How dysfunctional is your dysfunctional family?

I have yet to meet anyone who thinks their family is “normal”. When I discuss anything to do with dysfunctional families, I’m always fascinated by the range of responses as I share my thoughts. While a large number are appreciative of my understanding of how they might be experiencing the dysfunction and how they might cope, this is not always the case. Some react defensively, feeling the need to protect their family from the threat of any changes to the status quo. Others wear their family like a badge of honour, proud of the fact they are different and struggle with hardships others may never have to face.

There are few topics more personal than family and how we react is relative to the depths of the emotional bonds. How dysfunctional the family really are is also relative.

It is relative to the impact they are having on your health. If you are walking around in circles of chronic stress and worry, carrying the burden of your family around in your head 24/7. Or constantly on tender hooks waiting for the next concern, argument or crisis.

It is relative to the impact they are having on your self-esteem. If you are struggling to say no to unreasonable requests, fearful of external projections of selfishness with internal feelings of guilt. Or holding back expressing yourself openly due to disproportionate emotive response.

And it’s relative to the impact they are having on your life and the freedom to live it as you see fit. If you make decisions out of fear of how the family might react to your choices involving your career, relationships, travel or anything else you feel the urge to try. Or you are simply waiting for them to simply acknowledge you for who you really are.

There is nothing dysfunctional about worrying about loved ones, whether it is a parent who is sick or a sibling who is struggling with work or finance. The urge to help demonstrates a level of compassion sadly lacking in society. But when the need to make sure others are OK is used as leverage to control a person, it may be time to reappraise the relationship and decide who is looking after your health?

It is natural for families to confuse being critical of mistakes with educating. It is even natural to be a little threatened when you stand up for yourself and set a stronger boundary. But this should not be at the expense of making you feel like you are bad person simply for doing what feels right for you.

It is healthy for family to show concern for the direction you take your life. Disapproving of change, such as the choice of partner is normal if your well being is top of the agenda. But when approval is not forthcoming long after a decision is made, it might be time to ask yourself is confidence and freedom being replaced with self-doubt and dis empowerment.

Only you can decide how dysfunctional your family really is and how to deal with them. Making decisions based on love and an acceptance of the reality of conflicting personalities will drive to make choices which might bring you closer. This might include actively working to reduce your own stress levels, expressing what you need from each other (instead of presuming everyone knows), and grounding emotional reactions while staying solution focused.

However, if decisions are marred by low self-esteem and a sense of obligation, a lack of support or just a feeling of being “trapped”, then maybe its time loosen the cords of attachment with family.

There is no magic technique for breaking free of any unhealthy relationships. It is a process of deep reflection, embracing the unavoidable feelings of grief, stripping away the undercurrent of fear and rebuilding self-worth by bringing the right people into your life. It takes time, energy and lots of patience. At times it will feel like an impossible task, but impossible is nothing when hope is our coach.

“Hopeium” may feel like a drug in short supply, perhaps because it is no longer manufactured internally; using resources we were naturally gifted with, such as creativity and intuition. But it always exists; maybe you just need to create space, both physical and psychological so you can tap into it again.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as a functional family, just varying degrees of behaviors and interactions which you either tolerate or give the heave ho. If everyone got on all of the time there would be no opportunity to grow and develop the resilience needed to manoeuvre the many challenges of life. Deciding what you will and won’t compromise is just as essential and this starts with being honest with the impact your family are having and listening to what your instinct is telling you to do next.

Take care,

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