September 28, 2011

Family Matters - Part 1

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationships that play such an important part in shaping who we are – family. Growing up in a family where abuse or dysfunction is occurring is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult things a person can face. Even if the abuser is outside of the family, the way in which our family responds to the abuse is fundamental to how we are able to cope and heal.

It’s no easy thing for a parent to find out that their child has been abused, let alone if the abuse is at the hands of their own spouse or family member. This isn’t to let them off the hook if their responses were less than supportive or, at worst, they outright denied that abuse was happening. It is simply an effort to acknowledge that abuse or dysfunction convolutes the roles and relationships within a family.

There are some common cultural traits in families where abuse/dysfunction is occurring (adapted from Shelter from the Storm):
  • Needy family members receive an inappropriate proportion of the family’s time, attention, and energy so that members learn to be overly-responsible toward needy people and irresponsible about themselves.
  • Denial and secrecy are encouraged or it is implicitly understood that some things are just not to be talked about.
  • Emotions are repressed, explosive, or both.
  • Children are not taught effective living & relationships skills. Children do not learn to touch, feel, or trust. They learn to expect rigidity and emotional or physical abandonment.
  • Members are squeezed into rigid, inappropriate roles.
The last thing on the list above refers to the fact that children in families where abuse/dysfunction occurs generally develop survival roles. These roles are either assigned by the family or unconsciously chosen by the child.

Some examples of survival roles include (from Shelter from the Storm):
  • Scapegoat: usually blamed for family problems
  • Hero: works hard to bring respect to the family name
  • Surrogate Spouse: often takes the place of the emotionally absent spouse and becomes the child counselor for a troubled adult parent
  • Lost Child: never gets in the way or causes trouble because this family has enough problems
  • Surrogate Parent: takes over responsibility of parenting tasks
  • Clown: avoids the pain by being the center of attention
These roles are critical in helping one cope with the abuse/dysfunction. Yet, whatever role it is you played in your family, you’re likely still caught up in playing that same role today. Even if you manage to step away from the role when you are on your own, as soon as you are around your family members, you fall right back into old patterns of relating and being. It’s kinda like how my Oklahoma accent really shows up as soon as I’m around my mom!

The more we play these roles in our families, relationships, in our jobs, the more we come to believe ourselves to be trapped and stuck in these ways of being. We have it that we “ARE” this way, and so struggle to see ourselves capable of anything else. When you have it that you “ARE” the clown, the loyal daughter, the scapegoat, the black sheep of the family, the outsider, the child-parent, the achiever – this keeps you trapped with no possibility, because you frame all of your behavior with this lens or limit yourself to a particular way of being.

Additionally, these defined roles limit who we get to be for ourselves and others, keeping relationships superficial and limited. For example, if you define yourself as “the caregiver,” then you will never relax and let others care for you! You trap yourself and steal from others the gift of being able to support and love you.

Our families play a critical role in shaping who we are, how we define ourselves, and how we think about others. The messages we get from our family are like telegrams that were sent long ago and became wired into our thinking, but all of that is up for grabs now. You get to choose at this point which things you believe, which things you don’t believe, and which things are really just about them, that is their stuff. You don’t have to continue playing the roles that were assigned or that you chose as a child and you certainly don’t have to take all of the lessons you were taught about relationships or who you are as the bottom line truth of things.

What role did you play in your family? Is this a role you continue to play today? If so, what can you begin to do to break away from this role?

What messages about relationships or who you are did you get from your family?

What do you have it that you “ARE”? How do you define yourself?
Example: I am the practical one, I am the dependable one, I am the caregiver

If you’d like to challenge the roles you are playing or the messages you received from your family in order to break free of patterns of thought or behavior that are holding you back from living a life that you love, just schedule a 30 minute FREE discovery session. Right now – receive 6 sessions for the price of 3!

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