Standing Up

Geoff came in to see me, feeling on edge.  He was troubled by an extended family situation that had gone on for years; one where, in his opinion, injustice had reigned.  The needs of certain family members had been repeatedly overlooked, while other relatives were singled out for special treatment.   A family wedding brought his old feelings about this situation to a head.  He was tired of observing the mistreatment and neglect of certain family members; ones who hadn’t the strength to advocate for themselves.

I could well understand Geoff’s dilemma:  He wanted to say or do something about the injustice of the situation but also knew that people don’t change.  Would speaking up be a waste of energy and have no impact?  If that were the case it seemed illogical to register his anger, hurt and disappointment.  On the other hand he knew he could no longer stomach the injustice and that he had to do something; thoughts and feelings about it consumed him.

If you’ve ever dealt with a similar situation you’re aware of the flood of memories and emotions that it evokes.  How do you honor your feelings while at the same time not do unnecessary harm to others?  Each situation is different but here are some general guidelines to consider:

  • Before taking any other action, air your intense emotions and thoughts with a trusted advisor; one who has some objectivity about the situation.  Notice how hearing yourself speak in a safe and nonjudgmental space can be incredibly clarifying and calming.

  • If you want feedback from your advisor ask for it; if you don’t, let her know that as well.

  • Now that you’ve aired your thoughts and feelings put them on paper in the form of a letter.  What would you wish to say to the person whom you perceive caused the injustice?  Often people feel great relief from simply putting a cohesive message in writing.

  • Now edit your letter as though you plan to deliver it – but don’t.

  • If at this point you experience significant relief you may not need to share your thoughts with the perpetrator; getting them out of your system and on paper may have been healing in and of itself.

  • If, on the other hand, you are still unable to move beyond the situation, consider the consequences of delivering your message.  What, potentially, could be the worst fallout from sharing your thoughts with the individual(s) who inflicted pain on others?  What could be gained by communicating your thoughts?

  • If the plusses of sharing your thoughts and feelings truly outweigh the minuses, and if you believe you can live with the worst possible outcome if you do speak up, than do so.

  •  If, on the other hand, you conclude that doing so would leave you and/or those family members who’ve been mistreated or slighted in a worse position, maybe the answer is to work on accepting that in this case not taking action is the best answer.  By recognizing that not speaking up is a choice (rather then something that is being imposed upon you) your decision may be easier to accept.

Family dysfunction has been the subject of endless plays, books and movies.  Since we humans are imperfect, so are our families. Hopefully these guidelines will help you decide the best course of action when such dysfunction feels unduly unfair or harsh.

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