed out there on the Twitter-verse (see lower image).

My initial Twitter response (you see below) was less than 140 characters, so I thought I’d add a bit more.

@thelepper Nah. That notion helps us cope, but we can’t possibly verify it. It’s part of “the mysteries”

For just a moment…

Imagine your child kills himself. The most horrid thought (you needn’t linger there).

In the first few days, probably 20 people will tell you, “Everything happens for a reason.” Or, they’ll say, “All things work together for good…” You know the verse, right?


(Probably most people don’t realize how out of context that verse is used that way. Erroneously they utilize just a part of it as a “band-aid platitude” to offer kindness.)

There are a great many things that have no good explanations and will not. The reasons won’t be revealed later either. On earth or in heaven. It really doesn’t work that way. And it really shouldn’t. Otherwise movement toward maturity would be at stake.

Really, it would be too confusing for us that God would answer these questions, so don’t count on an inquiry at the “ask the author” line in heaven, my dear friends.

When the pain of suffering wallops you and you can’t shelve your doubts long enough to work through the real hardship of it, one temptation is to consider that God must be malevolent or AWOL, instead of considering that we can’t possibly know the answer.

It is in the unknowing that we become enlightened to the ways of God.

It seems the two most common tactics (ways of coping) in tragedy are…

1. Try to believe that something horrible or evil has some sort of good redemptive reason, or will eventually come to something good because of it.

(Though it is true that God makes it his business to redeem everything…eventually….somehow…. we can’t think of this backward when we come into pain, and try jumping ahead. Pain can serve a point.)

2. Realize that so much is unexplainable and let our hope and faith erode or dissolve.

But there is a third option. And maybe more than just one more (you can let me know). Another way that’s been employed since humans have had optimism and spirituality (read: a very long time) is…

“the way of the mysteries”. And it’s not a cop out.

It’s farsighted. It’s a perspective that holds that the beauty we witness in this world is almost out of place in the nastiness and madness of it. It’s the idea of (good) ideals we all seem to possess that point to a greater, underlying and sustaining beauty and goodness obscured by the ways of the world, suffering, and the hardships of being human.

To embrace our situation as the mystics do is to not shun hardship or revel in it, but rather to let the pain refine us and make us wise. Oh, and it hurts. It hurts like hell.  And it, in some real sense, beats the hell out of us, and makes us endearing and compassionate. Beautiful.

The trouble is that if we’re satisfying with answers like, “Hey, friend! Don’t worry there’s a reason this horrible thing is happening,” then we are of very little good to those who are truly suffering.

In fact, our notions of “reasons” are often so pale and wanting. They just couldn’t possibly be sturdy enough. They don’t reveal what is legit and accurate.

Only when we can sit there alongside in the pain of those who hurt, and even take a part of the sorrow itself do we find we can make our way, honestly. And too, we must sit in our own pain. It’s uncomfortable. It’s dark. Sometimes horrid.

But to have the permission to hurt can send us toward wellness. It shows us that great sorrow comes on powerfully, and hurts badly, but does not have the final word. In the process of living well and deeply do we like a tender shoot become oaks of maturity and grace.

Please friends, be careful and don’t make a mockery of pain by disrespecting it or minimizing it (for yourself or anybody else). There is no human life without pain. There too is no growth without it. That’s the bit about incarnationality: The divine enters the human experience. That is our model.

So very deeply have I hurt, but now deeply can I love.

It’s true that redemption is chosen.

To be chosen it must first be acknowledged.

(that’s my longer answer)

Heaven is For Real, but is it as silly as they say?

On the recent topic of Heaven (and soon, Hell) here at the old blog, I must bring up the baffling and sappy rendering of the heaven that we hear about quite a bit in conservative North American Protestantism.

If a boy nearly dies, and then tells you details about heaven exactly as you have taught him, what’s next? I’ll tell you what, a best seller (for people who need a spiritual vitamin B12 shot for their excruciatingly literal translations of biblical passages, and who pay no mind to historical context, linguistic idioms, let alone Hebrew and Greek).

Now, I realize young children tell silly stories. That’s part of their job. The trouble comes when the stories get massaged and coupled with a near-death tragedy to elicit a faith response from the more gullible among us. I do want to think the Burpos are on the up-and-up, but something stinks.

I heard Pastor Burpo and his little boy on a television program. What a cute kid. Some of the story seemed amazing, if not miraculous, but I got a bad whiff of something when Colton (really his dad) detailed heaven as, well, super lame.

People get around on their huge wings. Okay, I hope that’s not how it works. Boobs have been bad enough. The proverbial pearly gates make an appearance. The word “wicked trite” comes to mind, but maybe I’m just too cynical. A blue-eyed Jesus wears a purple sash over his white robe, and rides a giantic rainbow colored horse. Okay, bad wardrobe, and how could the genuine biblical Jesus from the ancient Semitic region possibly possess a double recessive gene for blue eyes? (And don’t say, because both Mary and the Holy Spirit had blue eyes, ’cause I’m not buying it.)

I don’t think Jesus rolls like that. But, I give the kid credit: An elephantine rainbow horse is pretty cool. Of course, I would have to know if it pooped rainbow too. That’s awfully critical info. God (the Father) has a body and sits on the throne, with Gabriel serving as a kind of right hand angel man on his left side, in a smaller throne…as we might expect, right? It all sounds like a bad Star Trek episode. Well, sort of.

Reader reviews often complain that only 3 pages of the book speaks of heaven in any details. But the book has done well. Very well. It spent 52 weeks on the bestseller list, and the family has since produced a children’s picture book, and you guessed it, and movie rights have been purchased by Sony. Pretty sweet deal!

Possible movie title: “Heaven is for Reel: One Boy’s Near-death experience as re-told by his literalistic dad”

When the parents are asked about authenticity, their answers center on referring to the hope the story brings. This begs the question, is the point of the book to create hope in a plenty of people already know what they want heaven to be, instead of a faithful depiction of God (who, by the way, is non corporeal) and the Bible? (Which would be far more confusing.) Both can’t be true.

If you want to read a copy for yourself, and decide, here it is.

But, I offer you some thoughtful reflection on the the topic from arguably the foremost New Testament scholar alive today.