Family Messages and Women’s Self-Image

Most of us don’t realize it, but we receive and create messages about ourselves through the interactions we have with our family members- especially our parents and our adult caregivers. This process begins in our childhood and it continues to carry on into our adulthood until we realize its impact on us and choose to change its course.

Think of how many times you have begun a statement with something like this:

“My grandmother always says…”

“The way my parents do it is…”

“My mother always tells me that I’m…”

“My father always likes/dislikes to…”

Our relationship to our family of origin is powerful. Our family messages are powerful. They impact the way we view the world. They form our view of self and relationships. If the messages we received were nurturing, our lenses are filled with hope. When they contain negativity, our world is filled with fear. 

Even when the messages we receive are not directly about us, they shape the way we think. In many cases, our self-image is molded by the opinions and behaviors held by the people who matter to us. For example, have you ever been told:

“Dress modestly. Don’t show your thighs. Don’t wear short skirts. You’re asking for it.”

“You need to lose weight. Men like skinny women. If you’re too fat, no one is going to want you.” 

“Men can’t control themselves. Men have needs.”

“You need to find yourself a rich husband. Women can’t take care of themselves.”

When you’re fully aware of the impact your family messages have on the way you define yourself, it empowers you to make that choice. This is the process I call redefining yourself. It includes sorting through your baggage, evaluating messages you’ve collected over the years, and filtering out the weeds. You may decide to keep the positive influences. Others you will want to let go. 

Your self-image is a work in progress. Just like your body, it changes and grows. When it’s nurtured with positive messages, it blossoms. If it’s fed with shame, it withers. 

When I do EMDR therapy with women who are survivors (I don’t like the word “victims”) of abuse and/or assault, we strive to eliminate the shame factor. I’ve learned that the trauma itself is significant, yet, the family messages the women received matter most. If the trauma is treated with acknowledgement and compassion, the healing can start. When the sexual assault is experienced as shame and secrecy, it hinders the growth. 

Remember, some family messages are helpful. Others are not. It’s true that you cannot change the way how others, especially your family members, express their opinions. But it is your job to step away from the ones that drag you down to a place of unhappiness. If doing this alone is difficult for you, reach out to a family therapist to get help. It’s time to stop your past from jeopardizing your present.