People who grewup in dysfunctional families are an extraordinarily loyal bunch. All the books about dysfunctional families and alcoholic/addict family systems point to the skewed politics of internalizations of loyalty and the fact that no matter how let down we’ve been, we stay loyal. We feel, illogically, that they’re all we’ve got and that we’re all they’ve got. Ick. Dysfunctional behavior flourishes in an environment of loyalty. Why? All the defensiveness, perfectionism, passive-aggressiveness, controlling, and manipulative behaviors go unchallenged (or are challenged by extreme defensiveness) within a belief system that to question the status quo indicates disloyalty; so as a result of that internalized belief system, we’re a loyal crew, and the unease around us flourishes. Loyalty in the face of chaos and dysfunction is one reason it takes us forever and ever to exit relationships that aren’t good for us. Loyalty has defined us. It feels as if it has kept us safe, feeling safe. We’re taught that loyalty is the glue that keeps us together in a world that will never truly understand. I mean, where—or who—would you goddamn be if not for this family? Who else knows you or is really there for you? Who else has sacrificed for you? They don’t know you. We do.
Oh, please. Emotional blackmail, anyone?
How will you know (a) that your family-of-origin is still dysfunctional (because when you begin to grow and heal, you’ll sometimes forget…after all you’re trained to forget), and (b) how will you know that you’re really being a champion of your personal perspective, truth, and needs?
The answer is this: when your family starts to get agitated, mad, throw emotional darts, stop talking to you, ask if you’re depressed or having some kind of early menopause or cancer of the smart, loyal part of your brain – that’s how you’ll know. You’re finally knowing what you want, seeing things as they are, not blaming yourself, not excusing their behavior, and starting to move past surviving and into thriving when the boundaries you’re setting—and the loyalties you’re no longer recognizing—invoke emotional itchiness in those around you; they’ll reach for whatever blackmail techniques they reach for when they feel threatened. It’s the abandonment that we fear—which I fear, the withdrawal of my family from me just when I’m actually, finally living and behaving from the center of who I really am.
When I first established some boundaries with my family of origin some years ago, I approached it with two priorities: one, that my family not notice the presence of my new boundaries, and two, that I would feel less anxious around family, less angry. It was good for me to do something to lessen my anxiety, but I was adding space at that point and not really changing any dynamics (not that space isn’t helpful, it can be!) I didn’t know any better, but I knew something had to be done and I was trying. All good. More recently, as I’m re-jiggering how I interact with family, they are noticing. (This time I was so focused on what I needed and wanted I forgot to prioritize not being troublesome or threatening to them!) They’re agitated, hurt, and mad. In that way, it’s a bit lonely. But it’s OK. I mean, did I really expect them to appreciate my personal, spiritual, getting-happy for me task? Well, yes, but then, well…wrong family. From the perspective of effective change, their agitation is a good sign. It means that I really, truly did alter my side of the dynamics, even if the new signal isn’t recognized or accepted.
I couldn’t be happier, or feel more…right, like finally, unapologetically right.
So, my new belief is that: we know we’re successfully breaking free—waking up–when the zombies start to grumble froth at the mouth, initiate a fight, when they panic, or accuse us of selfishness, trouble-making, playing the family analyst, refusing to ‘get over’ our silly childhoods finally, rocking the boat, trying to control them or family, of not loving them, being depressed, of betraying them, despite all the things they’ve done for you.
What’s cool is that we can brave this kind of rejection because when we at last come to that point of setting a limit or boundary in a situation and say what we need to say, like, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t come to Thanksgiving dinner at my house high on pot, don’t shake my son upside-down because I’m uncomfortable with it, and I’d like you to finally engage in conversation with my fiancée who has been in our family six years now—or see us less, etc., we’re so freed by asserting our needs that we’re actually OK. Seriously, isn’t that cool?! I think it’s an amazing gift. It comes from a place of having the courage of our convictions. Having the courage of our convictions means not just believing you’re right in crazy-making situations with family, but knowing it with total certainty. Absolutely-completely-right.