Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dysfunctional Family Systems

There is an interesting conversation going over at Emerging From Broken.  You will find this article at the following link http://emergingfrombroken.com/?p=796 .  Several of the comments at the end of the article are mine.  This article is going to be an edited version of one of my comments plus some others thoughts that I have had on the topic of Dysfunctional Family Systems.

There are quite a number of books written on the topic.  I visited Amazon.com earlier to see what was available and quit after page 17 of the list.  Two of the best, in my opinion are Healing The Child Within:  Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families, written by Charles L. Whitfield and Healing the Shame That Binds You, written by John Bradshaw.  Two others that were life savers for me are both by the same author Melody Beattie Codependent No More and her second book called Beyond Codependency.  I highly recommend each of these four books.

This is just a small definition of what it means to grow up in a dysfunctional family system.  For more information, read any of the four books that I mentioned above. 

In dysfunctional families, the individual members don't talk about what is wrong or what's missing from the family system, things like communication and trust.  They don't usually love themselves.  Sometimes there is neglect of individual needs.  The child doesn't have a healthy adult to model how to take care of themselves so the child doesn't learn this.

In some dysfunctional family systems, there are secrets that everybody knows but nobody talks about.  In my family that secret was alcoholism.  In A.A. and Al-Anon, they call this having an elephant in your living room that nobody wants to see.  The elephant (alcoholism in my family) is there.  Everyone walks around it like it isn't there.  Nobody talks about it.  Another secret that some of my family members either knew about or suspected was incest.  Everybody knows not to talk to outsiders about what is really going on inside the family.  I learned in Al-Anon that we are each only as sick as our secrets.

Everybody is afraid of change.  The dysfunctional family system is very rigid and doesn't allow for change in any form.  Anybody that dares to want to change comes up against resistance from the other family members, sometimes resulting in being ostracized or cast out from the family.  Nobody welcomes change.  Often if you get into recovery as an adult, nobody in the family acknowledges that you have made changes in yourself, that you are different.  They continue to see you in the role that you were assigned as a child.  That can be very frustrating especially for survivors who have worked really hard to make these healthy changes.

Nobody feels supported by the other family members.  Feelings are not shared.  There are often unexpressed, unfelt emotions. Emotions are often ignored or stuffed rather than acknowledged, especially fear and anger. There is usually a lot of underlying stress.  Any time you have secrets.  There is stress.  There is sometimes loneliness even when the family is together in the same room because nobody feels connected to anybody else.

Each member is assigned a role to play in the family.  Some of these roles are family hero, scapegoat, family maintainer, peacemaker, the invisible child, the sick child, and others.  Some people play more than one role at a time.  I played hero, family maintainer, and peacemaker at different times. I was also my mother's emotional protector at least by the age of 3.  I have a very clear memory of this.

Everyone is fearful, often without knowing why.  Sometimes, as in my case, the fear is so deep that I didn't even realize until I was 19 years old that I lived in daily fear for my life and sanity.  I didn't recognize the fear because it was constantly, always there in the fabric of my life.  I don't remember a time that I wasn't fearful.

In my dysfunctional family, my dad was a dictator of what we did, what we thought, how we acted.  He dictated through his rage.  Not all dysfunctional families are this extreme.  Some are.  Some are not.  Some families are so disconnected from their feelings that nothing seems wrong on the surface.

These are just a few symptoms of living in a dysfunctional family system.  The family system is more important than any of its individual members.  Nobody is supposed to become a separate individual as they are expected to in a health family system.  There is no separation in a dysfunctional family system.  Everyone is so emeshed that there are no healthy boundaries.  I used walls to keep you out and to keep me protected.  This separation was such a big issue in my family that I waited until I was 19 to run away from home.  My dad was not going to let me leave if he had known in advance.  I told my mom that I was leaving.  My dad came after me two days later.  He threatened suicide if I didn't come back home to live.  He didn't commit suicide and I didn't go back home to stay.  I went home for the weekend to say goodbye to my sister and brother.  I left for good on Monday morning.  I knew in my heart that if I didn't run away that my dad would never have let me escape from under his rule.  Again, this is an extreme example of a dysfunctional family system.

These are just some of the symptoms of growing up in a dysfunctional family system.  There are many more.  Not all families have all of these symptoms.  Do you personally know any families that don't have some dysfunction?  I know some that are working on getting healthier.  Our society is full of families dealing with addictions and codependency.  Some families are healthier than others.

You may ask why am I willing to write a blog about incest, about my own dysfunctional family system.  Why am I making all of my families dirty laundry public?  Some might say that I am being judgmental of others when I talk about my own recovery and my very unhealthy childhood in a home with incest and alcohol.  I am not doing that.  I am sharing what my journey has been like for me. 

Many of us are choosing to go "public" with our issues and our recovery.  You might ask or even demand to know why I would do this to my family.  I am not doing this to anyone.  This is what was done to me and to many other abuse survivors.  Incest is just one of many abuses that are happening to the children of countries around the world.  This abuse will continue unless I and other survivors start to speak out.  Breaking the silence of abuse means that I sometimes get attacked because others don't like having all of this "family" stuff being aired in public.  You won't shut us up any longer.  The survivors of abuse are beginning to speak out on their own behalf and on the behalf of those who are still afraid to speak out. 

I thank Carla Dippel and Darlene Ouimet for speaking to others through their blog Emerging From Broken.  By thanking Carla and Darlene, I am not claiming that they have been abused.  That is for them to decide.  Not me.  I am thanking them for being an inspiration to me personally.  I always welcome comments from my readers.
Patricia

26 comments:

Colleen said...

Bravo!
My father and stepmother think I wrote the book to hurt him. He always has to make everything be about him. But the book was not about him. It was about helping other survivors and their families. It was about me, my life as an incest survivor and my journey toward healing. It was to help me and to help others come out and speak about it and help each other heal.
Breaking the silence is the only way we will end this horror.
Thanks for breaking the silence and speaking out.
Just try to shut us up!

Patricia Singleton said...

Colleen, thank you. The abuser always thinks everything is about them. I am glad that you are doing so good and continuing to grow.

Vickie Linegar said...

It's amazing to me that someone would write a blog with all the exact same issues I've been dealing with lately. The secrets, the requests to shut up, the accusations, the questions.....It is so good to connect with not just survivors but others who are speaking out and facing the same obstacles. From the bottom of my heart - thank you for sharing. This was a fantastic post Patricia.

Patricia Singleton said...

Vickie, The Universe/God makes that happen for me all the time. It is marvelous when that happens. The emotions coming out in your speech just add to the impact of it. You aren't a robot. It is okay to feel it all. I have my own first interview coming up at noon on April 29. I am scared and beyond excited. The interview will be done by Cyrus Webb at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/conversationslive
I hope you will join me there to listen. My talk won't be polished. I don't know what questions, Cyrus is going to ask about my journey through incest recovery. I always ask God to give me the right words to say and I go from there. Congratulations on your courage to speak out. You are not alone. Colleen's name above will take you to her blog. She also does public speaking. Thanks for joining my community of survivors. You are very welcome.

Just Be Real/God Whispers In The Wind said...

Pat thank you for sharing! Well done dear! Blessings.

Patricia Singleton said...

JBR, you are welcome and thank you. Hope you are having a glorious day. Arkansas weather can't make up its mind whether it is Spring or still Winter---cold, sweater weather one day and hot, short-sleeve and sandals weather the next.

JoAnn said...

Way to go Sister . I am proud of you . NEVER Shut Up .

Patricia Singleton said...

JoAnn, thank you. I am proud of my baby sister too. I don't intend to shut up. It is good to hear your voice added to mine. I love you. Congratulations on continuing to be non-smoking.

For many of us, incest is a generational thing. By speaking out and being more aware, maybe we can stop the next generation from being abused. The awareness that comes from our speaking out can change the world.

Eli said...

I think this post helped remind me how much of my wife's issues are from her dysfunctional family. After she identified the incest in her past, that kind of became the thing to point to when she was having problems. As we've progressed through counseling, we see more and more how shockingly dysfunctional her family was (and is.) So much of what you've described here is familiar. I'm glad to have found another blog to help me understand some of what she is going through.

Patricia Singleton said...

Eli, you have made my day with your visit and comment. Helping others is why I decided to share my incest recovery on my blog. Thanks.

mcProdigal said...

Thank you for sharing. My wife and I are from families with secrets that don't talk and we know the terms "scapegoat" et al, because we're learning them from our youngest son, now in rehab for alcohol at 15. That's where secrets get you.

However, the remarkable changes our son has made during rehab have taught us about ourselves and forced many secrets to the front. Thank God for the wounded healers that reach out as you are.

Christina said...

I really relate to most of the points on dysfuntion. Altough I was not particularly physically or sexually abused, I did grow up in an emotionally and spiritually dysfuntional home.
Over the years I have been seeking freedom from this emotional prison that I seem to keep myself in. The last little while especially I have been comming to a breaking point... crying a lot whereas I usually didn't cry before... lower confidence and self esteem... I see that something has to change... but I just don't know where to start

Patricia Singleton said...

McProdigal, you are very welcome. It is because of comments like yours that I continue to write about my healing journey.

Secrets do so much harm. Being a wounded healer, as you called me, has given me a way to find the blessings, to make some good come out of the abuse. I believe that God always has a gift for us if we take the time to look.

Patricia Singleton said...

Christina, I can't tell you where to start. That choice is yours to make. I have been waiting myself until today to take my next step. I asked God to show it to me. Today I found that next step. I just wrote another article about those steps. I opened the door.

It sounds like you are in the middle of grieving some loss. You don't necessarily have to identify what that loss is in order to grieve it. Grief can stick around a long time, especially if it has been denied or ignored for long periods of time in the past.

Once I started crying and grieving with my incest issues, I cried off and on for over a year before I stopped. I was finally in a safe place to cry. Nobody was going to hurt me or tell me to stop crying. I know with my own new chapter, I will be doing some crying of my own, when the time is right.

Christina said...

Thank you Patricia, as soon as I read it I knew you were right. I am greiving... thank you so much for pointing me to God to ask him what the next step is... it was my asking him in the first place to reveal what I was hiding in my life trying to escape the pain... but I am beginning to realize that he would not have revealed this pain if he did not have a plan for my healing and the healing of those around me.

Thank you

Patricia Singleton said...

Christina, you are welcome. Grieving isn't the most pleasant of emotions but it is necessary to healing. Sometimes I get so tired of all of the grieving that I have gone through and I know that I still have more grieving to do. All that crying is worth it. The feelings are a lot better out of my better than in.

katie said...

dear patricia, what an excellent post. you did such a good job of outlining a lot of the basics of a dysfunctional home. it was somewhat painful for me to read about so many aspects of my childhood summed up here.

but a good kind of pain. the kind that tells you where you've been and how far you've traveled on the road since :)

hugs and love to you patricia~

thank you for all you do!

Patricia Singleton said...

Katie, thank you. I know what you mean about it being a good kind of pain. This was from a class that I took several months ago. They were easy to remember because my family did most of them as well. You are so welcome. I am glad that you are along for the ride to recovery.

Jo said...

I stumbled across this when I was looking for information about dysfunctional families and incest. I'm having a hard time coping with my in-laws. My father-in-law is an incest perpetrator and the family is cult like. If only more people spoke about this. My husband felt that he carried the shame. We are in the process of cutting ourselves off from them.

Patricia Singleton said...

Jo, I hope that you and your husband will visit again and read more of my articles on incest and recovery. You can get through it. I am proof of that.

You can subscribe to my blog in order to get new posts sent to you as I write them. Also, on the right sidebar here on my blog, I have listed some other sites where other survivors write about their experiences with incest. Just click on the names of the blogs and it will take you there. There is a wonderful group of bloggers online who write about incest and their own struggles to have a better life.

Jacob Duchaine (Writer Tank) said...

I was a peacemaker.

Not in a case nearly as extreme as yours, but rather in a milder case that doesn't really warrant extended discussion. Still, enough to draw my interest to your blog.

Keep up the great posts. =)

Patricia Singleton said...

Jacob, welcome to my blog. Thank you. Being the oldest child, I was often the peacemaker between my brother and sister and even between my mom and dad.

Kerry said...

Thank you so much for this blog. It is so important to bring the issue of incest into the light and let one another know that we are not alone in this fight.
My 3 brothers were all sexually molested by a "family friend", repeatedly and for years. Now, one of my brothers has repeated the cycle and abused 2, probably all 3 of my children. I was aware that they had been abused and tried to tell my parents and to get this into the open but met with stiff faces and denial. I have so much guilt for not having been able to protect my own children but I thought the threat was outside the family and not inside! This has been so hard to bear. My daughter has had bulimia and during her treatment, disclosed her abuse. My son had a drug problem and he too during therapy disclosed abuse at the hands of the same uncle. Now my family have cast us out and "disposed' of me for talking out about this and saying it must be stopped before it harms another generation. I am leaning on God to get me through being disowned but know that my purpose is to stop this scourge and protect the children. I am writing a book to help me understand what has happened and to bring this out into the light. Kerry

Patricia Singleton said...

Kerry, thank you for reaching out as you have with your comment. Let me know when your book is published and I will buy a copy and let my readers know where to get a copy as well. We need more survivors speaking out and writing books of their experiences.

I am sorry that your brothers were abused and that one of them made the decision to become an abuser and that your children were his victims. You too are his victim.

When a whole family is in denial, it is hard on the person that decides to stop the abuse and secrets and to speak out. I am sorry that your family has decided to dispose of you and to back your abusing brother. Sadly many families do that. I hear about it quite often online.

Most of my dad's family don't acknowledge the incest but they have done nothing to stop me from talking about it. I only have a few aunts and uncles that I do talk with about it. I can't do anything for those who choose to stay in denial. They don't support me but they have said nothing to my face about me speaking out either.

My daughter and I were talking recently and she said that we taught her that she could tell us anything so she didn't know why she didn't tell us sooner that some of the teenage boys at the foster home we worked at when she was a child did some inappropriate things to her. She told us of one event when she was 10 that happened and we thought we had addressed it. This year she has told me about many more things that were going on. She is 35 and just now telling me things. I thought we had done our best to protect her from sexual abuse. We didn't.

I had to forgive myself for not protecting her better. I realized that I didn't do a better job because I hadn't done my own healing work back then so I missed seeing things that I might would have seen if I was further along in my healing. I forgave myself after awhile. You need to do the same thing. Help your children to heal by healing yourself. Sometimes being there for them and forgiving ourselves is all we can do. We can't do their healing for them. They have to do their own healing. Let them know that they always have your support. I recently let me daughter know that it was okay for her to be angry at me for not protecting her better. I hope my words help some little bit.

Anonymous said...

This helped me tremendously today. I am having some difficulties after being the only member of my family not invited to my sister's college graduation. Somehow my father was able to make it all about him despite his invitation. I am grateful to see that even though I have worked very hard to change, my family is not going to see that. I can rest and give up believing this is all my fault. Bless you for your honesty and kindness.

Dawn

Patricia Singleton said...

Dawn, I am glad that my article could help you to understand what is going on in your family. I remember my own disappointment when I realized that just because I was changing and growing didn't mean my family was. I had to let go of the thoughts that one day my family would be what I needed them to be - nurturing & loving. I built them into a fairy tale image that I had to let go of & then I had to grieve that loss.