THE SANCTUARY CALLED FAMILY
Today, I looked at the to-do list on my calendar and found myself smiling. A while back, I would have felt my heart beat faster, and the blood pounding in my ears, as I most likely would not have completed anything yet! OK, ok, so it does still happen, occasionally, I admit.
But I also used to ask myself why I felt that I had to try to be the best at everything (is that a good thing or not?) and why I had to fill up my days with as many activities, as possible. Perhaps it was so that I would feel that I had made the most of the day and did not waste any precious time. You see I am an adult child of an alcoholic. Yes and we have a need to be perfect.
It used to be so important that I dress a certain way, went to the right university, married at the right time, got the right kind of job, things had to be just perfect (as in, approved by everyone else). And you know what, because everything had to be perfect, I would procrastinate, because I would never be ready to start something or finish it (it was never good enough yet!).
Yes, many of us do procrastinate, and it does sometimes feel as if all of us come from dysfunctional families, doesn’t it? Well, that is because no one and thus no family is perfect.
Troubled Family Systems
There are a lot of ups and downs in a family as we go through several stages in a family life cycle. Each stage is also affected by a whole lot of things such as individual interests and life cycles of each family member. All families have issues and conflicts; although some are worse than others, it is how they handle these that matter.
When someone experiences trauma and pain from their parents’ or a family member’s actions, words and attitudes, they grow up changed, missing essential parts of parenting that prepare them for adulthood and they then assume unnatural roles in their families. These roles help to rebalance their family and allow it to survive.
For example, if one had an irresponsible parent that person would assume the responsibility and play hero so that the family can proceed “like normal” (and thus everyone is happy). One might resort to behaviors that help one to cope with this pain and later may even feel compelled to repeat the abuses done unto one on one’s own children. It then becomes ingrained in oneself that these distorted patterns of relating are normal and it becomes difficult to see things differently.
Dr. Janet Kizziar, a renowned American psychologist, characterizes four types of “troubled family systems” –
- the alcoholic or chemically dependent family system,
- the emotionally or psychologically disturbed family system,
- the physically or sexually abusing family system and
- the authoritarian religious fundamentalist or rigidly dogmatic family system.
These families don’t talk about their problems. Their behaviors encourage people to think of some members as more important than others. They don’t have much fun together, resulting in children who later become adults who have unrealistic expectations of themselves (perfectionism); are fearful of taking risks, have unnatural needs for approval or fear abandonment from others or who are over-controlling or act like martyrs, living for others, instead of themselves.
Codependency in Families
Today, during the course of my work, I attracted a client, Anita* who shared that she was feeling anxious and was unable to sleep as she had recurring nightmares that she will fail in her exam (even though she is a straight A’s student). She started crying when she said that she could not talk to her mother, although she wanted to, about this.
Anita’s* mother is mentally ill. Anita* is often asked to forsake her own feelings to keep the peace so that her mother’s symptoms are not aggravated. However she is afraid of finding avenues to let go of her frustrations that she has suppressed deep inside her as she deems it inappropriate to show too much feelings.
Ben* feels that he is not doing enough for his family and would like help managing his timetable so that he can do so. He shared that he tries to help his mother (his father abandoned the family) as much as he can and yet what he does is never enough or good enough. His mother takes her frustrations of being a single mother out on him by constantly saying that he is useless. Ben is well-liked by his friends and is a good student.
These young adults come from dysfunctional families and their situations describe “codependency”, that is, when one family member gives excuses for another member’s (a dependent) behavior and becomes obsessed with that member’s issues and responsibilities.
This continues to the extent that she or he loses interest in her or his own life. Most people are codependent because of the mistaken unconscious idea that self-worth comes from other people. Thus people who are codependent aren’t able to see the consequences of their own actions when they sacrifice for others.
Unresolved patterns of codependency can lead to various disorders such as self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors, alcoholism, and eating disorders. Recovering codependents often feel like a pendulum; they may swing from one extreme of being overly aggressive or excessively selfish to developing a “victim mentality”.
It is not always easy to find the balance. In fact to find the balance one may need to swing from one extreme to the other, to know and experience what is and what is not before coming to an understanding of having a bit of both; that is settling for the middle ground.
I now love myself first. My son would often say, “Mum, I know everything that you do is for my well-being” and I would reply, “Sometimes it is also for my well-being too.” He would respond with, “Your well-being is my well-being, isn’t it?”
Parenting requires a balance between self-sacrifice and prioritizing your own needs. Parents who take care of themselves first are healthier caretakers than those who sacrifice their lives for their children and thus becomes codependent towards their own children. Examples are parents who live their own dreams out by forcing these dreams onto their children, or who are unable to cut the apron strings as they would feel lost without their children depending on them (i.e. “helicopter parents”)…
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