What can I do about my dysfunctional family?
If I were to keep a tally of the topics my dear readers ask me about the most, this one would lead the pack.
At first glance, the questions don’t look the same, of course. Sometimes it’s an emotionally clueless mother. Sometimes it’s a narcissistic father. Sometimes it’s a verbally abusive sibling.
But it all boils down to the same despair. The people who are supposed to love you the most… The people who are supposed to support you and be there for you the most… Those people are actually the ones who are hurting you the most.
It’s remarkable how many people are already well into adulthood, maybe even raising their own families, and yet are still having trouble (a) dealing with the psychological effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family and (b) dealing with “difficult” relatives who they can’t quite escape even in adulthood.
I’ve been mulling over this topic for a long time, not entirely sure how to approach it. Is there any topic that is more sensitive and emotionally loaded? Or more complicated?
No two dysfunctional families are the same. No two survivors of dysfunctional families are the same. And therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
In the end, I’ve decided to approach this topic the same way I approach most other topics on this website. I’m just going to share my own experience and what has helped me the most.
My own immediate family of origin was all kinds of fucked up. The alcohol-fueled, physically violent, emotionally neglectful kind of fucked up. Later in life, I also landed in the middle of a more covert kind of family dysfunction. The kind where everything looks great on the outside but is deeply broken on the inside. And then there is my own marriage, which is a solace now, but wasn’t exactly healthy to start out with.
All of this has left me scarred for sure. But these are the kind of scars that are closed up, healing, fading in color. They are not open wounds, bleeding the life out of me anymore.
This article is the first in a series of articles that will talk about how I got to that point.
When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, dysfunction is your normal. You have never known anything different. But in order for you to separate yourself from the dysfunction and create a healthy life for yourself, the first steps are to:
- Understand what constitutes family dysfunction.
- Understand how growing up in a dysfunctional family might be affecting you as an adult.
- Accept that your family is dysfunctional.
These are the steps I’ll focus on in this article. In upcoming articles, I’ll talk about how to overcome the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family and how to deal with dysfunctional family members who are still causing problems in your adult life.
Signs Of A Dysfunctional Family
1. What Constitutes Family Dysfunction
What Happens In Dysfunctional Families
No two dysfunctional families are exactly the same, but here are some examples of what may go on in dysfunctional families:
- Lack of communication or poor communication.
- Constant and unresolved conflict and tension between family members.
- Emotional neglect – lack of love, empathy, and support.
- Emotional abuse – excessive criticism, name-calling, putting people down.
- Perfectionism and unreasonable expectations given children’s developmental level.
- Excessive attempts to control others and lack of tolerance for normal human differences. Pressure to be and act the one way that is deemed “right”, whether it’s in terms of religion, politics, personality traits, or field or level of education.
- Lack of privacy.
- Lack of boundaries.
- Psychological manipulation.
- Substance abuse.
- Physical neglect.
- Physical violence.
- Sexual abuse.
- Pretending that everything is a-okay when it’s not.
Usually a dysfunctional family will exhibit more than one of these “symptoms”.
Causes Of Family Dysfunction
Family dysfunction can be created by several kinds of individuals:
- People who lack essential life skills that are needed to create a healthy family environment: communication skills, relationship skills, coping skills, and problem-solving skills.
- People who are ignorant or have outdated views about what kids need and/or how to give it to them.
- People who are too wrapped up in their own problems to meet their kids’ needs, be it stress, workaholism, mental health issues, or substance abuse issues.
- People with narcissist personality traits.
- Sociopaths and psychopaths.
The first three groups of people are sometimes willing and capable of growing and changing. The last two almost never are.
2. The Effects Of Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family
Here are some ways in which growing up in a dysfunctional family can show up as an adult:
- Believing that there is something wrong with you.
When you are a child, you see your parents and other adults as smarter and more powerful than you are. When these adults don’t make you feel loved and appreciated – when your parents don’t act like the other kids’ parents – you automatically assume that there is something wrong with you. It can’t be the all-powerful parents, so it must be you. You must not be worthy. And that must be why they treat you like shit. It’s all you! You believe it’s all you and you carry this belief into adulthood with you. You are worthless. Your wants and needs don’t matter. You are bottom of the pile. So you continue to let people treat you like shit. You let people walk all over you. And you continue to live a life where your wants and needs don’t matter. You settle for less than you deserve. To the point that your life sucks and you feel really bad. To the point that you meet all the diagnostic criteria for depression.
- Believing that it’s all your responsibility.
When you spend your formative years surrounded by people who criticize, put you down, make fun of you, call you names, and blow up over the smallest infraction… When their love is conditional… You learn to believe it’s all your responsibility. You learn to be careful, to keep quiet, to tip-toe, to anticipate. You learn it’s your job to keep other people happy. Your job to keep them calm. Your job to keep them from flipping their lid. Your job to be perfect in every way. Your job to please. Your job to suffer the guilt when you fail. It’s all your responsibility and all your fault. To the point that you become the textbook case of perfectionism and people pleasing.
- Believing that the world is dangerous and people are assholes.
When you are born into an environment that is physically or emotionally unsafe and where most people can’t be counted on to help you, you learn to believe that the world is a dangerous place and most people are assholes. Of course you do! You are a child and that is all you have ever experienced. Even though you may have some opposite experiences later on and you rationally understand that you no longer need to be scared and worried all the time, the animal part of your brain isn’t fully convinced. So you are always just a little bit on guard. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Your brain always overreacting to the slightest threat. To the point that you meet all the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder.
- Having low stress tolerance.
A child growing up in a dysfunctional family can be under stress for long periods of time. Being exposed to chronic stress as a child can damage not only your mind, but your body as well. A chronic overload of the stress hormones that your body releases whenever it feels under threat can dysregulate your stress response system (fight-or-flight response) so that you become more sensitive to future stressors and have a harder time returning to a normal state after being stressed than other people.
- Suffering from poor physical health.
The overload of stress hormones in childhood coupled with the dysregulated stress response system that you carry with you to adulthood can start the chain reaction for a myriad of health problems that may not become visible until much later in life, such as autoimmune disorders, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
- Believing that you are helpless.
As a child, there was very little you could do to improve your life. You were just a child. You didn’t have the means, the resources, the power to do anything about what was happening in your family. You were helpless. Your calls for help went unnoticed. You couldn’t just leave. You had no choice. So you just took it. You tolerated. You endured. Negative was your reality for so long that you started expecting only negative. And then you grew up to be a helpless, hopeless adult. Of course you did! Nobody ever taught you that you have the power to change your circumstances. Nobody ever taught you that you are strong and capable. Nobody ever taught you that you do have a choice. Nobody ever taught you that there is hope.
3. Accept That Your Family Is Dysfunctional
In order to heal, you must recognize the illness. You must recognize how your family was and is dysfunctional and how it has affected you.
You must accept the reality.
Please note that “accept” does not mean condone. It just means you see your family for what they objectively are.
This is easier said than done though, because growing up in a dysfunctional family may have left you with poor self confidence. This poor self confidence is yet another way in which your dysfunctional family can keep you imprisoned for way longer than necessary. Here’s how it plays out…
You start waking up to the fact that maybe it isn’t all you after all. Maybe, just maybe, there is actually something wrong with them. Could it be?
No, no, no! Of course, it couldn’t be them. You are bottom of the pile, remember? Nobody has ever told you that your perception matters. Nobody has ever told you that your feelings matter. So you must be wrong about this too.
Plus it wasn’t all bad. You are probably exaggerating all the bad stuff. You have all these good memories too. And it definitely wasn’t as bad as those kids across the road. They really had it bad. You were lucky compared to them. And how come you are so much more screwed up than your siblings?
It MUST be you and not them…
This is called lack of trust in your own experience, dear reader. Self doubt. And it’s just another sign that you are indeed dealing with a dysfunctional family. It messes with your head! So let me bring up a few points that might help you accept the reality.
A Family Is Never All Good And Rarely All Bad
There are no perfect families. Every family has problems. All parents make mistakes.
And on the flipside, families that are “all bad” are probably pretty rare too. Even dysfunctional families can sometimes experience good times.
Most families fall somewhere between the “all good” and “all bad” extremes. The difference between functional and dysfunctional is where they fall on this continuum.
In a functional or “good enough” family, some of the “symptoms” of dysfunction might make an appearance, but these problems are actually recognized and addressed. The children know that their parents love them even when life sometimes gets rough. Everyone’s physical and emotional needs are attended to. Everyone’s authentic self is recognized and celebrated. The children receive enough support and guidance to meet developmental milestones and to learn key life skills.
In a dysfunctional family, there are multiple problems and the problems go on forever and ever. In a dysfunctional family, nobody notices or cares about how other family members are suffering. In a dysfunctional family, there’s no “let’s all figure this out together”. In a dysfunctional family, kids reach adulthood with a poor sense of self, poor self esteem, and poor coping skills. They are poorly prepared to meet life’s challenges.
Siblings Can Have Different Outcomes Due To Timing And Genes
There are a couple of reasons why siblings born into the same dysfunctional family can have different outcomes.
First of all, two siblings born into the same family can have vastly different experiences depending on the timing and circumstances of their birth. For example, I was born when my mother was barely 18 years old and married to a violent alcoholic. My little sister was born when my mother was in her early thirties and the violent alcoholic had been replaced by a non-violent alcoholic. Needless to say, my sister and I share a few common gripes, but for the most part, we had very different childhood experiences, and therefore, very different outcomes.
Genetic differences can also play a role in how children react to a dysfunctional family environment. Some children share more inborn personality traits with their parents than other children do, which can make adjusting to the parents’ antics either easier or harder. Genes also play a role in how children react to stressful circumstances. Children with the gene that makes them Highly Sensitive People are more likely to end up with a dysregulated stress response system when they experience chronic stress than children without the sensitivity gene.
What Matters Most Is Where You Are Today And What You Can Do About It
I’ve written before about how I’m not one to dwell on the past and how I’d rather focus on the present and the future. So in that spirit, I want to say this: You can spend forever and a day debating with yourself about whether your family qualifies as dysfunctional, the exact ways in which it was dysfunctional, and whose fault it might have been.
I don’t want you to spend forever and a day on that.
At most, I want you to spend just a little bit of time on that.
And then I want you to spend a good amount of time thinking about where you are today. Is your self esteem not where you would like it to be? Is your stress response out-of-whack? Is your life less than what you want and deserve?
If you answer any of these questions with a yes, that is where I want you to put the majority of your effort. Because there is a whole lot that can be done to fix those things. And I’ll get to all that in the next article. Stay tuned. 🙂