“I had a perfect childhood.”
“All of my family is so close.”
“People call us the perfect family.”
Whenever I hear statements like the ones above, I begin to get nervous. And I think about people I’ve worked with who’ve said similar things, only later to discover what “perfect” really meant.
Everything looked happy and normal on the outside, while on the inside, there were unspoken rules of what you couldn’t do or who you shouldn’t be.
Let’s talk about Mark.
He had come into therapy after being hospitalized for depression and suicidal thoughts. Part of his therapy was beginning to recognize how his biological family’s dynamics had affected him — and how, in the present, the family unspoken rules were clear — “Don’t rock the boat.” “Don’t bring up something that might cause discomfort or conflict.” “Family always first.”
Mark’s family had had some rituals that had felt warm and amazing to him as a child. Even now, some of those rituals were continued. For example, every winter, all the family went skiing. Aunts, grandparents, first cousins, siblings – anyone who could reasonably walk and talk — went on the annual vacation. And everyone did everything together. “Where does everyone want to eat?” “What shall we do tomorrow?” All decisions were group decisions and as a kid, all Mark remembered was a feeling of tremendous closeness and camaraderie. People played games, sat by a roaring fire, shared the cooking and clean up tasks — something out of a Hallmark commercial or a storybook. It had felt wonderful and he wanted his own children to experience the same.
Mark’s wife, however, had grown up in a much more independent family. She chafed a bit at the “all for one and one for all” mentality and suggested that this year, they take a couple of days away to be together with their own children, privately.
Mark rationally agreed that that was a great idea. But he fought a tremendous sense of disloyalty. It might appear that he wasn’t appreciating the gifts his family offered, or that he was selfish or uncaring about his parents’ generosity. The feelings of guilt and shame he had to fight – to simply spend some alone time with his wife, son and daughter, were intense.
“It was like fighting a ghost…”
The feared fallout from his family was indirect — because, of course, disappointment couldn’t be expressed. He heard later that his mom said something about his wife’s family not being “close,” but that was it. When their alone time ended and he, his wife and kids returned to the fold, things were pleasant, but no questions were asked about their couple of days away.
Mark was left with emotions that were hard to pinpoint. He explained, “It was like fighting a ghost. It wasn’t tangible, but I knew the expectations were there and very real.”
Mark had learned that pleasing family — being who his parents needed him to be — was paramount. He said with a fair amount of irony that his own marriage looked perfect to others — he’d created what was familiar. But he’d had an affair — and he and his wife were working very hard on reconciling and working on what was wrong between them. (You won’t be surprised to learn that he struggled to talk about how he was truly feeling…) He made the connection between old resentment and anger he’d suppressed and his present-day struggle with meeting his wife’s reasonable expectations.
Mark made steady progress, although from time to time his depression would become stronger, and he had to learn how to manage what he recognized now was a lifelong struggle with insecurity while craving praise from others, avoiding thinking about mistakes he’d made yet holding onto shame about them, and feeling dependent on making a lot of money to achieve a sense of value.
By the way, only one of his sisters had ever asked about his depression. She’d pulled him aside right before leaving his home for a holiday celebration. “That depression thing? You’re good now, right?”
For the others, it was as if his stay in the hospital hadn’t happened.
“There are things we simply don’t talk about…”
Maybe you grew up in a family like Mark’s and have confusing feelings about them. It’s tricky. It’s not abuse. It’s not neglect. It’s not having to deal with a parent who has a drug or alcohol addiction. Other people tell you how lucky you are and there’s often a lot of actual love and caring expressed.
Yet that support can be conditional.
There are things you don’t talk about. There are things you simply don’t do.
And if you don’t follow the rules, the silence can be deafening.
To identify your own possible perfectly hidden depression, you can take this questionnaire.
You can hear more about PHD and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.