Blog on Dysfunctional Families
I grew up in a very dysfunctional toxic family, and have been untangling the threads of my family's belief systems and behaviors for years in search of my own truths.
One of the hallmarks of dysfunctional families is secrecy, and I hope that by sharing my insights through this blog and my memoir, The Box of Daughter, I can help people learn how to cope with their own dysfunctional families and build self-esteem.
We can only figure out what the problem is and how to change things when we shine the light of clarity and truth on the situation.
Six Ways to Survive a Blue Christmas
The Christmases I spent with toxic family members during my early adult years were horrible. Every year, we pasted painful fake smiles on our faces, and pretended we were having fun and enjoying each other’s company. My emotions were in a constant state of cringe.
I know I wasn’t alone in my feelings; I could see the tension in the smiles, and tempers were short even as we all spoke in too-high, too-cheery voices.
But years have passed, my critical parents have passed on, and I’m free now to celebrate the holidays the way I want to. Except that I don’t really want to.
There are too many people running around crazily trying to find the perfect gifts, and too much Christmas music that I’ve heard for decades still playing. I’ve heard the Christmas story so many times I’m a little sick of it. Why can’t they come up with a more modern story?
I’ve never understood why Christmas is smack in the middle of the darkest time of the year anyway. I just want to crawl into a cave, make a small fire, and cogitate. And this is NORMAL! Trees withdraw during the winter and “sleep;” animals hibernate—I think humans are still wired to slow down, rest, and rejuvenate during the dark time of the year as well.
So how does one survive a Blue Christmas? Here are my suggestions.
1. Acknowledge your feelings. It’s perfectly okay to feel differently about the season than other people do. In fact, there’s a lot of hype around the Christmas season, which makes it harder for some people to have a true Christmas spirit without getting depressed by all the hype.
2. Give yourself the gift of whatever makes you feel better: extra sleep, alone time, quiet, reading—curl into yourself like the trees, and do what feels good.
3. Stay home from parties if the spirit moves you. Sometimes going to a lively party can bring on even more depression, especially if you’re an introvert at heart.
4. Same goes for family celebrations. If they make you uncomfortable, try to limit the time you spend at family gatherings, especially with dysfunctional family members. If you must go, take a book or your phone along, and try to find quiet corners to be by yourself when you need to. (I used to go in the bathroom to get away. Sometimes I screamed silently in there.)
5. If you enjoy going to church, look for a Blue Christmas service in your area. If not, do a little reading online about Blue Christmas, so you know you’re not alone. You can also look for Winter Solstice services in your area—this is a much more comfortable option for me, and it may be for you as well.
6. Most importantly, respect yourself. Don’t put yourself down because you don’t enjoy the season in the same way others do. We’re all different, and without diversity, the world would be a very boring place! If anyone puts you down for wanting time alone, just let it go. Be secure in the knowledge that you know what you need for yourself, and that your needs are just as important as everyone else's.
Society does not train us to meet our own needs—from an early age, we’re taught to conform, to like what everyone else likes, to do what the majority does. But that philosophy rarely serves any of us, because we all have different needs and desires.
Give yourself the gift of freedom this holiday season—my guess is that you’ll feel much better all the way through.
Do You Prefer Stress or Excitement?
When I had a couple of days off recently, I played some pinball at one of my favorite arcades. It was awesome! Multiball, extra games, flashing colored lights, noise—I had a fabulous time! Very exciting!
The next day, I thought about going back to play more, but I had to catch up on some work, and as my drama addiction drew me to the computer to finish the work, my frustration level grew, as it always does for this particular job. I can’t say the frustration was exactly exciting, but it sure was close. Same adrenaline, same laser-sharp focus—but a different biochemical state altogether.
I’ve written many times before about the drama addiction—which is essentially an addiction to the “excitement” of stress, which can manifest as a need to make mountains out of molehills, such as having huge emotions about a bit of spilt milk (that was the big one when I was a child). And for some people, it can become an addiction to the point where life doesn't feel "right" anymore if there isn't something to be upset about.
Stress creates some of the same biochemical reactions in the body and mind that excitement does, so it's easy to get the two states confused. I was brought up by parents with major drama addictions, and I got really confused about the difference between excitement and stress.
The problem is, the drama addiction “uses up” all of our excitement attention. A stressful day on the job or a long commute in heavy traffic takes up as much attention as a day at the carnival, but isn’t nearly so much fun. We’re wired to spend some of our time in that state of physical/mental excitement, from way back when our ancestors had a great time (or a frightening time) on the hunt.
But when energy and focus is taken up by stressful situations and the drama addiction, there’s no energy and focus left to pursue our dreams, to do what truly excites us.
And what happens if we’re stressed out rather than excited by what we’re doing is that we get into a mind state that one of my friends says is like a trapped squirrel: thoughts go round and round, worries pile up, and we don’t even have time to think about our hopes and dreams because the mind is on its own merry-go-round.
The next time you find yourself in that “squirrely” state of mind, stop what you’re doing, take a couple of deep breaths, and focus instead on something you’re excited about—a relationship, a vacation, your latest new outfit, whatever excites you. Keep your mind on that for a few moments—it should change your biochemical thought-reaction to a more positive state.
If you keep doing that long enough, and often enough, you can change your life for the better, because what you focus on expands.
So, how do you tell the difference between excitement and the drama addiction? Both cause your adrenaline level to rise and prime your body-mind to take action. But stress and the drama addiction carry with them an underlying anxiety and desperation, while excitement usually feels good. Excitement carries you forward into something new; the drama addiction is usually a habit formed around an old event or experience.
Find out more about the drama addiction in my book, Dysfunctional Families: The Truth Behind the Happy Family Facade
This bears repeating: what you focus on expands—your thoughts do create your reality. Whatever is causing your stress will become more stressful as you think about it more and more, and take up more and more of your life energy. And whatever excites you will grow and grow as you retrain yourself to focus on it, until the positive aspects of it permeate your whole life. Which would you rather have?
Procrastination as a Tool for Self-Healing
I recently gave notice at a job that was causing me tremendous stress. In the process of looking back over the issues which had caused the stress, I realized that a number of aspects had left me feeling very powerless, even though it was supposed to be a job where I was the “authority.” What a relief to be done with it!
For almost a year during that job, when I thought about sitting down to write, I consistently heard myself say “I don’t want to.” I was living in a huge pool of guilt about my procrastination, yet I couldn’t take those first steps back into writing. I felt like I was thrown back again into my toxic family.
When I was growing up, the only way I could feel any power at all in regard to my toxic parents was to procrastinate. I remember my mother saying, "Don't dawdle!" But I did, because it was the only way to maintain my sense of self and not get swept up in her dysfunctional, crazy-making energy. So I developed a habit of procrastinating in order to feel like I had some control over my life. But as we all know, procrastination gets us nowhere.
A little soul-searching helped me realize that my resistance to writing was, on the one hand, a way for me to “feel in control” and take back my power, even though it was only the power to withhold my energy. Resistance—saying “no”—can provide a feeling of control. Yet at the same time, my resistance reinforced my sense of powerlessness, because I wasn’t getting things done.
So I thought I would try letting go of the resistance to my procrastination. And I was surprised to discover that after a small space of time, I was ready to write again. Hmmm!
Apparently, procrastination can actually be a tool for self-healing—it allows us to regain our sense of control over things by holding ourselves back from doing them. Procrastinating can provide a sense of power. What’s needed to step into the “healing” aspect and begin to move forward is to let go of the guilt about procrastinating, and allow ourselves to feel the power that we have—then we can turn that sense of power and control into taking steps toward moving forward.
It may seem more satisfying to continue procrastinating, but there is no true satisfaction in not accomplishing what we want. If we don’t move forward, we continue to feel powerless. The trick is not to push ourselves forward, but to turn that feeling of power we usually get from procrastinating into positive energy and let it carry us into moving forward. Be willing to let go of feeling helpless, and open up to your own sense of power. You can get a little help from the Universe by drawing in the power that exists all around you.
And even one small step in the right direction will start forward movement, as you begin to see that you do have power over what you want to accomplish.
So go ahead and procrastinate! Just let it be a tool for healing instead of a habit you continue to practice in order to stay in touch with your own power.
Want to read more of my blogs? Check back next week! Or check out The Meandering Muse, a collection of my previous blogs on dysfunctional families and recovering the authentic self. Also included are humorous essays, stories, and poems on a wild range of subjects from multitasking, schizophrenia, money, and the government to the woes of a homeowner forced to use bananas and daffodils to remove wasps from her living room. Find out more about The Meandering Muse on my author website.
If you need a laugh, or a crazy new perspective on life, this book is for you. Order now! $15.95 + $3 shipping/handling, or $12 s/h if you're ordering from outside the U.S. You can also order the book through your local bookstore by visiting Indiebound.org, or order through Amazon.com.
The Dance of Life
Attending a local dance concert recently, I discovered something that totally changed my view of who I am.
I love moments like that!
When I was three or four years old, I happened to see a ballet on TV, and I was glued to the screen—this was what I wanted out of life!! This was reality to me, not the chaos and tension that seemed to be a constant in my dysfunctional family.
I loved the poise, the grace, the beauty of the dancers, and the order and flow of the choreography. So I asked my parents if I could take ballet lessons, and I studied for about six years.
Though I enjoyed the lessons in the beginning—and I still love to dance—my body was not built to become a ballerina. My hips were not flexible, and my neck was stiff, even as a child. So I sadly gave up ballet, thinking that I would never enter that world of beauty and grace.
As an adult, I always assumed that what attracted me to ballet was that everyone seemed so polite to each other, when kindness and grace were totally lacking in my family. But as I watched the elegant young dancers at the concert, I suddenly realized that what attracted me so strongly to ballet was not just the grace and order. I unconsciously knew, even at a young age, that grace and beauty were part of who I was—the real me, as it were—even though I felt completely out of place within my family. I always seemed to be in the way, and I felt completely incompetent and unable to do anything right. (Many decades later, I learned that my relationship with my mother had a lot to do with my feeling that way.)
The realization that I had known as a child that I had grace and beauty, even then in the midst of the abuse, caused a profound shift in my core sense of self. Had those wonderful qualities been hiding inside for my entire life? How could I allow myself to let them be a guiding light in my ever-growing self-image?
As I pondered this newfound sense of myself, I remembered many moments throughout my life when I'd felt graceful and beautiful—but the feelings always disappeared when I was under stress or felt criticized. So the key to integrating those qualities into my self-image, I realized, is to not forget that I have them, even in the midst of overwhelm; to remind myself that I can be graceful even under pressure.
I believe that all humans have grace and beauty, even if we’ve forgotten that we do. Sometimes our good qualities get covered over as we attempt to protect ourselves from pain. That's okay, as long as we remember that we have them—as long as we remember who we really are.
What qualities did you resonate with in childhood that you might have left behind in the struggle to grow up? Could they still be part of who you are? Be open to the moments that offer you a profound recognition of who you really are deep inside.
My Journey of Recovery from Bullying
Like a lot of kids, I was bullied in school. I didn’t think much of it, because it was so familiar to me. I was bullied at home by my parents and other family members, so it just seemed normal to me.
I couldn’t really connect with other people in any meaningful way, because my role models didn’t include many loving relationships. So I grew up in a fog of uncertainty, never knowing where the next storm of criticism or scorn would come from, and believing with all my heart that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t connect with others. Most other people seemed to have pretty good lives, have fun with each other, and accomplish their goals. I wondered why I couldn’t.
I went into therapy in my early thirties because I was getting divorced, and within a few months, I began to realize how abnormal my family had been, and how low my self-esteem was. I also discovered that some other people actually did have the loving relationships I’d read about in books.
My journey of recovery has lasted decades, and along the way, I’ve learned many things. Here are a few of the most important.
1. People who bully others are usually insecure, and looking for a way to feel bigger, to blow off steam, or to throw their feelings of shame off onto someone else. So, when someone bullies you, it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. It's the other person who's wrong.
2. Feelings are an intrinsic part of the human experience. Everyone has them (some more than others), and learning to acknowledge and express them is absolutely essential to mental and physical health.
3. Every person is intrinsically valuable, because each person’s unique perspective adds to the whole. No one else can provide the world with the point of view that you or I have.
As I began through therapy to see my toxic family, my childhood, and my life with the eyes of truth, I became very depressed, and seriously considered ending my life because sorting through it all was so painful. But in sticking with the program—demanding truth, expressing my feelings, and building my self-esteem—I have made a life that I enjoy, and that I value very deeply.
Every time I hear that a young person has taken his or her own life, those years come right back to me.
I’m convinced that kids who’ve been bullied have some of the same kinds of feelings I did—they think something is wrong with them, that it’s not okay to feel sad or mad in response to being bullied, and that there’s no hope that anything will ever change.
So I wrote Bullied: Why You Feel Bad Inside and What to Do About It for kids who might not say out loud how they’re feeling, but might pick up a book and finally understand that other people feel just the same way they do. And they might learn that life will get better someday.
If you have kids, please teach them about emotional intelligence. Please model a healthy expression of feelings for them. Please give them space to talk about their own feelings. Whether or not you're saving their lives, you’ll certainly be saving their sanity.