Dysfunctional Families

Dysfunctional Families

Are you a closeted member of a dysfunctional family?  If so, it’s time to “come out” and be counted; you are far from alone.  Over time I’ve heard about every variety of family unhealthiness: ongoing marital discord; physical, verbal and emotional abuse; dysfunction brought on by a substance-abusing family member; childhood neglect; the list is endless.

Jordan grew up in a family where he wasn’t really noticed.  The third of five children, he was quiet by nature and got “lost in the shuffle”.  Now, wherever he goes, he feels unimportant and invisible, and given his childhood experiences it’s been difficult for him to view himself and the world through a different lens.

It’s easy for any of us to be brought down by the dysfunction we experienced in our families of origin.  People meet with me daily to discuss their sadness and anger about truly painful childhood circumstances.  What we don’t realize is that although we had no choice about the family situations in which we grew up, we do have options about how we let those circumstances influence us today:

  1. We can choose to remain oblivious to dysfunctional family circumstances, often repeating the same unhealthy patterns with our own partner and children.

  2. We can acknowledge our misfortune but remain stuck feeling victimized, bitter and sad about our early circumstances.

  3. Or we can grieve the loss of the family we didn’t have and use this adversity as an opportunity for learning and growth.

Options one and two are what many of us choose; we do so to avoid having to face the past and take ownership of the present.   Although the prospect of doing so is daunting, choosing the third option allows for growth and opens the door for new beginnings; here are steps to help you start your journey:

  • Face your past by writing about it, comparing notes with trusted friends or family members, or by exploring it with a trained professional.

  • Identify healthy patterns that existed in your family-of-origin; things that contributed to the positive aspects of who you are today.  Do so by determining which family patterns made you feel good about yourself, inside the family as well as in the world at large. Keep track of these things and allow yourself to feel gratitude for them.

  • Now look for, and identify, those patterns that have caused you ongoing sadness, anger or low self-worth.  This will be a painful process but remember that acknowledgment is the first step to change. Understand that noticing these patterns doesn’t represent a lack of love for your family or disloyalty to them; it’s simply an acceptance of the fact that your family, like all families, was imperfect.

  • Observe how those early family patterns still shape your reactions to events today.  Could there be another way to interpret the same circumstances; a way that allows you to not condemn yourself and your abilities?

  • When current circumstances trigger feelings of negative self-worth, practice looking at yourself and these circumstances through a new lens; one that allows you to remain feeling positively about you.

  • Grieve the loss of the healthy family patterns you didn’t experience. Although painful, the grieving process is a healthy one; essential if you are to move on to a new life chapter.

Using these guidelines, Jordan worked hard to overcome the dysfunctional family patterns of his past. He struggled to change the lens through which he viewed himself and his relationships, and his efforts paid off. Looking back he is now amazed at the distortion of his old lens. Is it time for you to check the accuracy of your own “vision”?

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