Kelly writes, “Just found this site and love it. I have done years (30) of work on my issues. In the past few years, having moved back in the vicinity of my family, I find it extremely hard to tolerate them. After years (lifelong)of discounting, minimizing, and scapegoating by them, it seems I’ve become so healthy I can barely be in their presence because they are such wounded, fearful, unloving people. I used to respond to this with compassion and deep down I think a sacrifice of my true self (per usual) but I’m no longer able to do this. Instead I often feel rage, violation, and find myself speaking up and setting boundaries that totally baffles them (given their lack of healthy boundaries) and I can barely stand to be around them. If it weren’t for my grown children who see them as extended family and would not understand, I might cut off all contact. Thoughts?”
When Kelly offered this comment, I knew I wanted to do a post on the subject. I have seen families rupture and families heal. I have often been surprised, both positively and negatively. Here are some thoughts.
First, why are family ties so important and feelings so intense? Let’s go back into recent history. In the 40s and 50s, John Bowlby pioneered attachment theory, taking the then-unpopular position that family bonds were critically important in human development. He shocked the professional world by saying that children in orphanages were damaged by the broadly accepted notion that attachment to caregivers should be discouraged lest the child become “dependent.” In fact, children deprived of human attachment generally did not become dependent; they died. They died of illness and hopelessness, and, if they survived, they were emotionally unable to form healthy bonds. They developed what is now called reactive attachment disorder.More recently, Daniel Siegel and others have used the term interpersonal neurobiology to describe the study of how the human brain is fundamentally built for relationship and can’t function optimally without close emotional ties even with the storminess that is so common. In short, we are made to be part of families.
But we are individuals as well as members of a family and we all have needs. When our needs come into conflict with those of other family members, and they are the intense kinds of needs that family bonds normally fulfill, then not only is there trouble, but it is bound to be powerful, highly emotional trouble.
Kelly suggests that her original pattern of reaction was to fix the others’ wounds by sacrificing herself and by a kind of “compassion” that was closer to whitewashing others at her expense. The problem is that we all have an internal “bean counter,” a part of our mind that keeps accounts to the penny and knows exactly who really owes what to whom. Her “bean counter” knew that as she made sacrifices to shelter others from their own sickness, she was giving them an involuntary debt to her that they would never pay back. Eventually the dam (bank?) had to break, and, at that point, the one who had given too much and received nothing cannot not help but feel intense anger and resentment.
Now who is wrong? Is it the family members who allowed Kelly to shoulder the burden of their sickness or is it Kelly, who loaned a part of herself that she couldn’t afford to lose to people with bad credit?
In general, I think it is best, if possible, to complete one’s own personal work on this kind of issue first, before creating or allowing a family crisis. That means examining our own inner child’s belief that self-sacrifice will make things right and/or hope that by taking on burdens that are clearly not ours, God or someone big will see that those who refuse to take responsibility, are in the wrong. (These are what I call hidden agendas.) When we have opened our mind and thoroughly explored our own motivations and beliefs, then we can let go of the resentment and sense of unfairness and hurt. We can ultimately write off debts that will never be collected and heal. When we are emotionally ready to accept the ugliness of humanity, even in our own family, then we can make peace with what we cannot change. When that work of acceptance is done, deciding how to handle family relationships becomes much more feasible.
If you find yourself wanting to get revenge or teach the others a lesson, or get them to open their eyes, or get someone else to recognize how bad they have been, then you probably have not completed your own emotional work. Any of those motives is understandable, but in the real world, they will only increase the pain and heartache. Trying to change others is one of the least rewarding things one can try to do. Furthermore, your efforts will not only fail, but will also give the others license to retaliate and to blame you for their actions. On the other hand, protecting yourself is an important part of healthy life. This is what Kelly didn’t do at first. If, in order to protect yourself, you must distance from there, there may be good reasons to do so. Anne-Sophie, a blogger, has a post with interesting suggestions. It is called, “Is it Time to Break Up with Your Family?”
I once worked with a couple whose relatives were convinced that, as a group, they were particularly moral and virtuous people. The problem was that the trappings of morality covered up a long tradition of cruelty, scapegoating and subtly encouraging certain members to act out in hurtful ways. One of the relatives acted in a covert, but particularly hurtful way to the wife and children of the family I worked with. Of course the wife was the one who had been traumatized by cruel treatment in her early life. She was the natural target of the hurtful one. Eventually, the injuries could not be ignored. When the hurtful relative said, “But it was only a joke,” the answer had to be, “Joke or not, it caused me pain and I don’t want to be part of that any more.”
Then all hell broke loose in the family. The whole extended family rallied around the cruel one, trying to get my couple to admit that they were “overreacting.” The extended family was protecting its illusion of virtue and goodness at the expense of truth. The result was a huge rift and a great deal of emotional energy and pain on all sides as the family tried in vain to keep from breaking. This was an example of my couple refusing to shield the extended family from the consequences of their covert and largely unconscious support of cruelty.
In taking a stand and holding to their truth, the couple I worked with came under intense fire. To withstand the onslaught, they needed a good deal of inner peace and self-honesty. Without that, a true feud could have broken out, and would have done no one any good. The best they could do was to hold to their reality, but not try to change the others. The simple refusal to be dishonest still led to a tremendous family upheaval as the others tried in vain to deny or explain away the hurtfulness that had, in fact, been a repeated pattern.
I have often been impressed an even surprised at the power of honesty expressed without anger. More than once, I have seen the sicker members, those who wanted to scapegoat the healthier ones, eventually coming back to heal rifts that have been in place for years. I have also seen the opposite, where an abuser, for example, even on his deathbed could not face the truth of what he had done.
Here are some lessons I have learned:
1. Never say never. Humans are always capable of surprising us with honesty and readiness to change. The need to repair family bonds is one of the strongest forces in us and can work miracles when they are least expected.
2. Outsiders have a lot of trouble accepting a rift in a family. “How can you treat a little old person like that.” They don’t realize the magnitude of the hurt that “nice” appearing people can perpetrate on one another within a family.
3. People who have made a career of being dishonest, consciously or unconsciously, must face very powerful shame and guilt if they hope to become honest. Often this is simply more than they can do.
4. Holding family members accountable unleashes tremendous emotional energy and poses a real challenge to those who make the decision to do so.
5. Expressing anger will almost always lead to retaliation and give the other side an excuse to feel justified. Impulsively burning bridges may go further to block future healing.
6. Any attempt to change others who don’t want to change is probably an indication that your own emotional healing is not done and needs to be attended to first.
7. Protecting oneself is an important part of healthy living and may necessitate doing things that are unpopular with others.
8. A middle ground may be to speak the truth but not argue it. It is possible to hold one’s ground without trying to change others. (Ask me more about this and I can talk about what such a stance looks like.)
I hope these thoughts are helpful and would like to encourage readers to share their experiences and thoughts. RETURN TO MAIN BLOG PAGE