Family of Origin Work Kick-Start with Lisa Brookes Kift

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Last week I interviewed Lisa Brookes Kift, licensed psychotherapist (MFT) and author, about Family of Origin work.  Lisa is a licensed psychotherapist (MFT), based in Marin, California, with a former career in movie production (The Toolbox at Lisa Kift Therapy). She is the author of the Therapy-at-Home Workbooks, and writer for,,,, and more.

Lisa and I discussed a simple self-work tool that you can use to kick-start your own investigation into the unhelpful beliefs stuck on you like slugs from your childhood.


Family of Origin work isn’t a separate type of therapeutic method taught to therapists, rather, it’s one of a variety of tools, or approaches, to overall healing. It’s a way of focusing our work in therapy. It’s a means for making an investigation into our roots with the specific purpose of better understanding ourselves, our ways of thinking, and our beliefs. (Well, maybe not our beliefs–our inherited beliefs.)

Family of Origin work focuses on discovery. It’s about discovering the beliefs of the family with which you grew up , discovering the messages your family gave you about yourself, other people and life, and the values of your family system.  (I wrote about belief systems in this post.) A lot of people associate Family of Origin work with John Bradshaw, who has written extensively on family investigation as a means to healing.

Understanding our roots it’s an essential part of healing. “Until you really get down to it and pull out the root, only then can you make real change,” Lisa says.

Family of Origin work is one of Lisa’s specialties but rarely do clients come specifically seeking to do that kind of work.  Nevertheless, family of origin work happens with almost all of her clients. “John Bradshaw had a big impact on me in the beginning.  My clients have been really moved by that book.”  (John Bradshaw has authored a number of books on emotional healing, but is most known for Healing the Shame that Binds You.)

That said, if you want to find a therapist or do group work that takes a Family of Origin discovery approach, definitely mention that when you start making calls and talking to therapists while seeking the right fit. They’ll know what you mean. A good question to ask would be, “How much of a Family of Origin focus do you typically take with clients? What sort of technique, or questioning, do you use?” Whatever answers to those questions you get will help you determine if you’ve got a potentially good fit.


When it comes to Family of Origin discovery work, part of the work Lisa does with her clients involves coming up with a list of unhelpful core beliefs–the beliefs you inherited, or created in reaction, from childhood.  ”It’s hard to get to that. It really takes some work,” she said. (Think Russian nesting dolls.) Clients seek her out when they’re in a state of acute emotional distress. “They’ll have issues with anxiety and that kind of thing. I see a lot of perfectionistic-types and high-achiever types.”

When I asked her for examples of the unhelpful core beliefs people have, she said: “I’m unlovable.  People can’t be trusted.  The world isn’t safe.”

I don’t have to tell you all that believing we’re unlovable is common among adult children of alcoholics; we tend to enter relationships with people who can’t freely give love, return love, or talk about it.

To create this list of unhelpful core beliefs, Lisa works with clients to examine their triggers.  She helps clients identify, discuss, and better understand their triggers–those things that set them off.  This is what can uncover the unhelpful core beliefs lurking below. This is where she shared a great self-questioning tool that I’m passing along, what I’m calling the unhelpful core belief-finder question.

This method of questioning will help you get your own, home-based Family of Origin work kick-started!


This is the question to ask yourself, over, and over again:

What does that say about you? 

Sure, it’s going to be most effective if someone outside the situation–a neutral party–is posing this question-and-answer exercise, but if you sit down with some paper, or even a voice recorder, you’ll definitely get some results. I hope these sample scripts will help, too.

Lisa gives this example: “Let’s say a client’s triggered by her boyfriend telling her that he can’t get together with her tonight.  She gets worked up, anxious, and goes into a tailspin–it gets personalized. I’ll ask her, ‘What does that say about you that he’s busy?” Lisa will then ask the question again, and again.  ”It’s a Socratic line of questioning.”

(Socratic questioning, also defined here, is a method of questioning that coaches conclusions out of someone, helping them to think deeper and realize ideas they might not have uncovered otherwise. Parents often use this with kids; when your child asks, “Why did the balloon pop?” You ask, “What do you think caused it to pop?”)


Let’s look at Lisa’s client’s trigger issue (a fictionalized example), below:

Please note, in actual practice, the line of questioning would be gentle, careful, and go at an appropriate pace for the client.

Anxious person:   I can’t stop obsessing about how my boyfriend couldn’t get together with me last night.
Therapist:  What does that say about you that he was busy?
Anxious person:  That he doesn’t want to see me!
Therapist:  What does that say about you if he doesn’t want to see you?
Anxious person:  That he’s planning on leaving me, that he’s not into me
Therapist:  What does that say about you?”
Anxious person:  That I’m not worth very much of anyone’s time
Therapist:  What’s that about?
Anxious person:  I don’t feel very…lovable…I guess
Therapist:  And what do you think that feeling is about?
Anxious person:  I can’t trust that I’m someone anyone will really truly love.
Therapist:  What do you think about that?
Anxious person: I want to feel loveable, but I don’t feel that I am.

That person’s unhelpful core belief?  I’m unlovable.

When we get triggered, “there’s a child-like response,” Lisa says. “For children, life is all about them. When someone’s triggered, the child is in charge then. Imagine you, the adult, are driving a car with a child strapped into a car seat in the back. When you get triggered, suddenly that child climbs up front and takes the wheel!” The sensible adult just isn’t in control, and conclusions you come to in a triggered state are going to be in a child-like frame of mind.

Here’s another example of digging out an unhelpful core belief:

Anxious person:  I hate it how my wife doesn’t ask any questions about the new ideas I have.
Therapist:  What does that say about you that she doesn’t ask questions?
Anxious person:  That she’s not listening!
Therapist:  What does that say about you that she’s not listening?
Anxious person:  That she’s disrespectful
Therapist:  But what does all this say about you?”
Anxious person:  Maybe that I’m not clear enough about things
Therapist:  What’s that about?
Anxious person:  It reminds me how my parents were always too busy working to stop and listen
Therapist:  What did that say about you?
Anxious person:  That I’m not very interesting?
Therapist:  What do you think about that?
Anxious person: I want to tell people my ideas but I don’t trust people to stop and listen
Therapist:  What’s that about?
Anxious person:  I’ll talk fast because I don’t think they’ll listen, though I hope they will
Therapist:  Why is that?
Anxious person: I really don’t trust people?
Therapist:  What does that say about you?
Anxious person: I don’t deserve the time it takes to be heard.

That person’s core belief?  I don’t deserve to be heard/people’s time.

Here’s one more:

Anxious person:  I hate it when my sister takes off right after Christmas dinner to do her own thing
Therapist:  What does it mean to you when she does that?
Anxious person: That I’m buying into something she isn’t, that she gets her own rules
Therapist:  What’s that about?
Anxious person:  If we all did what we really wanted at Christmas, then I might not even show up, but I do show up and I want her to make the sacrifices that I do. It’s only fair.
Therapist:  What sacrifice do you make?
Anxious person: I show up, stay longer than I’d like, and make myself appear to be having a good time for the good of everyone there
Therapist:  What does that say about you?
Anxious person: That I don’t deserve the kind of night I might really want
Therapist:  What’s that about?
Anxious person: (Crying) I must sacrifice my wants–I don’t deserve to do what I really would like to do

This person’s core belief?  I should stuff my true desires and pretend for others. I don’t deserve to have fun.

Get the idea?  Your turn!

I really hope you can challenge yourself to this line of questioning, especially during the holidays when there are so many triggers, so that you can move one step closer to healing and growing up.


Just as Baby Boomers are keeping their brains active and learning, staving off Alzheimer’s with Sudoku puzzles, we can create new patterns, new behaviors, and happier lives through putting new behaviors to use in order to create deep, system-level changes inside us. “We know that brains can re-wire. There’s research that shows this,” Lisa said. “Original wounds were born out of attachment issues–disrupted attachment. But people can experience healing through attachment later in life.” Surrounding ourselves with the right people, a trustworthy and loving partner or with a very trustworthy therapist,  are parts of that. Becoming our own loving parent, taking care of ourselves, being consistent and kind with ourselves, is part, too.

I asked Lisa, “So, you don’t think people are just destined to repeat the past, act out their childhoods?”  ”No way,” she said. “Like tends to attract like, sure. You might have someone think, ‘Here I am…with another alcoholic,’ but it’s not a “mistake,” she says. “It’s part of the process.” You have to re-wire yourself, to develop a new norm, be attracted to healthier people.  I told her that I was once cautioned against leaving a relationship because people often leave relationships only to repeat the same patterns in new relationships. “Stay in a crap relationship because you’re afraid you’ll just repeat patterns? Why would you do that?!”

Right. What would that say about me if I’d stayed in that unhappy relationship just because I was afraid of repeating patterns again in my next relationship? (I did the questioning; because of the unhealthy core belief:  I’m destined to have only unhealthy relationships!)

Thank you, Lisa!


Lisa Brookes Kift (The Toolbox at Lisa Kift Therapy) is a licensed psychotherapist (MFT), based in Marin, California, with a former career in movie production. She is the author of the Therapy-at-Home Workbooks, and writer for,,,, and more. Her Therapy-at-Home Workbooks include her Premarital Counseling Workbook for Couples and her Marriage Refresher Course for Couples. Lisa and her work has quoted by notable news media sources, including,, ABC News, MSN Health, Martha Stewart Weddings Magazine, Counseling Today, and others.


Here are a few selected books, most by John Bradshaw, focused on Family of Origin Work:

Extraordinary Relationships by Roberta Gilbert

Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw

Homecoming, Reclaiming Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw

Bradshaw On the Family by John Bradshaw

Family Secrets



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