How to Break Away From Family Dysfunction – Not As Easy As It Sounds

My daughter, who’s birth inspired so much growth within myself.

From Emotional Oppression to Speaking My Truth

First of all, I am sharing this blog post with the hope that my story might inspire others who are ready to set boundaries. Secondly, I am sharing because I believe it’s important people understand counselors are humans with human experiences too. Third, I share this experience with love in my heart for my family. This is my perspective, my story. I truly believe no one in my family has ever intentionally tried to hurt me; and also, I am not free from participating in some shady behavior either. Perspectives are different based on the person, their experiences and their support system.

I remember when I started experimenting in setting boundaries.  I wasn’t quite ready to say “No” without an explanation, so I would ‘dip my toe in the water’ by making up an excuse why I couldn’t help with something I didn’t want to do or join people in an activity I didn’t enjoy.

However, I would worry heavily about getting caught lying.  Therefore, I would ‘hide out’ at home and not answer my phone in order to avoid getting caught in a lie.  I didn’t want to stay at home, I wanted to do what I wanted to do, but my guilt and shame wouldn’t let me.  Instead of simply saying “No, I’m not interested.  Call me next time”, I ended up wasting my day because I choose to make up excuses instead of saying “No”.

When I did get caught making up excuses, family members were quick to shame or judge me.  They would spin things around to make themselves the victim of my avoidant behavior, as if I did something far worse than simply making up an excuse not to be there.  They made it all about them and their hurt feelings, going so far as to gossip about me with other family members.

I could have explained to them, “I didn’t want to go or help because I’m tired and I need a break.  Sometimes I am not strong enough to say ‘no’ to you because of how you react when I do.”

Instead, I sat frozen in their verbal vomit of anger, frustration and how much I ‘let them down’.  Which of course only successfully led me to feel like an asshole for daring to put my needs above theirs and I inevitably said “I’m sorry” for something I wasn’t sorry for.

My entire life it was apparent to me (with certain people in my family) I was meant to be an ‘audience member’ in their show of life.  I was to be where they wanted me to be and react the way they wanted me to react.  If I obeyed and played the role of ‘audience member’ captivated by their greatness, I was a ‘good girl’, if I didn’t obey I was a ‘bully’, a ‘bitch’, or they would ask, “Is something wrong with you?”  “You’ve changed, you used to be so fun, what happened?”, “We used to be so close, what did I do to you that makes you behave this way towards me?”

These same people rarely asked about my life or what I was interested in; when they did, and I began to answer, they interrupted with their own personal ‘one upping’ story as if it were more important, funny, interesting, or extreme than mine.  Their behavior clearly communicated they weren’t interested in what I had to say, they were interested in ‘one upping’ and talking about themselves. 

After years of being interrupted, I began to simply be silent in their presence and 100% dissociated during their magnificent stories and experiences of greatness.  I was pretending to a ‘good audience member’.  But the silent and dissociative tactic also backfired, “Why are you so quiet?” they would ask.

It took me a while before I understood:

They NEEDED me to talk so they could interrupt, that’s how they felt important, by establishing dominance through power and manipulation; stealing attention and asserting themselves by cutting me off and directing the attention onto them. 

When I chose to be silent, I inevitably and unintentionally took their power away, along with their opportunity to feel important by stealing attention; something they needed, and still need.  It became strikingly clear to me they feel unimportant and insignificant when the attention is not on them. 

In my thirties, I began pursuing a path of self-awareness, which is extremely difficult work when done honestly and humbly.  Through that work, I realized I had to take some accountability in regards to my role in my family relationships and dysfunction.  I couldn’t 100% blame my family members for how I was feeling (even though I wanted to and it was far easier to). 

Eventually through this self-awareness work, I came to the very difficult realization I was creating my misery because I wasn’t willing to set healthy boundaries, assert myself and speak my truth.  I was afraid of the backlash, of being called a ‘bully’ and the guilt and shame that would be thrown my way if I said anything that might put a ripple in the ‘way things are’.   

I’ll admit, I was also afraid of losing people, because I knew deep down if I started speaking my truth and setting healthy boundaries certain people wouldn’t like it. I also knew deep down, once I set those boundaries I couldn’t go back to having none, therefore, I needed to be ready to lose people.

During this self awareness process I realized I was raised since birth to be an ‘audience member’, to put my own feelings aside for the comfort of others, to not ‘rock the boat’ because “that’s just how they are, we all have to live with it”.

As an adult, all I was doing was letting myself down by perpetuating the lifelong lessons I was taught.  I was taught I was insignificant, my needs were second, what I thought didn’t matter. However, deep down inside of me I knew that wasn’t true.  I knew I had just as much of a right to speak my truth as anyone else did. 

The question I started asking myself was “Why should they get to tell me how they feel about my behavior, but I don’t get to tell them how I feel about their behavior?”  By saying nothing, I was participating in the emotional oppression of me.  

My heart was trying to make me understand by saying:

“What? You aren’t ‘close’ with your family!  When have you EVER been close? They don’t know you! You’re an audience member! You’re a pawn in their game to meet their need to feel important.  And they are attempting to convince you (and themselves) they give a damn about you by saying they feel ‘close’ to you. Do they even know you? Do they know where you work? When’s the last time they called you or texted you just to say “Hi”, and not because they needed something?”

I found myself, in my thirties, still riding this emotional Ferris Wheel.  It was hurting my heart and killing my soul. I was living for other people and I wanted to live for myself. I wanted OFF, and at the time, I saw myself as having two choices;

  1. I could go back to the way I was doing things and be boundary-less, emotionally oppressed by them and feel like shit.  But once I became aware of what was going on, it’s much more painful and near impossible to go BACK to being unaware.  OR
  2. I could focus, set my intention and ‘blow shit up’ by speaking my truth.

I needed a quick and effective escape from the dysfunction and emotional oppression I knew was crippling me.  I also knew I wasn’t strong enough to escape the dysfunction if I didn’t use TNT, a flame, and accelerant (metaphorically).  My choice was to ‘blow shit up’.

I wrote a letter.

I was heard.

A very direct, honest letter as professionally as I could (I used every ounce of my professional mental health and NLP training), full of matter of fact statements, undeniable evidence of others shitty behaviors, my feelings and insights…and I called EVERYONE OUT ON THEIR SHIT.

Then, (and this is the ‘blow shit up’ part) I sent that letter to everyone in my family; whether they were a part of the bullshit or not.  I sent it to everyone in order to eliminate any manipulative triangulation that might occur.  They couldn’t use their old tactics of gossip and manipulation to lie about what I said or accuse me of calling names, or being an inappropriate ‘mean bully’ if everyone received a copy. 

At that time, I knew the only way I would be strong enough to maintain healthy boundaries was to ‘blow it up‘ with an honest letter and start from the raw exposed core.  Honestly, I wasn’t 100% confident I could maintain my new healthy boundaries if I didn’t completely expose the vulnerability and fragility of all the relationships I had with members of my family. 

Guess what happened with that letter?

Those who respectfully gave a shit reached out to me, had conversations with me, worked to understand my perspective, shared their own and we worked out a healthier relationship.

Those who didn’t give a shit about me, appeared more concerned with being the ‘victim’ and how the letter made them feel, they chose to target me, avoid me, gossip about me and make me the ‘scapegoat’ by blaming me for their feelings about their shitty behavior I pointed out in the letter.

Since that letter, I have received two different responses from family members:

  1. to many, I have become the ‘scapegoat’.  I am the one who often gets blamed for their shitty behavior if I dare hold them accountable to their shitty behavior.  And to be honest, I’d much rather live as the ‘scapegoat’ than an unwilling participant in the avoided family dysfunction. 
  2. to others I have received gratitude and admiration.  They told me “You said what I have been feeling for a long time”.  They shared similar feelings and they thanked me for writing that letter leading the way for everyone to make change if they wanted to. 

That letter gave me the opportunity I needed to set and maintain boundaries.  It sunk the illusion of a well put together family and floated to the surface the family dysfunction, shedding much needed light on the parts and people I needed strong and healthy boundaries with.  

Since that letter I have not had a problem with setting or maintaining boundaries.  When I feel myself getting sucked into the old manipulative bullshit with their old manipulative ways, I can stop it because I see the manipulation, the games and the bullshit; it is VERY clear to me, clearer than it’s ever been.  And it gets clearer the further I move away from it, and the less I engage in it.  I can now recognize it almost immediately, and I make every attempt to respond with objectivity, reason, compassion and respect. 

I make all attempts to respond compassionately (not always successful, but I try), because I have compassion for why it’s hard for certain people to understand my actions and current choices.  I understand that, to them, I look like an asshole.  I took something away from them, and exposed something about them they didn’t want exposed. 

I took me away from them.  The me they needed me to be; the me that was trained to seek their approval, to be an ‘audience member’ to their glory.   I stopped participating and exposed the ‘game’.

Ultimately, it became clear to me they weren’t willing to change, and I choose to honor their choice.  It’s their choice to change or not to change.  It’s also their choice to respect or not respect my choice to change.  I understand their reaction and I have compassion for their feelings.  It’s not easy to be held accountable for shitty behaviors when you’re not used to being held accountable. 

Making it here to this moment, free and clear…

I WILL NEVER go back.  I will never again tolerate being repetitively interrupted, dismissed and minimized. 

I WILL hold people accountable when I feel mistreated by them. 

I WILL go directly to the source when I hear negative and erroneous gossip that involves me.    

I am not bitter, hateful or angry.  I was, for a long time.  I’ve let those negative feelings go; it wasn’t easy, but I did it. I had to, it was weighing heavily on me. Holding on to those feelings was keeping me imprisoned in the game, but in a different way.  Those feelings were holding me back, and I needed to move forward. 

I know I operate differently today, and I know it’s hard to understand and accept when someone abruptly leaves codependent relationship. 

I KNOW they don’t do what they do to intentionally hurt me. 

I KNOW they were raised a certain way and influenced by their family of origin as well. 

I KNOW how difficult and painful it is to initiate and experience self-awareness.

I KNOW how difficult it is to change one’s stripes.

I KNOW I am not going to change them, nor do I want to try. 

I KNOW they believe they are operating in a loving and compassionate way and I believe them when they say they believe they have always been nothing but kind and compassionate. 

I have come to be grateful, because my experience has taught me several extremely valuable life lessons:

  • Growth is hard, but it’s worth it. 
  • You CAN free yourself from familial dysfunctions. 
  • Speak your truth, ALWAYS. 
  • Life is a matter of perspective. 
  • Self-awareness is painful, but if you stick with it, your life will ultimately be more enjoyable. 
  • The further you move away from dysfunction, the easier it is to see.
  • The ability to say “No” without guilt or shame.
  • Manipulation is a skill.  It can be used positively or negatively.  I can also be used unconsciously.
  • Communication and honesty are extremely valuable in problem solving relationship issues.

I have no regrets about writing that letter.

I have no regrets about putting my needs first.

I’m better for it.

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