Let us start with a cliché and not just any cliché, the mother of them all: We don’t choose our family, we are simply born into one! For significant number of years in my profession, the dominant theme in stories of life have been about health, wealth and relationships. The last one—relationships—is the most vital one and impinges on the mental health and well-being of all folk, albeit this area of concern comes out as a talking point towards fag end of the list of questions (unless of course, a drastic situation in this regard that has brought them over).
The portraits are different—childhood trauma, neglect and loneliness, perceived indifference, preferential treatment towards a sibling (it is surprising how common this refrain is and its impact on the adults!), too much responsibility on little shoulders too soon, having to care of a dysfunctional patient parent, abusive personal relationships, unrelenting / unresolved grief, lack of companionship or understanding, restricted freedom of choice, narcissistic person as a family member—the list is endless!
We don’t get to choose our family members, but we definitely get to choose our response to people and situations. At the risk of sounding fatalistic, I will mention that relationships are hugely karmic in nature. There are lessons learnt and lessons imparted. While one may be an agency of tremendous joy for some, the very same person becomes a cause of pain for the other. No one comes in as a perfect package—there are flaws in all of us aplenty (and if you are always looking to be an agency of joy for others, the intent is appreciable but you may just want to check in with yourself if you are a people pleaser)!
And sometimes the lessons through difficult family relationships is just that—to be able to stand up for yourself in a healthful and balanced space. In some scenarios the intense drama and overwhelming emotion of the other person can drown all good intent, the voice of reason as well as create a ‘walled city of a person’ that cannot be breached. Such scenarios can lead to further conflict where you could be accused of neglect, superiority complex, privileged station in life, having no empathy or even of shirking duties! One must then steel up and decide to disengage or maintain a healthy distance.
Then there are the extremities where physical and emotional violence goad an individual to find their own inner sufficiency—capacity to seek help on the outside or step away and individuate, even when it seems like the scariest thing in the world, the most daunting challenge.
In some other cases, extended periods of caretaking for the physically ill or mentally unwell family members (and sometimes not out of choice) leaves people severely drained—emotionally and physically. The expectation to be superhuman, suffer in silence or witness suffering in silence can be spirit breaking.
So, what are these riddles about? Here are some deliberately framed questions, one can ask themselves in order to gain insight and breakthroughs.
Please be clear that this is not about violent/ traumatic, or exceptional cases where legal, police or psychiatric help will be indispensable. There is no substitute of help from a qualified professional, where required.
- What is my role in this situation, how am I contributing to it?
- Can I respond any differently from the way I normally tend to?
- Does this kind of situation/ experience recur in my life? If yes, what is it trying to teach me?
- Am I describing my experience, to myself, in correct language—not exaggerating or using strong words? For instance, when one is being dramatic and says no one likes me or the world is up against me—this is definitely not the case. Using the words no one would imply that no other person in the world, not even one. Really is that the case? So, is the entire world against you? Are you presenting a convoluted picture of the situation, and NOT the truth to yourself? Do be reasonable and present the truthful situation to yourself.
- Have I become habituated to staying angry or scared because I am afraid to be happy?
- Am I seeking sympathy or validation repeatedly in different ways and do I consider it to be a good thing?
- Am I avoiding a difficult conversation or avoiding conflict because I am a good person? Does this external conflict avoidance trigger an internal war?
- What is my definition of a good person/relationship? Does it hold water in today’s context as well?
- Am I afraid of taking responsibility for my own financial and emotional wellness? Am I adjusting for comfort?
- How do I define love in any relationship—is it empowering or is it constricting? Would I like the situation to work out for me in this way?
There is no doubt about the fact that family is the greatest teacher of them all, as one can get away from the unrelated people but there is no escaping this agency of learning. The answer lies in shifting the perspective and asking the right questions. And when there is family, there is always the possibility of uncovering a hidden reservoir of comfort, support, warmth and compassion. Keep looking.