#151 Every Family Has a Story with Julia Samuel, MBE

25 May 2022

Some key takeaways from my chat with psychotherapist Julia Samuel about family triggers, how to open up, the power of food for memory and much more.

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*Explicit Language warning*

Why do families drive us mad? And can we ever aspire to create a family environment that is functional or ‘ideal’?

To help explore these questions I have Julia Samuel MBE on the podcast today to help explain why there is no such thing as ‘the perfect’ family. And actually it’s through pain and even productive fighting that we can have rich, joyful and fulfilling family experiences that emotionally develop us.

​​Julia Samuel, MBE, is a leading British psychotherapist and the author of the Sunday Times bestsellers ‘This Too Shall Pass’ and ‘Grief Works’. During the last thirty years, she has worked first for the NHS and then in private practice, and she is Founder Patron of Child Bereavement UK and a Vice President of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. She features regularly in the national media and has presented the podcasts A Living Loss and Grief Works.

Today we discuss:

  • The concepts of love as medicine
  • Why our food is particularly hardwired in our memories
  • The universality of our experiences show that we are not alone.
  • How we can examine “Inherited family patterns” and prevent trauma
  • Why “Emotional connection is a basic human need”
  • The importance of self compassion
  • How family is the single most important influence on a child’s life and outcomes

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Small trauma can also shape who we are today

There is a misconception that there needs to be a huge event to explain some triggers and fears we carry. But “smaller” events can also shape who we are today. Some trauma is linked to large events like natural disasters or accidents but others are linked to smaller life events like financial worries, interpersonal conflicts, and relocations. They can seem like nothing to others but can change the way we interact with the world. Being able to talk about the things that happen to us and shape us is vital.

Our capacity to face triggers is what allows us to grow from them

If we are going to grow and thrive, there will always be things that come and trigger us. It’s our capacity to face triggers and adapt that allows us to grow. Blocking triggers prevents us from growing and evolving.

Family can trigger us more than anyone else

Where we are most invested, we make our deepest mistakes. We also care most, see each other most and push each other’s buttons most because we know each other most.

The body also remembers. A specific tone of voice or look from a family member can ignite our inner child who comes rearing out. And it takes our adult self to slow down and figure out what’s going on. All these family dynamics are wired in the brain and can make us react more than if anyone else said the exact same thing.

Family dishes are always the best because they are tied to memories and experiences

Food and sitting around a table with loved ones is one of the strongest bonds. Our sense of smell is stronger than any other sense. With smell, we can be brought back in time to our family’s kitchen table. Sharing food holds incredible power for memory, love and a sense of safety and security. Having this sense of love and safety within ourselves allows us to connect to others. Food and dishes can also help us remember people who passed away and keep them available in us for love and support.

Love is our underlying foundation

Love is strong medicine. Loving and feeling loved is how we embrace ourselves and the world. But loving is not a soft skill. It can be hard and take various shapes: loving in action, loving by stepping back, staying quiet, letting go, holding on, moving on. It requires a lot of self-awareness and the capacity to show love even when we are triggered.

The importance and influence of multi-generations

Grandparents can be a source of safety, fun and freedom. Connecting with previous generations can help us understand ourselves because so much gets passed down. When we get those intense emotions or we wonder whether what we are feeling is normal, it probably didn’t start with us. Looking up at what has been passed on and having a narrative can help us make sense of how we’re feeling. Thus the importance of asking questions and trying to understand our family narrative as much as possible.

Some tips to open up family discussions and dive into the family narrative

  • Use your understanding of who your family members are and what they like

  • Step outside in nature – talking on a walk is one of the best ways to connect. The movement helps free our thoughts and feelings. Being outside gives us a space to look at and the freedom to sit in silence with our thoughts.

  • Start with yourself: “What I know is…”, “What I’m curious about is…”, “I’ve been thinking, wondering, listening…”

  • Create an unthreatening environment based on curiosity and the desire to listen to any stories they have to share

  • With consent, record some of these conversations – those are family stories that matter greatly and need to be passed on

How to dampen critical voices in your head

1/ Become aware of their presence

We can get so used to critical voices that they become familiar despite being toxic and cruel. The first step is being aware of those hurtful voices circulating in your mind.

2/ Write them down

3/ Realise that you would never speak to anyone like that

Fighting can be an expression of love – How to fight better

A lot of times we don’t want to fight because we want a “quiet” life, we don’t want the other person to bring their load and add to our own. But fights with loved ones can be a way to learn more about ourselves and the other person. They can set us free and help us grow. It’s about creating a safe environment to express emotions and learn from them.

1/ The rupture

When feelings are exploding, things may get out of control and that’s okay.

But make the rupture less damaging by avoiding:

⛔ Using words as weapons

⛔ Bringing to the table all the things the person did in the past

⛔ Generalising to the person or relationship as a whole

Instead, try to:

✅ Let the heat calm down before coming back to talk about what’s really going on

✅ Identify and understand your triggers: feeling misunderstood, dismissed, unloved, ignored, embarrassed, stuck, judged…

✅ Start with yourself and own your feelings: “I felt… when you…”

2/ The reparation

How we repair after a fight is essential. We can use the clash to learn and understand more about each other.

What were they trying to tell me?

What was I trying to express?

How do I feel now?

What is this fight telling us?

What might come up again in future fights?

Share what works for you on Twitter:

💬 How do you create an environment for healthy fights?

💬 How do you prevent being destructive with your words?

💬 How do you repair after a fight?

There are so many more wonderful pieces of advice and nuggets of wisdom in my chat with Julia Samuel on the Doctor’s Kitchen Podcast, including practices to prevent fractures and how she copes with exposure to other people’s pain.

Check it out here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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