Everyone (whether they admit to it or not) has a picture of what family is or what we feel it ‘should’ be. Influenced by our own experiences, observing others, society, the media, our favourite TV shows, or even listening to a family member going on about another family who were ‘better’ (my mother used to go on about the O’Kane’s), when our family or a certain family member falls short of our hopes and expectations, they’re not just failing to live up to the picture that we had in our mind but are also affecting how we see ourselves relative to them.
If we keep pursuing the image, we open ourselves up to recurring disappointment.
There are a hell of lot of people out there who carry shame about their family. They imagine that they’re in the minority, that there must be something wrong with them, and even feel tarred and feathered by their dealings with them.
Even if we don’t carry long-standing shame, there’s something about family: most people feel uncomfortable about not getting on with a family member or about their family having problems, as if it says something about them.
We have an image of ourselves and we don’t want to be seen as the person who:
- Doesn’t have The Ideal Mom TM or The Ideal Dad TM
- Doesn’t have a tight bond with a sibling
- Wasn’t wanted, loved or supported
- Can’t turn to their family in times of strife or just for some basic support
- Cannot get on with their family
- Has one of ‘those families’ [that we’ve always prided ourselves in being different from]
- Doesn’t have a family that they can make noise about or invite anywhere without it turning into a big drama
- Doesn’t speak to their family
- Has a family with what we consider to have embarrassing problems
We think that having a TFM or a family of them means something about us.
As a result of not wanting to be seen in certain ways, we can end up being and doing things in an effort to protect our image and this eventually drains us, knocks our confidence, plays into an unhealthy dynamic and inadvertently causes us to turn a blind eye to how tricky things really are.
Whether you consider you a worthwhile and valuable person deserving of love, care, trust, respect and your own journey, is very much affected by perspective and this is influenced by your experiences and messages that you’ve picked up and taught you along the way. If you judge you by virtue of your background or experiences, your family is going to be a significant contributing factor to your self-image— your perception of your personality, character, appearance (physical and also how you feel that you appear socially), capabilities and opportunities.
How you handle life’s inevitables – conflict, criticism, rejection and disappointment – is influenced by habits and patterns formed earlier in life, your family and the way in which you all related, communication style, the experiences you went through, and how supported and understood you were. Trauma, abuse, loss, betrayal, and how honesty is handled, are big factors in why something that you’re dealing with today may hurt a great deal.
When we think that our family is OK and gets on, we take a lot of comfort and security from it, possibly taking a great deal of pride in being the family that gets along, goes on holiday together etc. This is why it can really throw us for a loop when we encounter problems with them or it becomes clear that we’ve been in the dark about past goings-on. We stop feeling OK, and want things to go back to the way that we thought they were. Can’t we all just get along?
When we’ve always had to deal with tricky family members, we may be battle worn by the time we get to adulthood or have normalised tricky behaviour that we don’t realise how problematic it is until we have to deal with it in other relationships. We might feel angry, resentful and hurt about having the family that we do and keep pursuing this image of a different family, wanting things to change so that we can give ourselves permission to move on and be. It’s like, Who can’t get on with their family? There’s a part of us that believes that if we can make our family OK that we will be OK.
When we start our own family and despite our best efforts, we encounter very tricky issues, we wonder where we went wrong and yes, sometimes we go to the opposite end and bury our heads in the sand. We might feel as if we’ve near broken our backs trying to get on with in-laws and that all we get in return is more aggravation. This is not the family we saw ourselves having.
We keep trying to ‘understand’ TFMs, trying to solve the mystery or ‘our crime’ because if we can just find a reason for what is going on, one that can wholly and solely be attributed to us, or we can find the magic words or actions to ‘make’ them change, then things can be the way we want them to be in our head.
- It is important to consider the impact of image because it plays a significant role in the choices you have been making when thinking about and engaging with a TFM.
- The more you focus on how you want to appear and the more you focus on how you think things should be, is the more that you will inadvertently do things for the wrong reasons – trying to look a certain way reveals a motivation but it can also reveal a hidden agenda.
- Your fear of being seen any certain way and of accepting this person or your family for who they are, will put you in a bind when it comes to making choices about how to respond to a TFM. When you need to recognise tricky behaviour and have an active, boundaried response, your fear of, for instance, being seen as The Bad Daughter or Son, will make it difficult, if not impossible at times to do what is needed.
- Until you understand what’s behind what you’ve been thinking/doing so far, you cannot understand the motivations that have influenced how you’re engaging with this TFM, which means you cannot seek to have any real command over you or make changes. You will not know why you’re feeling what you’re feeling or doing what you’re doing.
- Everything is orderly when we paint a picture in our minds but that’s because we’re fully in control of that picture. We cannot control the uncontrollable and so our family will not fit neatly into the ideals we have for ourselves.
- It’s important to examine where your image of family comes from because it may be a very stylised or edited version. When we have a belief, we are biased to look for evidence that supports that or to embellish what we see to make it fit the narrative. Basically, when you think your family is something awful and unusual, it’s easy to judge that everyone else is living in Hello Kitty World or skipping through meadows singing ‘Kum ba yah’ and having the time of their life. We do not notice the grit of reality.
- Be careful of blind spots that come from over-correlating. Just because a chunk of your family slot in with your ideal, it doesn’t mean that all family members ‘should’ or that someone else’s family who doesn’t is ‘strange’. e.g. a partner’s family. Yes it makes them easier to ‘manage’ but you might be neglecting to truly relate to the TFM.
- You may have an ideal in mind but that’s not who your family or this family member is – that bears no reflection on you. e.g. Inadequately parented does not make you and an inadequate person. Your worth or your flaws were not the reason for your experience of being parented.
- All families have an element of dysfunction.
- Each time you focus on your image you are not being self-compassionate and you are not recognising and accepting your family for who they are.
- Acceptance does not mean liking or agreeing with the things that are wearing down your last nerve. It does not mean that you are accepting ‘tricky’ and that you must be OK with it.
- Just because you’re dealing with a TFM, it does not mean that you’re whatever you’re afraid of being seen as and even if you don’t get on with a family member, it’s time to ask, 1) What’s so terrible about that?, and 2) Is your happiness and even your sanity worth throwing under a bus, just so that you can look a certain way?
- If a TFM or even your entire family does not meet your ideals, that doesn’t have to mean that you cannot pursue your desires for you. You do not have to define success on where you were born into or how much you can get one person or a group of people to change.
JOURNALING: What is your image of family and where does it come from? Try to paint a picture of it with your words including as much detail as possible. Has your family ever lived up to this image? If not, what are the unmet needs that you’re still hoping for them to fulfil? What is it about the TFM or a number of family members that triggers this desire to hold on to this image? If your family (or a TFM) has lived up this image (or you thought they did) but now they’re not (or you discovered that they weren’t before), what does this loss represent? What has it caused you to feel insecure about? If it’s just one TFM, is there an element of frustration that they are disrupting your picture of things?
Are you in reality, living the thing that you fear? If so, is it that bad and who is really making the judgments about you? Is it ‘everyone’ or is it other family or is it you? For example, I’m living a lot of the things I used to fear. There are moments when grief pokes its head up from time to time but actually, because I’m not spending my life avoiding an image, I’m happy. When I was pretending that it wasn’t what it was, I was miserable.
Whatever your situation, are you judging you for who they’re not? Are your own struggles with this TFM in part about a younger part of you that still feels hurt? Use the Resources to explore this through Unsent Letters.