Cutting The Cords Of Family Dysfunction
Day after day, I have people who come to me because they feel stuck in their relationships. Although their circumstances may be unique, their themes are common. They:
- Become masters at avoiding or denying what’s really going on in their relationships or household,
- Numb out with food, alcohol, or work so they don’t have to feel their pain or resignation,
- Pacify their partners because they don’t want to upset them and deal with their wrath,
- Tolerate situations that are intolerable, unhealthy, or just soul-crushing,
- Stay in the relationship because they have fear of leaving and the unknown.
They desperately want support in breaking free from their non-serving patterns and behaviors and are ready to do the work necessary to create a shift.
Although initially most think they are doing the work for themselves, which they are, they soon realize that their commitment to change is much bigger than they are. They realize that the dysfunctional patterns which they are exhibiting, experiencing, and enduring in their relationships and household have been in their family for generations and will more than likely remain in their family for generations to come unless someone has the courage and desire to cut the cords of dysfunction that are woven into the fabric of the family.
Having three daughters, I remember promising myself that “I would be different,” “the environment I created in my home and with my children would be different than the one I was raised in,” and “I would never act in the ways that my parents did that caused me pain, shame, or embarrassment.” I was adamant that I did not want my daughters to inherit the non-serving behaviors that sabotaged myself, my mother, and all the generations of women before us. Yet, before I knew it, I was exhibiting these same non-serving behaviors and had recreated many of the dysfunctional behaviors from my past. Realizing that something needed to change so that my children could learn from our family dysfunction instead of drown in it, I became the self-appointed agent of change in my family lineage or what I endearingly refer to as the “legacy-shifter!”
So, what does it take to be a legacy-shifter in your family?
Below are a few helpful tips.
Tip #1: You must sign up for the job.
Like all great movements, there has to be that moment when someone declares “Enough is enough!” and emphatically claims that they are taking on the role of the agent of change. A legacy-shifter is the person in the family that draws that proverbial line in the sand. It is their own pain of pretending that things are okay as well as their intolerance of passing the family dysfunction onto the next generation that is the catalyst for them to not only sign up for the job but see it as their calling. Although no one else may ever know that someone signed up for this role of being the agent of change in the family, the legacy-shifter’s commitment to creating new ways of being, interacting, communicating, and behaving serves as their true north as they take on the role of being the warrior of truth and transformation in the family.
Tip #2: Choose truth over harmony.
Let’s face it, most of our tendencies to step over our truth, tolerate the status quo, ignore the elephant in the living room, not stir the pot, cover up the family secrets, and avoid dealing with what is really going on, comes from our affinity of choosing harmony over truth. But that all changes once someone signs up to be the legacy- shifter. Legacy-shifters are:
- radically honest about what is really going on in their family dynamic,
- willing to do the deep internal work necessary to unconceal how they have recreated their past and brought the dysfunction of their family of origin into the living room of their nuclear family, and
- prepared to take responsibility for not only how they have co-created issues in the past but also for how they will do things differently in the future.
In some families, this new way of being may not be easy or welcome. Living in the paradigm of harmony over truth gave everyone permission to not have to deal with things, change, step up to plate, be responsible, or act maturely. There may be pushback from your partner, children, or other family members. They may have liked you better when you just went along with the status quo instead of standing up for change. This is why the legacy-shifter needs to be more committed to the possibility of what can be than the complacency of what was. Being the legacy-shifter might be a tough job at first…but think about how tough it would be to continue to live in the lie that “everything’s fine.”
Tip #3: Create a new family code of conduct.
Change comes with action. If you are going to create a shift in the family dynamic, then the old set of “rules,” must be replaced with a new code of conduct. Being clear and specific about what this new code entails is essential. Not only will clarity make it easier for you to follow but it will also make it easier to communicate to others. This new code of conduct should include what will no longer be tolerated, like:
- avoiding the truth,
- withholding love,
- speaking disrespectfully to each other,
- taking your frustration out on others,
- not being honest with one another,
- talking behind each other’s backs, or
- taking over-responsibility for someone else’s happiness.
It may also include structures that your family needs to implement like:
- respecting each other’s choices, requests, and differences,
- allowing each other to have, feel and express their emotions,
- being supportive instead of judgmental, and
- boundaries, boundaries, and more boundaries!
When I first came up with my new code of conduct, my children were young and the code was more about the shifts that I wanted and needed to make. As my daughters got older, not only did I share with them the shifts I was committed to implementing but we also authored some new agreements together.
Tip #4: Be willing to bust yourself.
Many of our dysfunctional patterns, beliefs, and behaviors have been in our families for decades and passed down from generation to generation. They are part of our DNA and embedded in the wiring of our operating system. Think of how automatic it is to remain silent, run away, shut down, push each other away, take our anger and frustration out on those we love, or be run by our need to control, fix everything, or be perfect. As they say, “old habits are hard to break.” Legacy-shifters are not perfect. Their perfection comes from their commitment to change and their humility to admit when they have mis-stepped. As one travels down this road of family reinvention, the old automatic ways of being may pop up. The important thing is to be able to bust yourself if you slip and, if your family is all on board, to give each other permission to letting each other know when someone is out of integrity. Busting yourself is not beating yourself up. Instead it is about acknowledging and making amends for whatever happened so that you get back on the road to reinvention.
So, if you, like me, are committed to the next generation standing on the shoulders of the past, then I invite you to step into the role of legacy-shifter in your family. It’s not meant to disparage or dishonor anyone or anything from the past, but to liberate and empower those in the present, so a new future can be forged.
Transformational Action Steps
(1) Make a list of the patterns and behaviors in your nuclear family that sabotage and undermine the family dynamic.
(2) Spend time thinking about how these patterns and behaviors were exhibited or existed in your family of origin. How has the environment of your family of origin been re-created in your nuclear family.
(3) Dwell in the cost of perpetuating these non-serving behaviors.
(4) Create a new family code. Write down what you will do differently. What behaviors will no longer be tolerated? Be specific. If need be, feel free to amend, add to, or change your code as you go along.