“Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.”
– Anthony Brandt, associate professor of composition, Shepherd School of Music
“When did you realize this?”
“While I was at the hair salon,” he replied.
Opportunities to learn, grow and expand our awareness are everywhere.
My friend had been talking about his dysfunctional upbringing and how he had come to realize, in the course of getting a haircut, why life had always proven so challenging and heartbreaking for him.
He grew up in a family with an overly critical and emotionally abusive father, a gentle yet long-suffering mother and a resentful, envious older brother.
One day my friend had reached his limit and, with little warning, had packed up his belongings and left home forever.
Whenever he found employment, though, he began to unconsciously reconstruct his dysfunctional family environment.
He would cast someone — usually a male supervisor or business owner — in the role of his father. He would then set about to cast a female employee — generally an older woman with well-defined victim mentality — as his mother.
Finally, he would hold auditions for the role of his nasty older brother – typically a peer close to his age who was already angry, bitter or easily threatened by the accomplishments of others.
Once all the characters had been cast the play would begin with my friend assuming the role of the noble but insecure hero who would endure the emotional onslaught with dignity and decorum.
That is, until he reached his limit, at which point he would pack his belongings and leave home again.
Your family was your first and likely most influential relationship.
What you learned from your family dynamic formed the foundation of your early programming (which many of us never transcend).
As a child, you were dependent on family members for survival, yet sometimes these relationships were destructive rather than supportive.
Keep in mind, by the time you arrived, your family was already entrenched in beliefs, patterns and attitudes.
Being a family member meant devising strategies in order to fit in with the family unit. Naturally, we took these strategies and coping mechanisms with us when we finally left home.
The upside is that we are not bound by our early programming. We can unravel the emotional knots created by a dysfunctional upbringing with awareness and perseverance. That said, there are some effective strategies that may help us to transcend the dysfunction.
Change vantage points.
Shine a light on destructive patterns of behaviour. Noticing patterns and recurring themes is the first step to moving past them.
Start by simply observing your thoughts and feelings. The deeper you dig, the more luck you’ll have at recognizing and unplugging from old strategies and coping mechanisms.
Most of our interpersonal skills were honed at home. Whining and stomping your feet may have worked well when you were a child at home but it’s unlikely to deliver the positive results you expect or require out in the world.
Choose a different course. What happens in life is largely up to you, so look for ways to bring people and experiences you want into your life. Take time every day to think about how you’d like your life to be. Leave old ways of thinking behind. Be willing to try new things.
Don’t dwell upon past perceived failures but instead use them as stepping stones to success. Examine your thoughts.
Remember, we become what we think about most of the time.
Seek the wise counsel of others.
As mentioned earlier, opportunities to learn, grow and expand our awareness are everything and often found in places we least expect.
As with my friend, I’ve known a few stylists who were darn good lay-therapists.
Maybe that’s the way it is with stylists or anyone for that matter who spends a great deal of time working one-on-one with people: clients confide in them and after a time they begin to recognize common patterns of behaviours and potential solutions.
After confiding in his stylist for many years, she one day asked if she might offer an observation. When my friend agreed, she said it seemed that he had been recreating his dysfunctional home life while out in the world, and she was right.
Nurture an open mind. How things appear is affected by how we perceive them. Our perceptions shape our behaviour and our world. Become a student of life.
Talk to people, ask questions and become intensely interested in everything around you. Never assume you see the whole picture or that you have the answer to every situation.
Read books, talk to people or go to counselling. In every interaction, ask yourself, “What can I take from this?”
If you have siblings, study the interactions they share with each other. You’re likely to gain some powerful and even startling insights into the early programming you share with them.
We’ve likely all been guilty, at one time or another, of unwittingly taking our family dysfunction out into the world and recreating it. Most of us realize shortly after leaving home that many of our strategies and coping mechanisms no longer work. Some people, however, never figure that out. As with my friend, it is better to figure it out eventually than not at all.
“We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe,” wrote American jurist Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. “The record may seem superficial but it is indelible.”
“So,” I asked my friend, “Will you be leaving home again soon?”
“No,” he responded. “I think I’ve left home for the last time.”
Although a dysfunctional family can damage our self-esteem, confuse and confound us, the damage can be reversed. With effort, we can set ourselves free to become the person we want to be and create a life we desire.
“Never tell me the sky’s the limit when (I know) there are footprints on the moon.”
– Author Unknown
Murray M. Fuhrer – The Self-Esteem Guy