Essays · Life & Stuff

How Family Affects Our Sense of Identity in Adulthood

*Part of the Identity Series*

Intro

Obviously, we know that our upbringing has a direct effect on who we are. In the Nurture versus Nature argument, I lean more towards Nurture. We are a product of our environment.

I am kind because my mother showed me how to be kind.

I am resilient because she has always been so resilient, leading by example.

I am forgiving and good because of my grandparents and my mother.

Simple.

We gain our fundamental values and beliefs from our family. We learn about the world and society through our family’s teachings, first of all. We walk the paths that they lay out for us until we are old enough to decide the path for ourselves.

This means that our families are the beginning for us when forming our identities.

But I don’t want to analyse that too much; it’s been done before. Instead, let’s think about how our family can affect our sense of identity as adults

 

Protection

To our family, we will always be someone to shield and protect.

To our parents (or parental figures), we’ll always need them. Whatever we do will always be tarnished by their perspective as our carers. From that nurturing, protecting position. They will feel resistance when we choose to do something that they deem unsafe or outside of their values.

As we grow, we find new ways to do things and come into our own. But through the eyes of our older family members, they can’t help but poke and prod and say, “that’s not the way it’s done.” (Or some variation of that.) And this calls us to question if we’re doing things right after all.

 

We must be careful with family-time as adults.

Being around family can do a few things:

  • Make you annoyed or reserved because you’re being judged or babied or questioned constantly.
  • Make you defensive because you have to justify your life choices (big or small).
  • Or make you lazy because “mom will do it.

I’ve yet to move out of my family home. It’s me, my mom, my sister (age 21), my partner, and my dog. So, I’ve got my little self-made family (me, partner, dog) living with my birth-family in my childhood home.

This is very confusing and weird for me on a regular basis.

The reason for this is because, naturally, I want to spend the majority of my time with my partner. That’s very normal and natural for an adult woman, right?

But, of course, we’re not alone. Not really. We have two others in the house. So eating alone seems selfish at times. Buying our own groceries or having takeout for ourselves does too. Even though it shouldn’t.

One minute I feel like a grown-up, with maintaining the house and my job and my passions and being with my life partner and discussing the future and all that stuff. But then the next, I’m being told how to do the washing “properly” or that I should iron my trousers! Or I’m being bothered while I’m working from home, with trivial stuff from a nagging mother!

And that’s not a knock at my mom. Mothers are supposed to be like that because it’s their natural instinct to protect and control and keep the order. It’s only when we grow up, of course, that it comes across all wrong and is seen by us as unwanted and “nagging” because we feel we don’t need it anymore.

We’re ready to walk our own way and learn as we go.

But in truth, we know our family (especially our parental figures) will always be there and will always care for us, even to a fault.

I say to a fault because our family’s natural instinct to protect us can hold us back. If we allow our family’s values to be true for us, we may never truly grow. They like us to stay safe, make good money, have a family of our own, and be good. This often doesn’t mean jetting off to Africa on your own, or chasing a dream while penniless, or having sex with strangers, or swearing on the internet.

They try to keep us wrapped up in a bubble, but really, there’s not much room to breathe and grow and spread your wings in that bubble.

It’s hard to know yourself, find yourself, or shape yourself while allowing yourself to be constantly trapped in the bubble-wrap of your family’s making.

Therefore, our sense of personal identity can suffer.

You’re faced with an option: Stay true to what your family wants for you, or break free and find your own way.

Found Family

We make our own friends through life that become a sort of self-made family. Think Friends or How I Met Your Mother; they spend the majority of their time with each other, not their families.

We pick the people we want to spend time with who help us to grow, share our values, and care about us. People who we feel comfortable around and can be our true selves with.

With family, we were born into a community, a unit. And for some, that family isn’t great. For others, it’s downright awful. I’m lucky that I do have a great family, but they’re not…like me. I feel on the outside and uncomfortable when I’m around them for too long. And I think that’s okay. It just means I need other people who I can be myself with, while still loving and respecting my family (and hopefully getting the same in return).

The people we grow up with will, of course, impact who we are. But they don’t get to define us. They don’t get to write the script of our lives. It’s down to us to write our own narrative and become whatever kind of hero we want to be in our own story.

We are the authors, the editors, the illustrators, and the publishers!

(Just to run with the metaphor there!)

 

Being around family will sometimes alter how we behave. We hide parts of our true self. We don’t really want them to know the dark parts, the ugly parts, the hard-to-explain parts, the failures, or the more…inappropriate stuff.

But we should never allow that to mean that who we are is wrong. Or that because our family doesn’t truly know us or appreciate the awesomeness of our true selves that we should avoid being our true selves.

Hell no!

Instead, as I say, find your tribe. Find a self-made extended family who do see you for who you are and love you in your entirety. People who help you to grow and shape your own identity in adulthood. Because I truly believe that who we are is influenced by who we spend most of our time with.

If you feel out of place, self-loathing, anxiety, or discomfort, it might just be because who you spend time with is not in alignment with who you really are. And your spirit, your soul, is crying out to you. And even if those wrong people are family members, you owe it to yourself to get away and find those who nurture your true spirit instead.

Role Models

For many of us, our older family members act as a sort of blueprint for how to live our life. I once wanted to be just like my older cousins, who had gone off to university and graduated to then land great jobs, make good money, find life partners and make a good family life for themselves. They’re cool and intelligent and witty. Perfect role models.

The same goes for my mother. She is a strong, resilient woman who has been through tough times but still manages to support us and keep smiling. To be like her would be an honour.

But again, we must be careful.

If we look to our family as a guide on how to live life, we may miss the excellence that is already naturally within us. To aim to be like your brother, father, or grandfather is great; it’s a testament to how great they are as people. However, those who model their own life to someone else’s runs the risk of becoming someone else and not living their own life.

Going to university because your sister did is not a good enough reason to go. Joining the army because your grandfather did, does not mean it will make you happy and successful like he was.

In adulthood, I think we need role models less, and mentors more. We will naturally see others living lives that intrigue us, but we shouldn’t aim to copy them; instead, we should be instructed by them as we make our own way. Take what works for us personally, and leave the rest.

Instead of moulding your identity to fit with family members, perhaps aim to harness their traits or values. For example, be hard-working, kind, enthusiastic, and ambitious like your mother, but don’t become a chef just because she was if that doesn’t fit with what you really want when you think about who you are.

Don’t force yourself into a stencil just to fit in with your family or be like them.

Last Thoughts

I think that our values and our understanding of the world does, first and foremost, come from our families and our formative years with them. We gain values, beliefs, connections, knowledge, behaviours, and traditions from family. All of these are beautiful, special things that will lay the foundations of who we are.

But when you become an adult, don’t be afraid to question and reshape those foundations. It might just be what you need in order to finally build a real home for yourself that is true to who you are and your personal sense of identity.

 

Conclusion

“How does family affect our sense of identity in adulthood?”

  • They shaped us in our formative years, which can cause an inner conflict when going against them.
  • We can shrink back to who we were when we were young when around them.
  • Their protective bubble can stifle our growth.
  • They can hold us back from being the truest, most expressive versions of ourselves – with actions, words, judgement, or other.
  • They may try to make us follow their wants and needs instead of our own.
  • They can protect us, hold us, and nurture us when the world tries to make us into something we are not.
  • We can question who we are and our life choices when they don’t stack up to familial expectations or values.
  • They can be role models or mentors, and that’s up to us to decide for ourselves.

 

The way I see it, if you can separate family-ties from other personal connections, you’ll be okay. Realise what you gain and need from each individual you interact with. And as long as you never let other people (family or not) dictate who you are, you will be just fine and your identity will be wholly and comfortably your own.

We owe it to ourselves to grow away from family in adulthood to see what we believe in and value for ourselves. To finally take hold of our own lives and who we are.

 


I hope none of this came off as a knock at my family. As I said, I love my family. I’m lucky to have landed a good one. I’m grateful to my mom and my siblings and my grandparents for protecting me, loving me, supporting me, and housing me. All that I am is because of them.

My point is that family is not the be all and end all. That family can have the best of intentions, but their way is not the “right way” to live and it can sometimes hold us back if we think it is. Some people allow their family to dictate who they can be, and that’s just not the case.

Cheerio!

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