June 25, 2017

What To Do About Family…

One of the most pressing issues for most people, as they strive to build and maintain healthy lives, is trying to figure out what to do about family.  It might be just one or two family members who are causing pain, shame, anxiety or anger, or it might be the whole lot of them.

What causes the most problems in families?

  •  History of dysfunction.  And this history continues to be dysfunctional in the present.  Unresolved abuse/trauma/hurts have a tendency to raise their ugly heads on a regular basis until you understand what they are and heal from them and figure out how to handle the after effects.

  • Past/present blows to SELF ESTEEM.
    • If you were not treated as if you had value in the past, it is likely you will not be feeling good about yourself and will continue to feel as if you are put in the “one-down” position by family members or friends or work relationships.  They might actually continue to treat you the same way they did when you were a child with lifelong patterns of interaction being hard to change.  No matter what you try to do differently they may stay stuck in these unhealthy and dysfunctional patterns and leave you feeling unworthy, unloveable and full of pain, shame and anger.

    • If your family treated you as if you had more value than others and continue to elevate you above others in the family or the outside world, you will likely carry self-doubt, guilt, pain, and shame as you navigate the real world of relationships.

  • Unhealthy and dysfunctional boundaries.
  • Lack of acceptance of who you are or how you might be different than the rest of the family.
    • As we grow up we might decide we have different values or look at the world differently than the people we grew up with.  In some families this is celebrated as they enjoy having new ideas brought in to consider and see it as enlightening and challenging.  In other families being different is seen as a threat to the status quo or as rejection and they can reject anything new by trying to change you back or try to beat you down to get you to comply with their idea of how to be.  If you stick to your guns you may find yourself on the outside looking in, in your own family.

  • Valuing the needs and wants of all family members in unequal ways.
    • In dysfunctional family systems, not everyone is treated with the same measure of respect and love.  There can be one person whose needs and wants pre-empt everyone else.  Or there’s a pecking order and people are valued and tended to only after everyone on the list is taken care of first.

  • Not being moderate in response to each other and life in general.

    • It is human nature to react in the extreme and this creates immoderate responses in others.  In some families it is not acceptable to show any emotions or talk about any conflicts, while in others it is no holds barred, do and say anything you want, as loud as you want, as violent as you want, as hurtful as you want, with emotions being vomited all over everyone.

So, as you try to get healthy, try to build your own life or family as an adult, you might find yourself doubting whether or not you can do it and still be part of your family.  Engaging with them can lead to feeling alienated, shameful, angry, hurt, powerless and hopeless.  It can be a tough decision to make when you think you have to decide between having your own life in which you get to be yourself or being part of your family.

Many shrink from this ominous task in fear of losing the connection of their family that has been the grounding they have counted on to keep them anchored and worthy.  The fear is that they will be alone forever, unloved and lonely with no meaning to their lives.  Yet, to continue to try to fit the square peg of your true self in the round hole of your family’s generations of patterns of relating, can leave you feeling worse.

What to do, what to do?

In the process of growing up/getting healthy/recovery/individuation we have many options for how to handle this.  If we continue in immaturity, we react in immoderate ways.  We keep quiet, grin and bear it.  We rage and manipulate to get our way.  As functional adults we try to find the moderate path to being an individual adult who has healthy functional relationships (whenever possible) with our family members.

Seeing a therapist can help you identify what the core issues are so you can decide what you want/need to change and what you can let go of.  Once you know the issues you have options on what to do about them.

  • Sometimes just by changing our own behavior and responses can change how others treat us.  We can be the best person that we want to be and see if others adjust accordingly.

  • We can start to tell people when we don’t like something and ask them to behave differently with us, setting boundaries and holding the line on a daily basis.  For example, many people have parents or siblings who have drinking or drug problems and they create drama and discord and abuse their family members in many different ways.  Deciding not to talk to them or visit them when they are under the influence can be a big step towards a healthier life for you even though others will not like it.

  • We can invite family members to join us in counseling to try to work with them on how to improve our relationships.  For many family members, once they understand how you’ve been feeling, they are happy to work on adjusting their behavior and have no intention of having you feel unloved or unworthy.  Some are unwilling to hear it or feel so attacked they shut down.  It’s always worth a try to see if fences can be mended.

  • We can limit our contacts with people we don’t feel safe or valued with.  You might have a family that gets together every week for a big family party and you leave feeling terrible every time.  Maybe start to go less often and see if you can tolerate it any better.  You might feel better knowing you only have to see them once a month or twice a year.  Some people have felt obligated to speak to a parent daily even though the conversations leave them feeling depleted and full of shame.  Deciding that you have the right to choose can improve your life pretty quickly, maybe less often or maybe limit it to 5-15 minutes instead of the 2 hour “chats”.

  • Last resort, for many, is to let go of family members and build a new “family”.  Each of us gets to decide for ourselves when enough is enough.  If this happens for you, be assured that there are many people who have chosen this path and found wonderful people who like them just the way they are, who have their back and have better connection skills to build a new core group with.  It is not “second best” if your first best makes you miserable.

Be kind to yourself and try to figure out what brings you joy.  You have the right, and you deserve, to feel joy in your relationships.  Relationships, like people, are perfectly imperfect, and so you should not expect constant joy.  What you can hope for and expect is to have people in your inner circle who are kind, loving, respectful and generous who are “works in progress” themselves and willing to grow and change to build empathic connection in relationships with you.  Trust me, there are many people, like you, in the world looking for a new group to belong to.