(Are you a Person of Color? You will see the * periodically throughout this piece. Please know as you read I am talking about family dynamics and not systemic racism, which is a completely different kettle of fish.)
I’ve been thinking about you. And about me because I am you. And about how all of us fit together in this Earth Experience, this thing called, (as Prince said), Life.
I don’t love labels so I try to avoid them, but sometimes they are helpful when you’re trying to get down to the nitty-gritty and see what’s what. There are other words we could use like “crazy” and “lazy” and “selfish” or “difficult” and “stubborn” and “insensitive” or “damaged” and “outcast.” “Other” tends to cover it all.
Chances are you live differently than the rest of your family. Like, they’re all really religious and you can’t stand church because you feel like they’re all a bunch of hypocrites. Or they’re all into outdoor sports and being competitive and you’d rather stay in and watch movies. Or they all love getting together for holidays and weekend meals and you dread it with the fire of a thousand suns because you know the conversation will eventually turn to you and how you’re failing at oh, well, just about everything. This topic, the one where you don’t perform how they want, is one of the most conversed subjects and they don’t ever seem to get tired of talking about it. Plus, bonus points for how many times someone asks why you don’t even care how much you’re hurting your parents/grandparents. You’re the cautionary tale. You’ve probably used drugs or alcohol to cope. You might have been abused as a child, which no one wants to discuss and everyone wants to pretend didn’t happen and they wish you would “just get over it already.” If you’d only try harder. (SIGH)
You probably have one sibling or aunt or cousin that you can talk to. This person is the only person in your family that kind of “gets you.” They act as a go-between when conversations about future plans or other necessities need to take place. They walk the tight-rope and do a lot of explaining on behalf of everyone else and translate what you say back to the family and vice versa. And yet, rarely do they stick up for you in the moment you need them to in a group setting. They shrug their shoulders as if to say, heck I would if I could but these people, you know?
It’s Not Really You
Here’s some truth: You are not the cause of the problems in your family. You are the result. Your family is dysfunctional and they have chosen you to be the receptacle for their garbage. The good news is that you are not alone. In fact, almost all families have a You in them. I know that might not make you feel any better, but it might at least help you feel like you belong somewhere. Congratulations!
There have always been outcasts because we as humans have always been in tribes. In order for tribes to feel strong and cohesive and SURVIVE, there had to be an US versus THEM mentality. Not many of us actually need this dynamic anymore, given that we live in homes and have food on the table and our actual physical survival isn’t brokered by creating bonding rituals. And yet, these old patterns persist.
In the 50s, you would have been called the “Identified Patient.” You’re the reason your family doesn’t have to deal with any of their real issues. You’re a convenient scapegoat and as long as everyone can point their fingers at you and talk about you and feel bad about you, the dysfunction continues and it gets to be all your fault. It’s not like they all got together without you and said ok look, now we’re all going to decide together that Ralph is the bad one in this family and no matter what he does or how he tries to improve we’re going to see him as different than us and basically a loser. No. For the most part it’s completely subconscious. And for all your family’s tears and lectures and begging you to change, they’d have no idea what to do if you were actually different than how they see you, which is why you can’t BE different. No matter how you try, you slip right back into that rut of the screw-up. Because why try if they’re never going to see you as different? This is called hamster wheel thinking.
Families are just like any other group or tribe of people in that you usually have a leader, some followers, and often, the punching bag for morale. Degrading the out-group person has a positive impact for the core group. Having that person to compare the rest of the group to brings everyone else closer. This isn’t really a surprise. We as humans like to make comparisons. That’s basically how our entire world is run.
Have you seen The Office? That person is Dwight. Did you watch Family Matters? It was Steve Urkel. Or maybe you’ve watched Parks & Rec. That person is Larry/Gary/Terry/Barry/Jerry, whom everyone delights in shaming and calling names. And L/G/T/B/Jerry just takes it all in stride, sometimes playing along with whatever the running gag is. He doesn’t seem to get offended, but instead understands the psychology of group behavior and rarely takes it personally, despite the fact that he’s actually very talented in many ways, quite smart, has a beautiful family, and is economically stable. You see, this is a primal thing we do. It’s been bred into us for so many years that unless we’re willing to really step back and take a fearless accounting of how we contribute to the dynamic, it’s almost impossible to be different.
It’s biological. When we lived in actual tribes, these behaviors were helpful. The closer-knit your tribe was, the higher chance your survival rate was. It was crucial to know who was US and who was THEM and to always be assured that you were on the winning aka surviving team. This is hard-wired into our brains. It feels like relief to be surrounded by people that are LIKE you. And if someone threatens that safety? You create the Other and every time you reinforce that perception of Other, your brain rewards you with endorphins that feel like safety. So, if you have to sacrifice one tribal member but that means that the rest of you are safe, well, I guess that was worth it.
We still like to make someone the Other, mainly because that means we aren’t that person. Othering is when we distance ourselves from someone or a group of people who we don’t want to see any similarities with and think of them as distinctly different than us. We make them less than us, and in our minds, that means less than human, which helps us justify our actions and beliefs.
It doesn’t always look like a major thing. No one in my family came right out and said, Leah, we just don’t think you’re one of us. But I felt that way. You notice the eye rolling and crying in frustration and sarcastic comments more than anything else. Most of the time, the comments and gestures “of love” that were heavily laden with religion and hard-wired with strings were the hardest for me to stomach.
Let me give you an example of how this tribal dynamic works. One day I was reading a final draft of the first book I wrote, Not Otherwise Specified, to some of my siblings as we drove for several hours to a family gathering in another state. The passage I was reading was about sexual abuse to me done by a stranger when I was very little. One of my sisters interrupted me and asked, “Why didn’t you stop him?” Another sister asked, “Why didn’t you just run away?”
Let’s explore what happened. I’m a member of a family. They are my tribe. They are listening to a younger member of their tribe talk about something horrific that happened to her and it’s deeply upsetting and brings up fear, anger, and probably other gut emotions that are unclear. In the heat of those uncomfortable feelings, they say certain things but really, they mean something else entirely. Sister 1 is really asking, “How can it be that a member of my tribe had something so horrible happen to her and why did that happen and why didn’t I stop it from happening and could it have happened to me and is it my fault?” and sister 2 is really asking, “How can these things happen in my tribe and if it had been me would I have been able to run away because if she didn’t, maybe I couldn’t have, but that’s too scary to think about so it must be her fault.” Neither one of them said, “It was your fault.” And yet, the feeling they projected to me, out of fear, was that it was my fault. To think otherwise would put the tribe in danger.
Let me give you another example. When I was a teen, my father came to a meeting with my therapist who proceeded to tell him about a rape that had happened to me a couple of years earlier. The first thing my father asked was, “What what she wearing?” Here my father was clearly suggesting the rape was, at least partially, my fault. Putting aside the religious upbringing my father had and the generational beliefs about men, their urges, and women and their responsibility for those urges, my father was also saying, “How could this have happened to a member of my tribe and what does this say about me as the leader and am I responsible and if so, that’s terrifying and I’m not as good of a protector as I thought I was so it must be her fault.” Coming from that point of view, he remained a successful leader of the tribe and no one else was in danger. It should be noted that later in that same conversation my dad pointed out to the therapist that none of his other seven children had any of the problems I had, so therefore, it must be my fault I was the way I was. Classic!
I’ll give you one last example. In my first marriage, my ex-husband’s family exhibited classic tribe behavior. You were either “One of Us” or you were not, and to be “Not” meant being at the sharp end of all the “No, we’re just kidding, we didn’t really mean it that way, you’re too sensitive” jokes. I watched family members scramble to get In after being kicked Out over and over. I had the unique perspective of never really fitting In in the first place, so while I was tolerated for several years, I didn’t ever feel that need or urge to jump through hoops to get or stay In. Plus, I had an entire childhood of being the Other under my belt, so I had a lot of practice when I got married at 17 at being the outcast. My ex-husband, however, had been unconsciously playing this game his entire life, so being married to me could have been quite a liability, but instead it was a bonus. He got to play the “married to the crazy lady” card pretty much always, which worked to his benefit. He always looked like the good guy, the long-suffering guy, the aw-shucks I’m just doing my best guy. And his tribe enfolded him in their tribal love where he was safe and supported.
So, now that we’re all clear on what’s really happening, the logical question is would you like anything to change? You can’t change them, so don’t even try. But, you can change you.
It can feel deeply satisfying to continue being angry and frustrated at your tribe’s lack of empathy and demonstrate that outwardly with your choices and behavior. No one can take that sense of justice from you if you want to keep it and I’m certainly not judging that choice.
But, I am all about holding my own power and Acting on Purpose, not Reacting, whenever possible, so if you do want things to change, here’s how I did it and it might work for you, too.
Identify What’s Really Going On
It can be super tricky to separate what’s actually happening in the physical world from what’s happening just under the surface where all the feelings and energy and things-with-no-words are taking place. That’s the crazy-making part. That’s why your tribe can tell you that you’re making it up and all they want is for you to be happy and then you start to second guess yourself and think man, maybe I AM crazy!
Until you figure out how to see with both sets of eyes, it’s going to be confusing and you’re going to be moving through your life mostly just on instinct.
Here’s what your family is Feeling: fear, anger, frustration, disgust, pride.
Here’s what your family is Projecting to you: Guilt, blame, sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, anger.
Here’s what is Real: They feel fear, anger, and are stuck in a pattern they aren’t even aware of and will not confront so there’s no way to fix it.
Here’s what you can Do: See them with compassion, empathy, maybe forgiveness, set good boundaries, cut ties when necessary, focus on yourself, and get free of your old patterns.
When I was young, I wouldn’t clean my room or do any of my chores in a timely manner. It was like it was just beyond me. This wasn’t because I couldn’t clean my room. I knew how and I was really good at organizing, actually. My mom would have to remind, remind, remind, and ultimately beg me to do my chores. Meanwhile, my other siblings had finished ages ago and were off playing outside or with friends. And there I’d be, downstairs in my room, sprawled on the floor atop mountains of toys and clothes and unable to move a muscle. Sometimes crying, sometimes spacing out, always in my own little world.
As an adult I’ve had time to process this behavior and I realize that the core feeling of being “bad” was just too strong for me to do anything “good.” Doing my chores the first time my mom asked would have implied to my tribe that I was “good.” I felt NOT good. I felt very, very bad and in some weird sense of authenticity, I chose to stick with how I really felt and acted bad. I didn’t want to lie with my actions and be good. Which meant, in the long run, I was reinforcing the belief I was bad over and over again which made them see me as the Other.
Understanding this as an adult helps me deal with the gut-instinct that will surface occasionally that is completely contrary to how I’d truly like to be. I can see it as my Little Self trying to be authentic and I can instead choose to be authentic in a different and more constructive way.
See Yourself Differently
The message from your family is that you are a screw-up. Being the screw-up can be a comfortable shell because it’s so familiar and no one expects much. If you want to see yourself differently, you’ll need to do it without needing to make them see you a new way, because if you’re waiting on them, it won’t happen. That’s a beautiful self-sabotaging setup to get caught in and it means things will never be different. You wait – they withhold – you wait – etc.
It can also feel good to be different than the tribe that shuns you. This can make you go to extremes in behavior to distinguish yourself. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be a polar opposite to those in your tribe to be yourself. You probably have things in common with them that you’ve been stuffing down. It’s ok to be like them in some ways if you’re comfortable with those ways.
You’ll need to let go of the need to be “special” in this way. Being the Other means you get to sit back and look at the group and say, I’m not like them. They’re all hypocrites/lemmings/monsters and I’m nothing like them. This creates the feeling of being special and it can be hard to let it go because if you eventually fit in with all of them, what would be so great about you?
Seeing yourself differently means seeing things as they really are: you have some good points and some strong points and a lot of things you could work on. Also, no one is better than anyone else, which means your tribe is all equally as good or bad as you in their own ways. Chances are you’ve been so busy and working so hard at being different than your family, you don’t even know who you truly are deep down anymore. As much as your tribe has been caught in this primal game, you have been, too. It can be scary, but take some time to figure out what’s working for you in your life and let the rest go. You get to choose who you are. People can always, always, always change.
Change Victim Mentality
Man, this one is hard. There’s no blame here. It’s a continuous journey to stop playing this part but you can do it. You will never have the life you want if your life is always happening TO you. You can only have the life you want if you are the protagonist in your story. Be the lead. Be the main character. Make the choices. Make decisions on how you want to act and represent yourself. When things go terribly wrong, make level-headed choices, don’t simply react with primal emotions (fear, anger, frustration, disgust, pride).
There are absolutely horrific things that happen to people in this world. The playing field is NOT level. Things are not now fair nor have they ever been so. Sometimes you are stuck in a situation that affords you no relief from abuses. You will not have your needs met. People will fail you.
Take the time to process the feelings that come along with these things if they are or did happen to you. Stuffing them will not help you long-term. And once you feel those feelings, get them out because they will make you ill. They will fester. And if they keep happening, keep processing.
Stop telling yourself the stories about yourself that don’t help and are only partially true, like “everything bad happens to me.” Be fearless in making these changes. Make your life what you want it to be by setting boundaries with those that hurt you and holding others accountable for their actions, all while finding that center inside yourself where you can build peace to sustain your life of intention.*
Were you abused as a child? I was, and this can be particularly challenging for you, but it can be done. You were, in fact, a victim and that can stick to your inner self despite your best efforts. It sets off chain reactions of “life being unfair” and life complies by being unfair. When you’re ready, you have to look around you and decide that whatever happens from this point forward is on you. You need to see your future as your own, no matter what happened in your past. You have to change the way you talk to yourself so that you own everything. From this moment on, so-and-so didn’t do something to you.* So-and-so didn’t ruin your day.* They didn’t make you do anything.* YOU chose to do whatever it was you did.* YOU chose to have a day that was ruined.* No one can make you feel or do anything.*
There is so much freedom and happiness in claiming your life. Your life up until this point may have been the worst and most unfair life in all the unfair lives ever to have been lived, and STILL you can have a wonderful and happy life starting now, even if terrible things happen to you again.
Notice when your tribe isn’t sure what to do with this change and do it anyway. If you manage this change, it is going to send some of them for a loop. You may see them reaching to find someone else in your tribe to make the Other. But, you’ll call them out on it, right?
Find Your True Tribe
Find your people. I know you might be used to spending lots of time alone and isolating to limit the amount of horrible days in your life, but it’s time for some fresh air. Somewhere near you are others like you. They are quiet or smart or interesting or outgoing or writers or photographers or into horses or producing music or fermenting food or outdoor sports or whatever it is you’re into. They exist. There might only be one or two or who knows, dozens, in your area but you have to make an effort to find them.
If you don’t feel good about yourself when you’re with someone, then they aren’t your people. Your people should be lifting you up and making you feel like yes, I can do this. Keep exploring until you find the tribe of people that matches your intentions and your heart. They encourage you to improve and want to see you succeed. They’re happy when you’re happy for yourself. They don’t make jokes that belittle you. They don’t tell you you’re always overreacting. They don’t try to make you second-guess yourself and they don’t find it entertaining to keep you on your toes by making you feel uncomfortable.
Get To Know Yourself
You’ve been taught to doubt your own judgement. You’ve been reminded of your mistakes over and over again. You’ve been told you’re bad or no good and that you’ll never change. None of that is really you. It’s your tribe’s perception of you.
Who you are is perfectly flawed. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. The difference is in what you do next and how you choose to NOT make that same mistake again. Having an awareness of why something happened is a way to arrange things so the same thing won’t happen again.*
What are you good at? What are your strengths? What do you want to spend you life doing? How are the habits you engage in daily affecting where you want to go in life? Do you dare care?
Who and how you are is a gift to your family dynamic. They might not see that, but that’s ok. You bring something new to the table when you sit in your own strength and stop reacting to their unconscious barbs.
How will you learn your strengths? By spending time with yourself and feeling and thinking and tossing the junk. It’s hard work, no lie. But the reward of owning your life is immeasurable. I try and do a daily self-care activity so I can keep up on any unresolved stuff coming up. Walking, painting, writing, yoga, or pretty much anything you love that feeds your soul or strengthens your body, allowing you time to release, feel, and work through those feelings will work.
Don’t stop bringing up things in real time when you see an old behavior happening. Your brother makes a snide/sarcastic comment or someone tries to box you in with a Never or Always statement and you react like your old self, saying something harsh – take a beat, breathe, decide how you want to Act on Purpose and speak the truth. “I just said something I don’t really mean and I’m sorry. I’m learning how to change that about myself and it’s taking some time. Thank you for being patient while I learn a new skill.” And then get up and leave the room if you need to.
Don’t worry about what they think about you. You can’t change them or how they think or feel. You can only change yourself. One of my favorite quotes is by Martha Graham: “What people in the world think of you is really none of your business.” Stay on task – that task is you. You’re the only one you’re responsible for.
The more clear you are, the better chance you have of them understanding you. Don’t bring them into it by adding anything along the lines of, “you made me so mad” or “because you said.” You’re only talking about you and the changes you want to make for yourself.
Set and Keep Better Boundaries
So, this is a new one for you probably. If you’re anything like me, I hadn’t denied myself anything in years. I had just gone here and there and everywhere, following every unnamed feeling I had that I was or wasn’t aware of because it didn’t really matter what I did or didn’t do anyway. I was always the bad guy. There’s not a lot of motivation in that scenario to make me care to change anything.
But that meant I wasn’t doing anything On Purpose. I was just doing and doing and digging myself into bigger holes everywhere I went and wondering why nothing ever worked out for me. I drank often and a lot. I used drugs, sometimes compulsively, to numb. I started things and then didn’t finish them like college and jobs and projects. I kept erratic sleeping habits and somehow felt it was an accomplishment when I would stay up all night not realizing I was upsetting my body rhythm and it would take weeks for me to set it right again. And guess what I was doing in those weeks? Yes, I was drinking and using and trying to not feel anything at all. I was avoiding my tribe and seeking out superficial relationships that brought me no happiness and sometimes put me in a lot of danger. I was spending too much money if I had any money at all. I was blaming others for everything that went wrong in my life. I was depressed and unhappy and felt abandoned by everyone including myself.
What I finally had to do was have a long talk with myself. I told myself that for a long, long time I had been trying to cover up all the crappy feelings inside my core by using substances and not sleeping and basically treating myself like a real piece of garbage. And I asked myself if I wanted things to change. I told myself that I was going to try and do better and I made my very first set of lists of “Stuff I Like” and “Stuff I Want To Do” and “Stuff I’m Going To Change.” And then I told myself that because I was trying to learn to love myself I was going to try and be present in my own body and stop running away. I was going to parent myself with love and set good boundaries for myself, things I’d never allowed my own parents to do and had never done for myself up until that point. Things like eating better food and going to bed before midnight and getting outside more and saying nice things to myself and learning something new and maybe, more importantly, things like not hanging out with people that made me feel bad about myself including some members of my family and avoiding opportunities to get trashed and maybe getting a haircut.
And I tried to stop seeing my tribe as Other and to find our similarities. The magic of energy is that if one side changes, the other side has no choice but to change with it. If I become more positive, they have a choice to become more positive as well or more negative. But, either way, I’m more positive and that brings me more happiness. No one else in this life is in charge of your happiness and no one else in this life is in charge of your success.*
This is a lot of hard work and you have to really want it. It takes practice and you will fail a lot. But if you keep getting back up, you will succeed because that in itself is success. Of course, if you’ve cut ties with your family permanently for good reasons like physical/sexual/verbal abuse, you’ll need to learn this stuff on your own. CoDA would be a great place to start.
Also, I love you.
Also, also, here’s a post for your family. xo