I know two kinds of people around this time of year. The ones that can't wait to see their family and loved ones and build more memories, and the ones that are already feeling panic and dread, even though, as I write this, it is not even Halloween.
The first kind really seems to like their family. They accept each other, flaws and all, and are pretty closely knit. If there is alcoholism or mental illness, it is actively addressed and the family supports recovery.
The second, plays a strategic game of survival. Being closely knit comes from obligation rather than genuine interest and acceptance of one another. There are expectations and rules to be followed. There are roles to play and formalities to contend with. Alcoholism and/or mental illness is minimized, ignored, or stigmatized.
I will be honest. I know a lot more about the second type of family than I do the first. And I also know how to approach the holidays (and every other day of the year) so that you can finally maintain your integrity and self-worth, while loving your family.
This is a multi-part series of posts. Today, we will look at signs, symptoms, and long term impact of dysfuntional families.
Sometimes it feels like you are stuck in the book The Emperor's New Clothes. You know there is something off, and you try to tell someone there is a problem, but the crowd around you looks at you like You are the crazy one. It's hard to trust your intuition because whenever you shared your thoughts, feelings, perceptions or needs (growing up or as an adult), it was minimized, denied, rationalized, or blown off. After a while, it makes sense that you don't really trust your own judgement.
You believe you are responsible for others' feelings. You must have caused their distress when you expressed your own thoughts and feelings. You weren't supposed to do that. You knew it would be a mistake, and now look what's happened. Someone's mad and blaming you.
Everything is your fault. Makes sense, then, that you beat yourself up a lot. It also explains why you hold yourself to a different standard than everyone else. You are supposed to be better than you are. Perfect, if possible. And able to control all the things.
Black and white thinking is a side effect of this. It's all or nothing: you're either all good or all bad. Usually bad, but the expectation is perfection. There is no middle ground. Things are either all done right or they are only worthy of being thrown in the trash. The concept of Both/And is a mystery. How does that even work?
Despite all of this, it is imperative that family spend time together at every holiday, every birthday, and every other opportunity in between. That's what families do. And you know your family is no exception because everything is fine. Really, it's not that bad. The feeling of dread you experience is supressed and ignored because there are expectations to meet and things to be done. What kind of a person doesn't love and want to spend time with their family? A bad person, that's who.
Good people meet the needs and expectations of others above and beyond the needs of themselves. That's what love looks like, right? Self-sacrifice with no resentment. To consider any other way would be selfish and unkind. And YOU are a kind, unselfish person. You think......most of the time......maybe not. Maybe you are a bad person. Sometimes, you do feel resentful. If only you would be more sensitive to the needs of others and had more control of everything...
And so, the cycle of self-hatred, over-extension, co-dependency, and perfectionism continues. Anxiety and loathing mounts. Irritablility and frustration overflow and hit the people closest to you on a regular basis. And then, you beat yourself up for beating yourself up. You become anxious about your anxiety and the impact it is having on others.
This cannot continue. Well, it *could*, but eventually many people who are stuck in this cycle become sick and tired of being sick and tired. They want a different outcome for themselves and the family they have created. They would love a way out without feeling like they are a bad person for breaking the family of origin rules.
In my practice, we spend some time looking at the rules of your family that were expressed, implicity or explicity. We talk about the expectations and consequences for those expectations. It's okay to say what you are not okay with. It is a safe place to say outloud all the things you are not supposed to say, let alone think or feel. You can express what you have always wanted to, but been too afraid (because what will people think?!).
We also talk about remembering who you are at your core. You may think you have no real sense of self or identity outside of what you were trained to believe, but the truth is, you are in there. And you can bring that person out and enjoy the life you have always dreamed of but never thought possible.
You will learn how to set healthy boundaries while maintianing the dignity of yourself and those you love. We will explore the impact of expectations and how they can be incredibly useful to you. You will learn how to slow down and stop running from your fears. I know it sounds scary. It really does. Keeping busy is a popular method for attempting to outrun and control the anxiety that has developed. But you can learn how to be okay with slowing down; the power of the phrase "good enough"; even comfortable with taking care of yourself first (in a completely unselfish way. I promise). You can develop autonomy and a sense of self that brings out the best version of you. And that irritability and frustration that keeps overflowing onto others? We will tackle that, too.
If you have noticed that you are feeling uncomfortable reading this, that the hair on the back of your neck is standing up, or you feel slightly nauseous, let me know. What do you think that's about?
If you are ready to get started, schedule a free 15 minute consult. I look forward to talking with you!
Cindy Goeller is a licensed therapist who loves listening to others, eating Maryland steamed crabs, and exploring the Finger Lakes of New York. When she is not in session with her clients, she can be found writing, baking, or spending time with her family.