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It never fails. About this time of year every year I start getting a pain in my gut and dread with no clear explanation why. Upon later reflection I realize why. It’s because I have to see my family — who are incredibly crazy… and the holidays are coming. I feel guilty thinking this way. Shouldn’t I feel grateful for even having a family? Doesn’t everybody have to put up with relatives they don’t like? Am I not responsible to love them all no matter how they act? After all, my relatives are family. They are the only family I have. So what if my siblings are constantly bragging about their success and children’s accomplishments. Do I have to make a big deal about my dad’s leering eyes at family dinners or my mom’s imbibing a little too much? Everybody knows about my Uncle’s temper when someone doesn’t laugh at his racial jokes. Shouldn’t I be able to put up with these shortcomings for just one day? Actually, the worst part is nobody asking how I am doing and everybody zoning out in front of the TV to watch the big game. And I am no angel either. I do the same myself. Where I feel the pain the most though, is on my children’s faces. They sit quietly off to the side and try to make the most of it. I don’t know how to talk with them about all this. I don’t want to badmouth my family to them either.
How families makes us crazy
Most of us have a certain level of denial about our families. We may hope that this year it will be different than last year or we don’t see the pain our family causes us until it’s too late. The most important human need is the need to belong. We all have a certain level of attachment hunger, particularly around the big family occasions. We want so much for things to go well that we tune our how they don’t go well. Some of us simply space out or imbibe too much just to not see how bad things really are in our family. Just because we were born into a family doesn’t mean that we would automatically choose this group of people to spend time with if they weren’t our family. We all have a loyalty to loved ones and that implies a responsibility to others we love and a wish to be loved in return. Family bonds are way more powerful than friendship ties or even love relationships because they go back into our history and tug at our core heartstrings. Essentially family members live inside us whether we want them to or not. When our loved ones go crazy, so do our insides. When we know how they live inside us we will be more in control of how they affect us. Most of us don’t know how family members live inside of us and we suffer at family gatherings. On a more positive note, when family gatherings are particularly loving, our insides sing and we become transformed in a positive way.
To get a handle on how to be around family it’s best to notice how we are being affected by loved ones in our body. Body awareness helps us identify our feelings, thinking, and possible remedial behaviors. It’s all in our body.
Why can’t they see how nuts they are?
Probably other family members do see how nuts they are and perhaps also think of our behavior as nuts as well. We do the best we know how to do. Also, despite the bonds of family we are each individuals and have had different experiences growing up and perhaps being loved differently by our parents. Who is to say we are right and everybody else is wrong? Clearly there are limits of acceptable behaviors in family. Hurtful behaviors have no place in families.
Yet there is a huge spectrum of ways of seeing our family, based largely on what we want to see. It’s far better to let differences be differences in family and not expect others to conform to our way of seeing things. We can try to get other kin to see our point of view but it’s useless to force our view on other loved ones. Part of being an adult is accepting differences and knowing how to live with them. Our relatives will be less prone to act out if we let them be who they are as we try to be who we are.
Do I really have to suffer just to be in my family?
The answer is “Yes” and “No.” Being around your family if it is healthy will cause you great joy. Being around dysfunction on your family will likely weigh heavy on your heart. It is not your duty to do so. You are not responsible to heal or save your family. The only time you may have to suffer to be around your family is when a loved one is dying and you want to comfort that relative. Other than dying you can and do have the right to set limits with how and for how long you interact with your family. It’s best to pay attention to your gut to see when and for how long family interactions are tolerable. When you have reached your limit of tolerance it’s best to say goodbye for now and make other plans for your holiday celebration. Your relatives may dislike that you are essentially picking and choosing what parts of family gatherings you attend. But go ahead anyway. You have the right and responsibility to yourself to pick and choose. Generally it’s not best to completely cut your family out of your life — a part of you always loves and needs your family no matter how awful they are. You are not required to put up with violence, excess drinking, inappropriate sexual expression or continuing unwanted attention from a family member who has abused you. Allowing yourself to get hurt will never heal things between you and your family. You are also not required to tolerate odious parts of family gatherings for another’s sake. It’s best to meet separately with relatives who respect you and cordially distance from relatives who do not respect you. It’s wise to treat all relatives with respect as this only respects yourself. It’s also wise not to not hang out with relatives that scare you to death, even when you can’t identify why you feel the way you do. Ask a trusted friend or relative if your reactions make sense and then follow those instincts. If you feel you have to toe the line with some relative for some hidden gain it’s best to not make deals with the devil, although the choice ought to be yours to make. Some devils we live with because we are too scared to live without them. There is nothing wrong with being too scared and waiting until you get support and get stronger for later assertiveness. Small changes with family are generally the best way to go as it will give you a much needed sense of control.
What can I expect when I become more adult around my family?
Setting limits with family, paying attention to how we are affected by family, speaking up about our needs and maintaining loving connections to relatives we don’t necessarily like can make us more mature and proud of ourselves. If you lessen your overall involvement in family turmoil, holiday gatherings may become more tolerable, at least for you. But make no mistake, rocking the boat often has a price to pay and will not go unnoticed. Generally, the terrible things we think will happen do not happen as relatives may adjust to the new “you.” However, like a tsunami wave wheeling up in the ocean, small waves can have big consequences, not all of which are bad. Generally the waves in families dissipate over time or else raise some unanswered question and perhaps result in healthier ties. We are each small potatoes in the bigger scheme of family dynamics and we have less to actually fear in speaking up for ourselves than we imagine. In some families speaking up for ourselves can be initially catastrophic but over time the waves calm down back to normal. The fact of the matter is that we all need each other in our families and we usually find ways to tolerate each another no matter what. One of the best payoff’s for speaking up and being ourselves is that it improves our relationships outside our family. We become different people when we speak up and it really shows up in our public life. Just remember there is always someone else out there who can care for us who isn’t a member of our family. Finally, never make changes in how you relate to your family until you have authentic support from some trusted friends, support group or therapist. Never face your family alone.
Life beyond your family
Yes, there is life beyond your family of origin. When you get a strong support system in your life it can feel like the best thing that ever happened to you, so much so, you can hardly believe it is real. But it is real, often times more real than the family you grew up in.
The real place to work on family is in your life beyond family. You carry your family inside of you all the time and you will unconsciously relate to others as if you — and they — are in your family. So if your dad was controlling you may expect all men to be controlling and react with a defensive posture towards all men. You may wonder why relationships with men never work out or why men start off being kind but later turn into tyrants with you. This is called “Repetition Compulsion,” where we can’t stop turning others into old family members or acting like our parents. This negative pattern can be changed if we become consciously aware of how we participate in old family patterns and know how to be open to love with some skills and good judgment. For instance, in this example you may want to go slow in relationships and discern if the person you’re with really is controlling or not. If you have ample evidence don’t even dream of changing him, just have a friendly goodbye ASAP. Perhaps you need to be open with strong men who actually respect your wishes and can tune into your heart. from page 4 Snapshots of Serenity
Most of us persist in reinventing our families in other people until we have finally learned our lessons. Most of us are too scared to find true love and we’d rather settle for old familiar patterns which hurt us again. Most of us have the darndest times convincing ourselves that we deserve true love. True love freaks most of us out until we can settle down and accept the magic of love. Often in long-term quality relationships, even after years of being together, people have to pinch themselves to believe they deserve what they have with another person is real and will last. True love with a friend or life partner is as good as it gets and is all we’ll ever need.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.