Dear Dr. Wes and Ben: I am 20 years old, but I hope you’ll still answer my question. My family was really dysfunctional and now that I’m on my own I am getting more worried that I will never get over this and can’t have a normal life. What can I do to be free of what I grew up with?
Ben: We all have something about us that we assume is abnormal. Look at a hypothetical high school senior. It seems like everybody knows where they’re going to college, but he doesn’t. Everybody knows what they’re going to do when they get there, but he doesn’t. Everybody has figured themselves out, but he hasn’t. In reality, there’s nothing wrong with this senior, he just has a skewed concept of other seniors. We often place ourselves comfortably in the middle of a spectrum, not the fastest, but definitely not the slowest. There are those times that we feel like we’re at the bottom of the spectrum.
When you feel like you’re at the bottom, an important first step is giving the top a reality check. If our senior were to talk to enough of his classmates, he would find that the category of “everybody” isn’t nearly as big as he thought. Similarly, the families that you compare yours to probably suffer from plenty of their own dysfunction. Family is not an easy thing. Ask any parent. There are tensions and conflicts within even the most loving, stable families. Coming from a tight family is certainly a great boost when you’re sent out into the world, but I know a number of incredible people that I admire come from rough families. As we discussed in last week’s column on teen pregnancy, there is always obvious potential to be beaten down by a hard circumstance, but there is also the much subtler opportunity to grow stronger.
Biologically, we are confined to one family, one that we don’t get to choose. On all other grounds, however, there is nothing that restricts us to one family. Technically, I have one brother, but I know a handful of guys with whom I share an incredible sense of brotherhood. Some are younger brothers that look up to me while others are big brothers who help me when I’m at a loss. No one can replace my dad, but there are older men that I know I can go to as a son to a father. Some sought me out. Others, I sought out myself. The best way to find these people is to be honest with them, to put some faith in others and open up to them (Granted, they must be people you trust!). Who knows? Maybe they need you just as much as you need them.
Wes: I’m with Ben. You can’t choose the family you came from, but you can certainly choose the one you want to create, not only in your friendship circle, but also in whom you marry and how you choose to raise your kids.
I think psychology has given us many valuable things over the last hundred years or more. The “dysfunctional family” is not among them. I’m not proposing that they don’t exist, simply that from Freud on, the problems we face growing up have been turned into a catch-all excuse for not getting up and doing what needs to be done. There’s little doubt that children who come from homes with strong parenting face fewer difficulties adjusting to adult life than those whose families abused them, were alcoholics, or suffered from high conflict divorce, to name a few common afflictions. But a great many young people have used those bad examples as an example of exactly what not to do. The very fact that you’re writing with this question proves to me that you understand enough to get started on the journey.
There is a secret to this, and that too flies in the face of a great deal of psychology, which has traditionally encouraged people to express each and every feeling they have. I’m going to propose instead that your feelings about your family are valid and important. They also have nothing to do with living a normal and productive life. Experience your pain, and joy, and resentment, and hope and then decide yourself exactly who you are going to become. You are not a puppet, tied to the way your family taught you to feel. While you probably share some brain chemistry with them, even disorders such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc., can be addressed by taking an active stance.
I certainly don’t want to be insensitive to whatever you’ve been through, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to see many children whom I served through the most dire of circumstances — foster care, sick divorces, the loss of a parent — grow up and emerge as competent, loving, giving people. You can do it too.
Find a mentor. It could be a therapist, a teacher or other worthy adult who is willing to give you some time and guidance, and then follow his lead. Or pick out a famous person you’d like to emulate. Study her life and see how she made it work. You may be shocked to see just how many people turned a bad childhood into a great life as an adult. You can’t change the past, but you can shape your future.