family dysfunctionMany people have relatives who are hazardous to their mental health.   In all family systems there are roles and expectations for each member.  And there are established rules, both spoken and unspoken.

Much of the work for recovering sex addicts and for people generally involves understanding the roles we played in our family and the damage that may have been done to our sense of self.  This is not always easy.

We grow up wishing to believe that our parents were good and we make excuses for them if they were not.

As children we tried to fulfill our caregivers’ expectations of us in order to gain their approval and bond with them.  Looking at them critically and seeing them as harmful is not only difficult, it is a rebellion against the family rules.

The harmful effects

Although we may not see our relatives very often, we carry the residue of their world view and their opinion of us around in our heads.   We often feel obligated to see them from time to time even if this is a negative experience.  For many recovering addicts, the experience of being around parents and other family members can be downright harmful.

If we are in the process of changing, and if the family system is the same as it always was, what do you think will happen when we meet up?  Nine times out of ten we fall back into our old role; the screw up, the scapegoat, the misfit or some other shameful or corrosive image of who we are.  We unconsciously begin to accept that we are as they see us.  This will undermine our newly forming sense of validity and can lead to a return to our addictions as a tried and true coping mechanism.

It is important to note that not every child in a family is impacted in the same way or to the same degree.  Often my clients are mystified by the fact that their siblings seemed relatively unscathed.  But many factors such as birth order, temperament, and the ability of a parent to bond well with one child but not with another can leave one child more damaged and another not.

Reunion fantasies

The idea of a “reunion fantasy” is one I first heard from Dr. James Masterson.  It means that as the memory of the toxicity or negativity that characterize our experience of particular relatives fades we find ourselves lulled into believing that it will be different this time.  We forget how quickly we can be pulled back into feeling ashamed, inadequate, or on trial.  We think it will be different this time but this is usually a fantasy.  The only exception is when the relative or relatives in question have themselves gone through major growth and change.  If they are on their own journey of self awareness then we may be pleasantly surprised that we feel more comfortable, more validated.

But often the reunion fantasy goes down in flames and we swear we can’t handle one more family holiday or obligatory event.

Finding the health in the system

Most people manage to survive the negative influences of their relatives and even come to some level of acceptance and reconciliation later on.  But what happens in the meantime?

A trial separation may be a healthy thing

In the short term I often find myself supporting the idea of suspending all contact with parents or caregivers who continue to give off a toxic message of negativity and a vote of no confidence to my clients.  This sometimes takes a great effort and a lot of resolve because the undertow is so strong and also because the parents or relatives do not understand what is going on.   But it can be worth it.  It is liberating to say “I will protect my new found sense of self; I will not expose myself to someone who devalues me.”

You may get everyone mad at you

If you are the only person in your family who is courageous enough to challenge the old system, you may find yourself isolated.  If you are growing and everyone else is standing still you may actually experience rejection.  A friend recently complained that she couldn’t take the negativity, and gossip and criticism that her relatives spewed about one another.  She wanted to run from the whole scene.  Actually this is a good thing, as uncomfortable as it may be.

Be aware that self activation can lead to grief

The act of trusting yourself and deciding to forge a new identity means cutting a tie.  This always involves a feeling of loss because we are letting go of the fantasy of ever having the kind of family relations we would have wanted.  It is depressing and there is an inevitable let down that accompanies the act of self liberation.

Talk to your siblings about the past

In a troubled family system there is often a rule of silence.  Siblings may never talk to each other about the hurt they have experienced.  In recovery it can be source of validation to compare notes with the people you grew up around, to get a variety of perspectives and memories.  This helps enormously in putting the pieces together and making sense out of our past.

Most of all trust your gut level feelings.  You alone must decide what influences you want in your life and in your psyche.  Find the strength in the family system, the people who make you feel supported, and move toward them.   Give yourself permission to detach from those who take away from your serenity and your strength.

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