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How to free yourself if you’re caught in a dysfunctional family cycle
Many people who’ve been brought up in a dysfunctional household would agree with the famous words that open Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Yet Tolstoy’s great novel -- which ends in heartbreak and tragedy -- is still only a work of fiction. Real life provides countless examples of men and women who’ve overcome a dysfunctional background to author a happy ending for themselves and the people they love.
The process of healing begins with acknowledging that a wound exists. ‘Everyone wants to believe that their family was or is “normal.” The members of a dysfunctional family are no different.’ The members of a dysfunctional family are no different. Yet the more they have to rationalize to make it seem normal (e.g., “I wasn’t beaten; I was just spanked” or “My mother isn't verbally abusive; that’s just her way”), the greater their risk of misinterpreting situations and developing negative self-concepts in the process (e.g., “I had it coming; I was a rotten kid”).
Furthermore, those who haven’t learned new and healthier life skills than the ones handed down to them by their family tend to repeat the same unhealthy patterns within their own families. These classic dysfunctional dynamics are summarized below:
Sweep problems under the carpet.
Your parents may have warned you not to talk about your family’s problems or simply refused to ever discuss them themselves. As result, you've learned to bottle up your emotions, which then manifest themselves in unhealthy ways (e.g., addictions, promiscuity, explosive anger).
Don’t express your feelings openly.
Though North Americans in general are less open about their emotions than people in other cultures, the dysfunctional family takes this reticence to an extreme. You don’t get into feelings; you don’t explore them; you don’t talk about them. The same message may be sent when a frightened child tries to crawl into a parent’s lap and the parent acts tense and uncomfortable. The dysfunctional family handles everything at arm’s length.
Don’t address issues or relationships directly.
Communication is done indirectly, with one person acting as a messenger between two other family members (triangulation). In many cases, the burden of maintaining open lines of communication is shifted onto children, who feel it’s up to them to “fix things” between non-communicating parents. This leads to confusion and guilt for everyone, especially kids, who often blame themselves for their parents’ problems.
Always be strong; always be good; always be perfect.
The dysfunctional family holds up an ideal about what is good and right and proper that bears little to no resemblance to reality. You subsequently end up having unrealistic expectations about yourself and others, which gives rise to constant disappointment. You also come to believe that love is conditional -- it depends on what you do -- and struggle to graciously accept it when it’s offered with no strings attached.
Don’t be selfish.
You’re taught to think it’s wrong to place your needs before the needs of others and to never ask directly for your needs to be met. As a result, you learn to either manipulate others to get what you need or to always take care of others instead of yourself. Guilt and shame become your dominant emotions. You let yourself be used, and then you feel resentful, bitter, and angry about it, while never getting your needs met.
Do as I say, not as I do.
If your parents punish you for doing things that they do themselves (e.g., they reprimand you for not telling the truth while they lie regularly), you’ll quickly spot the inconsistency. You’ll learn to stop trusting others and to be suspicious of everyone and everything. The only thing you’ll know for certain is that nothing is for sure.
You’re not allowed to have fun.
In the dysfunctional family, the world is a very serious place. You think you have to work twice as hard as everyone else, because what you do is the only measure of your self-worth. Because you’ve always got something “more important” to do, you consider play a luxury, while resenting others for being spontaneous and having fun.
Don’t rock the boat.
Every family has its own self-adjusting mechanisms. In a healthy family, this is what helps it adjust to challenges and change (e.g., when the children leave home). In a dysfunctional family, however, the sole objective is to maintain the status quo. Since change is an inevitable part of life, the dysfunctional family’s determination to remain in stasis leaves it mired in unhealthy and increasingly unmanageable patterns of behavior.
Source: Robert Subby, Lost in the Shuffle: The Co-dependent Reality
If you were raised in a dysfunctional family, you can indeed take control of your own life and stop these cycles from repeating themselves within your own family. Contact a therapist and begin your healing journey.
Don’t become discouraged if you find yourself slipping back into old patterns. Changes may be slow and gradual, but as you continue to practice new and healthier behaviors, they’ll start to become part of your day-to-day life. It’s a tribute to your strength that you survived your dysfunctional background. Now, it’s time to put your past in its proper place so that you and your family can enjoy the happy, healthy future you deserve.
‘If you were raised in a dysfunctional family, you can indeed take control of your own life and stop these cycles from repeating themselves within your own family.’
Start today with the first step: call a therapist or counsellor and begin your journey to freedom.
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