Family members can be hurtful to each other, family members can take each other for granted, family members can keep on perpetuating the unconscious parts in one another. We are taught to value family, to rise above the family struggles, to be bigger than, but what about when it gets too hard?
There have been times in my life where I have had to create hard boundaries with family members. And it’s tough! It has usually happened at times when I felt like there was no space for my feelings in the dynamic or when I felt that life was too overwhelming or that I was taking too much responsibility for what was happening in my family.
I speak with people regularly who have similar challenges – who may not have spoken to their mother / father / sister / brother for an extended period of time – it happens. And it often happens with good reason and can be a supportive step in one’s life transformation.
When I have made those choices in my life I have experienced judgement from other people. People looking at me with a look that said “how could you draw that line with your mother/ father?” or “but they are your family and you should be connected to them anyway.” But where was the friend who had the compassion to feel me in that moment and say, “wow you must be feeling a lot of pain to make that decision.”
For someone who makes those really tough and difficult boundaries, it’s often the only choice available. It often happens when one feels overlooked and trampled too many times by all the conflicting needs in the family.
I am not writing this to blame anyone, but to express that each person in the dynamic needs to take care of their needs. And sometimes the best way to create a reset, to tune into what is right for each of us, is to take a period of separation.
At times when I have felt lost in my family dynamic, the only way to make sense of my world was to remove myself from an emotionally toxic situation. I say this from a place of full self responsibility – knowing that I needed to remove myself in order to find myself, to find my truth, to delve more deeply into my feelings, to find what I needed.
My Dad died at a time when I had not spoken to him for 3 years. There was a lot of guilt and wondering about what might have been different after he died. But the truth of it is that I needed that space from him, he was projecting his hurts onto me, he was asking me to take more responsibility in family dynamics than was appropriate or necessary for me as an 18 year old, and in the process he wasn’t seeing me as Martina, but as an extension of himself.
I have come to see that this is quite common for parents, and for parental figures, to see the child as an extension of themselves, but this can prevent or inhibit the child from expressing their own unique personality, which may lead to rebellion or withdrawal. For those who are parents reading this do your child a favour and see him or her as a unique individual, who has different feelings, needs and experiences to yours.
Do I wish it had been different with Dad and I? Yes, I wish he had prioritised my feelings rather than those of extended family members. I wish he had seen me as a unique and independent being with needs and feelings separate to his. I wish I had the communication skills to let him know what was going on for me, but I was 18 years old – thinking I had it worked out but still so young.
I now see his limitations – he struggled to relate to his children, he couldn’t understand these beings that looked like him but thought and felt very differently to him. He would have been best suited to being a father of a typical Aussie boy – and he missed out as neither my brother nor I fulfilled the criteria!
I now know it’s okay to see and know his limitations and that it is okay for me to have my own needs and desires. For a number of years after Dad died, I thought I should have been more understanding of him and overridden my needs. But that would have been a denial of my unique and precious self.
Family members can be really great people and still let down their loved ones – I know my Dad was a wonderful man in many ways, other people have reminded me many times. But he didn’t really know how to be a father and I am okay with that now. It’s been 20 years and much therapy since he died to come to terms with everything being as it was.
Since then there have been other boundaries I have created with family members and each time has had its own flavour of discomfort and awkwardness and pain. But each time, I have had to trust myself to do what was right for me and to open the doors again when it felt right also.
Drawing the boundary is only one part of the plan, for healthy new possibilities to emerge; it’s essential to seek therapeutic support. Therapeutic support needs to include processing of the past hurts as well as the ability to communicate clearly one’s needs and boundaries in the present moment and the possibility of staying present with oneself in the face of conflicting demands and needs in the future.
So if you know someone struggling with their family of origin, stop before you judge them. Pause for a moment and remember that you can never know what it is like to be on the inside of someone else’s family. It’s their experience and it’s theirs to journey and process. Often the best way of supporting someone is to simply be with them, to hear and feel them, to acknowledge their pain. Learn how to be a supportive friend rather than bringing your own agenda.
If you are struggling with family members, stop and reflect on what you truly need. Speak from your inner world, have authentic communication, talk through your concerns with a therapist, and maybe family mediation. If it’s all too much, take some time away. Use the separation as a time of healing; discover who you are independent of your family so that when you reconnect you bring back a more valued and complete version of yourself.