Dysfunctional families never admit their problems. The rules are simple: Don’t talk, think or feel. As a result, we feels insecure and can only depend on ourselves. In order to survive this lack of trust, we end up creating a rigid way of dealing with life. Yet when we go out into the real world, these dysfunctional rules for living end up blowing up in our face.
Remember when you felt that other people didn’t understand you? That other people “have it out” for you? Or feeling that you have to “protect yourself” from others, or that other people are just not as accepting of you? Do you feel like you must defend yourself from other people?
The answer is NOT the other person. Many times, we think that the solution to all our problems lies in how other people respond and react to us. This belief system is based in the fact that one has grown up in a dysfunctional family where “survival of the fittest” was essential.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family means a few key things:
- The people around us caused problems, were unavailable, were abusive, neglectful, unconcerned, and generally unhelpful.
- We were always looking for “unknown or unexpected dangers”.
- We were “always on guard, suspicious, and reactive in order to survive.”
However, now that one is an adult, things are different. We are required to have a new and improved approach to interacting with the world. This new approach has to be based on an awareness that you know more now, have more control, and no longer need to be in a “defensive survival mode.”
It requires “opening oneself up” to a new life. The only person who can make a difference in your life is you, not other people. Not everyone is “out to get you.” There’s no need to justify things by saying, “I get along with some people, so why can’t everyone else just accept me the same way?”
You have to be with those people who can help you “learn new ways of relating and being in the family” in a way that can promote growth, provide for new experiences, and so forth. This all takes risk, time, and being vulnerable along with letting go of control and feeling that you have to be right.
Understanding What “Normal Families” Are Like
“Normal” families are very different from dysfunctional families. They know that the first task in life that the infant has to struggle with is “Trust vs. Mistrust”. They work to help the child feel that they can “come out of themselves and trust” by meeting their needs for food, comfort, holding, rocking, and being generally available to the child.
As a result, “normal” families build everything around this foundation of trust where each of the members know that they can count on the family and the parents to be there for them even when the going gets rough and things seem overwhelming.
By having a foundation of trust, each of the family members can count on each other. They trust each other. This foundation becomes central to how they approach life, interactions and living. This allows them to be open with others, to struggle through the difficult times, and to find solutions to problems and struggles. There is a “trusting comfort” no matter what happens.
Dysfunctional families never admit their problems. They have the four dysfunctional rules of the family:
- Don’t talk about it.
- Don’t feel.
- Don’t think (or expand your thinking to other ideas)
- Avoid doing anything to change things at all costs.
As a result, no one is open. Everyone feels insecure, having to depend only on themselves, and there is a sense that they have to “fight for everything that is owed to them.” There is a lack of trust; a lack of openness; a lack of really knowing what to do unless the person establishes a rigid way of dealing with life in order to survive.
When one is then questioned, the person from a dysfunctional family is immediately defensive, reactive, opinionated, and unyielding. Issues become polarized — black or white, right or wrong, “my way or the highway,” when in reality, issues are never that simple and are usually more complex.
However, there is a refusal to see things beyond “the issue in front of them” which increases the tensions in interactions. They sense that they now have to “fight” in order to “win their personal war of survival” against all the untrustworthy people in the world who are perceived as being out to get them and deprive them of having a happy life along with blocking their entrance into “the family.”
In dysfunctional families, it is easy to get caught up in the “issue of the moment” rather than considering the broader issues, thinking of alternative ways of viewing it, or needing to know the full story. The person in dysfunctional families get caught up in the “energy of the moment,” resulting in a “personal reactiveness-defensiveness” to whatever is said. Everything is taken so personally.
In contrast, functional families admit that they have problems. The difference is that they are open to discussing these issues and to finding solutions to those problems without defensiveness and reactiveness. When there is defensiveness, it is only brief because they know that overall they can trust the family to be there for them — a major difference!
Functional families are not perfect, but they are committed to each member of the family to insure that each member can grow up into their full potential. Functional families work to resolve their problems rather than “running away from them” or saying “I don’t have to deal with you.” Functional families don’t continue to feel that “maybe some day out there I will find the right person, or situation, that will understand and accept me fully.” They already have that sense of trust and comfort in a supportive and open family.
Functional families know that there will be problems, blocks, difficult times, hurt feelings, struggles, and so forth. Through it all, they will stick together and try to work together to “maintain positive contact.”
Why Does It Feel Like You Are Being Attacked?
The problem with a person who has grow up in a dysfunctional environment is that they always feel that they must defend themselves from real or imagined attacks.
Their responses to others insures a “self-fulfilling prophesy” that allows them to tell themselves, “see how that person responded to me — THIS is why I have to defend and attack.”
The fact that functional families “talk about, and confront, issues” seems to be threatening and is therefore interpreted as attacking on one’s identity. When one grows up in a dysfunctional family, it is important to quickly develop opinions without taking the time to examine all the different angles which would allow for a full understanding of the issue. When others question what one wants, or “needs,” it feels like an attack because one has “worked so hard” to survive — and others just don’t get it or appreciate it.
Functional families are into questions, raising issues, looking at alternatives, while being able to maintain relationships. Upsets are not “taken seriously” and are only seen as “temporary disagreements that are discussed in order to be understand, convey information, help others grow and reach their full potential.
When growing up in a dysfunctional family, one sees everything as an attack, having a sense of being misunderstood and not fully appreciated, and never being fully accepted and loved. However, if one continues to have a sense of feeling under attack, then something is wrong.
What happens when one feels defensive and attacked is that they come across to others as “obnoxious and reactive, defensive and attacking even when it is unnecessary.” The person then “believes that they are right” and that “no one will ever understand them.”
The result is that they will then “block themselves off from the other person” making it impossible for them to learn about the normal “give and take” of life and healthy relating patterns. They will continue to be angry and untrusting believing that it is the fault of the “other person(s).”
All this does is block insight, happiness, and maturing growth. The alternative approach is for the person to “run away” and find a way to “be by themselves” in order to avoid the “problems of living with others” who “just don’t get it or give me a difficult time.”
What Can Be Done To Change Things?
First, you need to realize that what is happening in your interactions with other people has NOTHING to do with you as a human being and a person! It has more to do with your manner of interacting with others, interpreting what is said by them, and your defensive responsive style that avoids taking the time to “look at yourself and what you need to do to make changes in how you come across!”
So, you don’t have to change you as a person. All it means is that you have to change how you handle your interactions with others. It has to do with the “tense, defensive, reactive style issues” that you learned to help you survive in the past as a child — which no longer are necessary to your life and in fact will cause you problems if you continue it in the present.
Being an adult means that one has to change and to work at finding realistic solutions that do not involve blame, defensiveness, reactiveness, and trying to “prove that one is acceptable and lovable.” Changing one’s behavior is “the solution.” It is not looking to the other person to make the changes.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…”. However, in Alcoholics Anonymous, a more realistic version of this is, “You shall know the truth, and at first it shall piss you off.” Facing things is difficult and overwhelming at first. But this is essential to making real changes that can “free you” for a better life beyond “a survival mode.”
So the issue is not about the other person, whether they accept you, or in finding ways to convince them that you are fine. This only keeps you reacting as a “small defenseless child in a dysfunctional family where reactiveness kept you alive. It is only about how you handle things and how you change your response to life and to others now that you are an adult!
It is about your doing your best to get comfortable with other people where more intimate relating is required so you can learn how “real families” work together to help, protect, and focus each other toward growth. This is where you can “learn how to live a positive life.”
It is not about protecting your territory, identity or beliefs. It is letting go of reactive, defensive, controlling, ideas that you “know are right and others have to accept.” It is more about focusing on “letting go and starting to learn how to be in a family in a different way.”
It is about learning to “allow others to enjoy you” rather then focusing on “winning” because you feel vulnerable, attacked or not accepted. It is about “making yourself comfortable” with others rather than their being “okay” only if they accept things the way you want them. It is about learning how to relax, allow others to like you, and for you to like them.
It is about doing your best to make the others “like you” — not the other way around! It is about growing in the present, growing in the present relationships, and “taking risks (multiple ones) to change the past and provide for you a more positive future.
You may perceive others as attacking when in fact they are only trying to be helpful, to refocus you positively, and to deal with some of the real issues that are facing “the family.” It is not about you!
Why Is Changing My Response Important?
It is easy to ask “why me,” or “why am I the one who has to give up control.” Change (not having the control) and feeling open to others makes one feel vulnerable. It can bring back memories of “having to fend for one’s self as part of survival.
The real issue in life is that when one feels that they are on the defensive, it has more to do with their sense of “surviving dysfunctional past issues” rather than dealing realistically with the present situation.
Real maturity requires less defensive responding and more open discussion with others. It requires less reactiveness and “protecting one’s turf and what one needs” and is more open to realizing that one has to find new ways to relate to others in life. As long as one feels defensive, then they are only functioning at a survival level of life.
This does not allow the person to “grow and to reach their full potential.” Survival defensive and reactive responding is a “primitive basic level” that animals, infants, and small children respond at in order to survive. Life is more than “just surviving.” It is reaching for one’s potential which cannot be done when one continues to feel that they are in conflict with other people.
It also does not allow for learning how to live a normal life, because everything feels like it must be fought for. Real living requires “give and take”, listening to the concerns of others, sharing not demanding, being open, not holding grudges, and not always insisting on having one’s own way.
It is moving out of the infant self-entitlement demanding responses of “I have a right to live and exist” into the mature adult interactions of working cooperatively with others in a way that makes others comfortable with you! If one continues to react defensively, waiting for the others to be “different,” then all that happens is that nothing will change and everyone will have hurt feelings.
One can go on with the delusion that everything will be different now, but in reality this will not happen and over time further problems will develop. This does not mean that other people are always right about issues or their responses. It is about finding ways of talking things out in a less defensive and reactive manner.
Real growth requires self-examination and awareness, not saying “well, I know myself and I’ve got it all figured out — if only you would just get out of my way.” Real living in a functional manner requires:
- Looking for “solutions” to problems of interactions.
- Humility rather than demanding and “just knowing.”
- Admitting that you can learn how to live a better life from others.
- Letting go of pride, blame, irritability, shutting down, reactiveness, or trying to prove a point or that you are right.
- Admitting that you have a lot to learn from others if you would “listen more” and “react less.”
The “Safe” Alternative
The alternative is that one can “just stay the same” all the while “proclaiming that you know best.”
Sigmund Freud, the “father” of psychoanalysis, suggested that people “tend to repeat the past over and over again” in the attempt to resolve it. In other words, it is hard to break habits because they become “so natural” that they “feel right and comfortable.” So, we repeat the past, over and over again, in hopes that maybe some day we will find a solution by doing the same thing over and over again, faster and faster, with fewer positive outcomes and stronger habit patterns that “keep us stuck the same way.”
We continue to repeat what we have learned, especially from the negative patterns and interactions learned from our early family relationships. “Staying the same is comfortable even though it is self-destructive in the long run.”
Changing brings us in contact with “the unknown” and risk making one feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. However, it is known, comfortable, what one does well, and becomes so automatic that we don’t even have to think what it is that we are doing, even if it means that we continue to destroy relationships while proclaiming that one knows that they are right and everyone else’s way is flawed and wrong!
The key is knowing that “decisions are the hinges of our lives.” The choices we make today will determine the future course of our life and that of our family members. We have to decide between choosing poorly or choosing wisely. It is really a choice that is based on what one “think” looks good now, or on the risk of the “common choices that are not fancy but correct.”
Sometimes we rush to find the “fancy choices” that are based on “horizontal choices based on earthly decisions of the moment.” We need to make all choices based on “Vertical Choices” that have higher meanings based in healthy interpersonal relationships with others — by changing ourselves rather than insisting that we know what is right and continuing to do the same thing over and over again.
However, it is easier to stay the same, to know that one is right, and to block others out of one’s life. In this way, one never has to change or listen to what others have to say that might provide a “new way” of looking at life.
It is more comfortable and simple to stay the same and continue to take things personally, knowing that others are wrong and need to be avoided! Risk is uncomfortable and leaves one feeling vulnerable, even though a quality life is all about taking positive risks rather than avoiding and just wanting comfort — your way.