‘Tis The Season For Family Dysfunction

Fa la la la la, la la la UGH.

A therapist friend told me recently, “family dysfunction is the gift that keeps on giving.” In the past, my family of origin has given generously. We were the failed magic trick when the tablecloth gets pulled out from under the dishes. As a kid, I naturally blamed myself to preserve the relationships with my parents. I never thought, ‘they are going through some stuff.’ Instead I tried to fix what was wrong with me so everything could be ok again. Was I too demanding, too conservative, too needy, too headstrong? Whatever my problem was, I intended to solve the puzzle of my parents’ disapproval and inattention. The not-quite-rightness turned me into a chameleon for other people. What do I need to say to win your approval was my silent question during every conversation. It took a long time to undo that conditioning. I’m not totally rid of the people-pleasing. There are triggers. When I am criticized, I take it hard. That soul-crushing need to be someone better flares up and I have to set boundaries to take care of myself.

Now that we are all grown, the drama has died down—it’s no longer mandatory. Just recently, however, it returned with a vengeance, the pain from childhood flooding back to tell me I am not good enough. Three thousand miles isn’t far enough to escape the torment I have tried so hard to leave behind. There are measures I take for self-preservation. By now I can tell the difference between my issues and someone else’s, so I don’t feel the need to mutate. I know I am worthy of love just as I am. When the fire hose of judgment and whatever the DSM 5 calls this particular ire came for me this week, it was a pop quiz to see how far I’ve come. I was really bummed but not devastated. The following reminders helped. If you have joy killers in your life, I hope these will help you too.


For some, it’s easier to dump unexamined, painful emotions onto others than to take responsibility for resolving them. The bile spewing person has a negative story they tell themselves, the narrative of which casts you as the cackling, mustachioed villain. Say it with me, not my problem. But holy cheese and crackers this is a tough one to get. It’s tough to resist the urge to make it about me and how hurt and angry I am. Their stuff is their stuff. Decades of expensive therapy has only made this about one millimeter easier. It sucks to be unloaded on, but sometimes it happens. Knowing this intellectually doesn’t necessarily translate to letting it go, however. The only thing that worked was yoga and taking a deep breath every time it popped back into my head. Breath and movement are the antidotes to suffering. It’s almost gone now.


As awesome as it feels to vent your spleen, it’s just not worth it. I was unable to hold back on a text chain that caught me by surprise. Now that I’ve had fair warning, I am trying to follow my own good advice for what’s next. I didn’t realize what was happening until I was knee deep in the La Brea Tar Pit of family dysfunction. People who want to tell themselves negative stories about you will do so with or without your help, so there’s no point in engaging. As my daughter advised the other night while we decorated the tree, me with a sad face on because I was busy making other people’s stuff my stuff, “don’t hand over the power to anyone.” Thanks Jane, you are a smart kid.


After the hang ups and the don’t talk to me anymore’s of the night before, I decided to go look for beauty. My favorite view of the canal is gorgeous at sunrise so instead of working out, I walked a few streets over and took it in. There is so much good out there if we make it our business to find it. No matter what is going on, you can always look for the good. I’ll take a blue sky over a tar pit anytime.


When we are kids, we don’t have a choice of who we surround ourselves with but as adults, troublesome characters can often be edited out. We don’t have to keep people around who masquerade as our friends. And we can take breaks from family too. The friends who support us can become like family. For those of you with the good fortune to grow up with loving families, you are doubly blessed to have them as well. For me, I’ve chosen to invest my time and energy in people I don’t have to “make myself small” for, in the words of the great Lindy West. I’ve had my fill of accommodating folks who, to put it bluntly, wouldn’t pee on me if I was on fire. I no longer have space for anyone who’s intent on bringing me down. High vibrations or take a hike.


Take care of yourself. If the wrath of others has seeped in despite your best efforts, stop for some flowers or a treat with the promise of more beautiful things to come. Send the message that you have a life worth living and you are loved and accepted just as you are. Treating yourself well teaches others how to treat you. By setting strong boundaries, we tell the world that we are not a dumping ground for other people’s garbage.


Don’t be afraid to let people in. In the past I’ve been no fan of showing weakness. Before I started sharing my stories, most people knew little about me. On the morning after the family brawl, I was feeling so low. Then I received another message critical of my creative work. There was no undercurrent of love and respect which is the only criticism worth receiving. I wanted to cry. At the exact second I was about to launch into a mean text fight, my kind, sweet friend Lisa called and saved me. She listened intently to the awful story and responded with compassion. In the old days, the call would have gone to voice mail while I stewed and plotted. Glennon Doyle talks about the AA model of sharing in which the other person is simply there, holding space for our pain, not offering empty platitudes, advice or comparisons with someone else’s struggle. THAT IS NOT LISTENING. She says being seen and heard is almost the same as being healed. Good friends know how to do this. Bad friends don’t. Goodbye, bad friends.


This pain is not permanent and doesn’t pervade our whole lives. An issue with one or two people does not take over unless we let it. We don’t need to turn someone else’s problem into are own suffering. So, dear reader, we cannot avoid pain, but suffering is optional. We experience pain in a moment, but our own thoughts about that moment can heap on the suffering if we let it. Whatever meaning we assign to the momentary pain is our choice. I say choose you. Choose beauty. Choose joy. It’s all going to be ok.

Love, Elizabeth

P.S. Writing Prompt: What family/friend drama are you navigating through? How can you take care of yourself?

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