I'm lucky to have a good friend (let's name this friend Sam), who shares (mostly in a very amusing way) stories of the dysfunctional family Sam belongs to. Sam's experience is that although immediate family members are still alive, they are not loving or respectful. But they still make it clear what Sam's role is in their construct of what 'family' needs to mean and what therefore can be asked or demanded or assumed from Sam as part of the family unit. Apart from my emotional reaction to this situation, it raises all sorts of issues about what 'belonging' means, and the strength (and therefore amount of love and pain) that these ties can engender.
We all want to feel we are part of a greater social whole. Our social world begins with our immediate family (usually) and grows out from there, through friends and school and extended family and work etc etc. Usually. But what about our expectations? They tend to grow along with what we witness and experience. So if you come from a loving family and having loving people around you in your greater world, you learn to expect that those people will, in the main, treat you kindly. Will listen, and care about what you say, and generally interact with you as an equal. There will be times when this isn't so, but these situations will be resolved without huge emotional stresses or 'deal-breaking' situations. You are in essence able to be fairly certain of your foundations.
But what happens when your starting point, your immediate family members, have a different way of operating? If their emotional makeup is flawed or skewed or a result of their earlier life experience causing scars? If somehow their model has been flawed and they're not able to pass on the loving, accepting model because they haven't experienced it? Or if, say, they are not insightful, reflective people, or emotionally responsible people, or even people who don't much care what impact they have on others, and whose ideas and feelings don't get scrutinised? We can't all have the good fortune of strong emotional foundations and positive life experience and the inner strength and wisdom to find our way.
My point is that we learn from what we know, and if what we know is something that causes us pain or frustration or anger or something deeply disturbing in some way, what are we to do with it? Our own emotional evolution is something we can choose to think about and perhaps explore and modify. If, say, we are filled with guilt and paralysed by this guilt, we can seek ways to examine the guilt and try to find a more emotionally effective way to live with ourselves. We can make choices about what we choose to carry as emotional baggage, and what we want to make peace with, and even what we want to leave alone because it's part of what makes us feel vulnerable.
When we turn to our family to help us, or accept us, or respect us as equal in emotional status, we are putting our selves in a position of some kind of need. And if those family members are not able to accept or meet this need, we're in a very vulnerable position indeed. Being needy and asking for help is admitting that there's something we can't do, can't manage, or can't understand. Expecting those close to us to treat this with respect and not exploit this vulnerability can be a gamble. If your experience is that admitting neediness is probably going to lead to a situation where you are ignored, exploited, ridiculed or made to feel you are 'lesser' somehow, what does this teach you?
I think you learn, very quickly, to keep your needs out of the equation. If 'belonging' is something you need to feel, you have to change your expectations and understand that you won't get the acceptance and respect you feel you deserve. This is insidious stuff, and in my view can lead to crippling outbreaks of anxiety, feelings of abandonment and low self-esteem. Because if your family doesn't accept you as you are, where do you turn? Many people learn that close friends are safer, more reliable and stronger emotional relationships to participate in. Friends we can choose. Friends can be that unconditional accepting emotional model we all want to participate in.
Sam is caught in a very unpleasant place - wanting both to cut ties and to feel that Sam can belong as the person Sam is. There is much to lose by choosing either position, and it doesn't surprise me at all that Sam can't choose.
In my own explorations of these kind of emotional ties and expectations within the family, I frequently forget that what *I* feel is generally understood; but it may not be the case for all the others. I am as capable as the next person of thinking it's all about me, and forgetting that the others, as close to them as I feel, might have other priorities and other emotional pulls on their resources. I make lots of mistakes but I believe that I at least try to start from a loving, accepting point of view.
It hurts a lot when things don't pan out, and somehow I or we or they end up stumbling over false expectations or simply wrong ideas and assumptions. Like everyone else, I want to belong, and to participate, and to feel that my 'stuff' gets equal time. When it goes wrong, it's awful. Because in loving and respecting my family members, and believing as strongly as I do that we all need our space to stuff it up, sometimes I expect too much or assume the wrong thing or simply get overwhelmed by what's going with me and not be able to see past it.
This is perhaps an apology as much as it is an exploration. Because it's better to learn from a mistake than to just feel bad about it. For me, it's better to think it through and try to understand than to let it go and find that expectations and assumptions are even more off the mark next time.
Brought to you by a day when I was peaceful; then scared, too full and then too empty of adrenalin; and then very lonely for a while.
No perfume was harmed in the production of this post.
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