When You Find Your Family Hurtful – A Letter To Your Loved Ones
My dear family,
As you know, I have been working on myself to become healthier. Aside from the injuries I have healed from my childhood, I have also learned what I should have known: things that healthy people know and that healthy families practice. These new ways of living are now an intrinsic part of my life, and I find it very difficult to return to the old ways. My new ways are more ingrained, because they are inherently natural. I am writing to tell you of my new ways, so you won’t find my new choices arbitrary. I want you to understand why I now act so funny.
Sometimes I actually forget that the world isn’t up on what I have learned. I also know that my new and different values can come off offensive, if you don’t understand them, so I want to try to explain myself. I am doing this, not because I want to teach, but because I want to be understood rather than misperceived.
OK, so I have learned a shorthand term for power and powerlessness. Dr. Faye originally coined these terms to talk to children, but it turns out the nomenclature helps adults become clearer about their dynamics, and it really helps me. 12 o’clock represents power. 6 o’clock represents powerlessness. Everyone, or almost everyone, likes to be in power, especially when they feel dominated or fear domination. Many of us think of power as the only safe state. It can be a bossy sort of arrogant state, which may tend to diminish others. But, sometimes we would rather diminish than be diminished. Yet both states can be used wisely, as well as be abused. There is a time for 12 o’clock, as there is a time to lead thoughtfully, and there is a time to follow thoughtfully or humbly, as well. Dr. Faye says she loves 6 o’clock, and she would much rather just be in a humble state all day, if she could. She does not want to be at 12 o’clock, and I have discovered what she means, because I prefer 6 o’clock too. It is so much easier and more rewarding. Unfortunately or fortunately, I do not abide abusive power by anyone anymore.
There is another concept of letting go. First we do our best to earn what we want, and then we let go. When we have done this, we feel good about ourselves for doing our best, but we don’t cling to the results. If good things return, and they do so much more when you work this way, then I am pleasantly surprised. I try to live a life without expecting anything of anyone, while doing my best. It pays off in ways I can’t describe. It’s sort of like living in miracle after miracle.
I have learned also to do what is in front of me to do. If it is in front of me, I don’t shirk doing what is right. I take the proper and ethical stand. If I see someone doing wrong to someone else, I speak up. To do less is to enable. This doesn’t mean I walk around looking for people and actions to criticize. I do not think of myself as the hall monitor. I only speak up when the issue is in my face. I believe it is possible for us to live a good life without hurting or devaluing anyone else, so when I speak up, I don’t think I am taking anything away from anyone.
Another concept I learned is to express feelings. Expressing feelings, including negative feelings, keeps resentments from building up. We all have them. If we all agreed that it was OK to express feelings, then we would also be open to someone telling us how they feel when we have done something thoughtless. It’s a hard discipline, but a healthy one, to be able to listen to someone vent to us about something thoughtless we did that hurt their feelings. I don’t mind people expressing feelings now. I also don’t mind hearing feelings, either, including someone mad at me. I trust feelings.
However, feelings are not the same as judgment and blame. They are quite different. I don’t tolerate judgment or blame. Sometimes people think judgmental words or thoughts are just an expression of feelings. They aren’t. Judgmental thoughts really do hurt other people. It’s like name calling or a label that can stick for life. They are “You statements” instead of “I feel statements.”
When someone judges others or calls names, it defines the person to their core. We shouldn’t let anyone have such power over us, unless we highly respect their opinion. Nevertheless, we are all susceptible to such negative definitions, and they can stunt our growth for life. We should not say things about others that define their core worth, rather than their actions, creating psychological injuries that can last a lifetime.
Some people think when someone expresses a feeling they are being blamed. It used to threaten me to hear someone complain about my actions. I took someone’s feelings like I was being blamed. It is not blame. It’s venting, and once something is vented, it’s over. So, a person can say, “I feel angry when you step on my toe,” or they can say, “You are a blind idiot, because you stepped on my toe.” The first statement is vulnerable and feeling, and once said, the feeling has been vented and it’s over. It’s truly over. There’s an instantaneous healing. The other person can just say, “I’m sorry. I forgot,” or “Woops.” This is to say, if the listener doesn’t defend, but can just hear and acknowledge, it’s over
We hurt each other accidentally all the time. In normal families people say, “Ouch” and the other person says, “Woops.” It’s over.
In our and many other families, when someone says, “Ouch,” or “I feel angry,” or “I felt hurt and jealous,” the other person feels blamed. Maybe they think it is wrong to tell the truth of our feelings. In our family we were raised to think that expressing an honest feeling was a rude rejection. We have learned to think we are being blamed when someone expresses a feeling about something done to them in the family. But, in a healthy family, it’s a given that we hurt each other, so I can simply say “Ouch,” and then you can simply say “Woops.” No one can live without making mistakes that are thoughtless of others. We are designed to see the world according to our own bias and point of view. We are self-invested. We will accidentally hurt others, if not deliberately. So, it’s ok to say, “Woops.” It’s also OK to say “Ouch” or some more extended version thereof. Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes.
I have learned it is OK to express anger, but I can see that it still upsets people in our family. So, I am sorry for expressing anger. Even though I believe in expressing clean anger, instead of harboring it, I did not remember that it would be taken as blame. I am sorry for seeming to blame. I believe I can keep my anger to myself, for your sake, if you need me to.
Honestly, I don’t believe in blame anymore. I have been learning that I am supposed to take 100% responsibility for my life. I don’t want to blame anyone. I want to solve problems. I may say “Ouch”, or “I feel angry,” but I don’t say, “You hurt me.” If someone says something that hurts my feelings, that’s my choice to let it hurt me and to take it personally.
I have been learning to take responsibility for everything that goes wrong in my life. It’s very liberating. It teaches me to solve problems. It teaches me to give up defensiveness. I used to think if I took the “blame” others would use it against me. I have discovered actually that I get more respect for taking responsibility. I don’t like to blame, and I love to take responsibility for my mistakes now.
I have also learned to show vulnerability as a way of testing how safe I am. When I am vulnerable, will the other person take power over me? If they decide to treat me like I am not self-aware and try to fix me or teach me or “should on me,” then I pull back.
Another concept I have learned is not to give unsolicited advice, because it is an opportunity to take power and show off how smart we are, smarter than the other person who was vulnerable. I basically choose my relationships now by how safe I feel when I am vulnerable. If I can express a thought/feeling about a situation to someone, and they don’t jump in to teach me, then I feel safe. If they jump in to teach me, I may need to be careful now with what I disclose.
I learned to protect myself. I have learned not to stay in a relationship that demeans me. I first will say “Ouch,” but if that doesn’t work, then I will gradually pull away. In some cases I will remain in contact for superficial interaction over holidays, births and deaths.
Another one of my “healthy concepts” is that I can give people feedback without judgment. Judgment is taboo in my life, but feedback is required. I may tell someone how they seem, but that does not at all describe who they actually are. How we cope is just a way of coping that is either healthy and productive or self-destructive. So, I don’t ever presume to judge someone, only their actions.
I also believe that everyone who is pathological is only that way because of how their childhood built them. With feedback, they may get better. With judgment, they get worse. I have learned real compassion. I know trauma makes someone behave badly. I just assess their actions, not the person. I see that a person cannot act in a healthy way, and they will bring me, or anyone, down who is in a relationship with them. That’s a description of an unhealthy way of coping, not of a person’s original core and worth. What’s wrong with mean, violent, or pathological people is due to how they have learned to think and cope.
Finally, I look to see whether the person can apologize, self-reflect or intends to change. If I see no desire to change, I further assess that this beloved relative is not safe for a long-term relationship. She or he is resistant to self-correction and hell bent on blaming others. If this is true, I regretfully pull away or maintain only a superficial relationship for the holidays.
So, I hope that helps you understand where I am coming from. I don’t want to make any one of you wrong about anything. I don’t want to argue, but I want our issues to get dealt with as quickly as possible. I don’t want to doubt anyone. I want to believe we can get along in a healthy way, without blaming, judging and power-trips. I love you all. Me
Dr. Faye is a psychologist, marriage and family therapist and forensic evaluator. She is the founder and clinical director of the non-profit Parenting and Relationship Counseling Foundation (PaRC) in Granada Hills, California. She has taught developmental psychology at the California State University, Northridge. Most importantly, Dr. Faye, along with her husband, Ron, is the proud parent of daytime Emmy winning Scott Clifton, her laboratory and her evidence. She is author of the book ‘The Manual’ .
The Manual is a revolutionary, groundbreaking parenting book based upon the Causal Theory, which is a parenting theory drawn from cause and effect. The Manual addresses issues of our time, as today’s parents re-invent their roles and reassess traditional parenting styles. This book instructs parents how to raise healthy, compassionate, ethical, charismatic, good natured and low-maintenance children. It addresses state-of-the-art information on ethics, discipline and the pros and cons of very real issues such as bullies, trauma, bedwetting and identifying symptoms of physical and sexual abuse. Parents are taught how to perceive and facilitate the healing of their own child from small issues to major ones (ideally with the help of a therapist). It addresses issues of personality formation, genetics and the pharmaceutical industry, “blaming parents” and guilt. It is a book that adults, whether parents or not, can use to increase their own self-awareness and to understand others.