Dysfunctional Families, Dysfunctional World…

<June 2007>

Most of us come from dysfunctional families, hmmm? I reckon every family is dysfunctional in one aspect or another. For sure I’ve heard it said (by a professional in the counselling world) that at least 85% of families are dysfunctional.

Family dysfunctionality is a matter of degree. Some are mildly dysfunctional, some are kind of “medium” dysfunctional, & some, unhappily, are wildly, drastically dysfunctional (six years in the psychiatric & correctional fields exposed me to a fair range of experiences in this regard).

I have a hard time placing my own “family of origin” on the Dysfunctionality Scale. Compared to the Waltons (that fictional “perfect family” of TV life in the 1960’s), & to some families I’ve met & know fairly well, we were pretty terrible.

On the other hand, compared to other families I’ve met in which the dysfunctionalities were more numerous, more extreme & considerably more nasty, mine was the Waltons (& trust me, we were a long way from the Waltons!).

Some of us believe we’ve “transcended” our families. “I’ve dealt with all that,” we say, & many of us have! We’ve had counselling of all kinds & on more than one occasion, even, & of course also a wide variety of life experiences that have helped us grow, evolve, change & improve. And heal.

But you know what? I think a lot of us (probably most of us), are still hauling around so much garbage from our childhoods that we don’t have a clue how much those experiences in our formative years continue to shape our thoughts, attitudes & behaviour decades & decades & decades later.

I have a suspicion too that many of today’s families (the ones still engaged in raising children) are dysfunctional in ways my parents’ generation hadn’t yet thought up. I don’t think the current divorce epidemic is helping our children any too darn much, for one not-so-tiny example (& as a person who has been within sneezing distance of an awful lot of divorces, once again I do speak, unfortunately, from plenty of experience).

The world around us, in fact, seems to be going pretty much to hell in a hand basket – have you noticed?

I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

Dysfunctional world / dysfunctional families / dysfunctional world – bit of a chicken & egg scenario, wouldn’t you say?

One thing that’s interesting & rather poignant for me is to witness some of my own unfortunate neuroses in other people who also grew up in troubled families.

Things like thinking “everyone else” has it all figured out. (They don’t! Most of us are in the same darn neurotic, mixed-up, insecure boat.)

Things like putting some people – some families – some whole professions, even – on a pedestal & assuming they’ve got the world by the tail. (They don’t. Some of them put on a pretty fine show, though, don’t they?)

Things like seeing others who’ve put one parent on an impossibly high pedestal because the other was such a huge disaster (for some reason, we seemingly had to deify one while the other was – rather deservedly, I might add – assigned more or less devil status). Oh dear me, how I did this myself, & how I see it in others…

Things like thinking that having pots & pots of money would solve all of our problems. (It wouldn’t. We need only look at those “movie stars” & assorted other public figures whose lives are filled with plenty of dollars & loads of dysfunctionality to see how illusory that “money will solve everything” notion is).

Things like being huge control freaks with our loved ones in the present, because we’re still holding onto crud from the past – from our childhoods – & acting as though (& believing so, on an unconscious level), if we “control” everything in rigid, military fashion today (our families, our spouses, our children, the way our houses & lawns look, etc.), this will somehow “make everything alright.”

But you know what? There’s no such thing as “making everything alright,” or having everything be “just so.”

Life is a mixture. It’s good times & bad times, wonderful moments with our loved ones & yukkily horrid ones too. It’s out-of-control joy & exuberance – & out-of-control grief, sadness & despair at times, too. For all of us. None of it lasts forever. Nobody has the one “perfect” life or the one “perfect recipe” for general wonderfulness, 24/7/365.

Life is messy. A big messy, uncontrollable ball of wax that becomes a lot more joyful if we can do ourselves a really big favour & put a stop to those (mostly negative) childhood scripts that echo around inside our heads pretty much all of the time.

I read a very interesting horoscope recently. It doesn’t matter which sign it was for, or when, because I think it applies to all of us, to some degree at least. It said:

“America's former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky addressed an assembly at my daughter's high school. He read from his translation of Dante's Inferno and took questions from students. After hearing Dante's description of the nether regions, one boy asked Pinsky what his personal version of hell was. The poet said that each of us creates our own hell. The fearful and negative interpretations of reality with which we infect our imaginations constitute curses that we cast on ourselves. They terrify and enslave us so thoroughly that most of the difficult outer circumstances we encounter are mild in comparison. Your next assignment is to work on dissolving the hell you carry around in your own mind.” (1) (I read Rob Brezsny’s brilliant, amusing, insightful, challenging and sometimes eerily prescient horoscopes every week here – you may want take up this habit also!)

So what?

Well, I’ve said this elsewhere, but I think it’s a really good idea for each of us to “connect the dots.” About our own personalities, our own selves, our own neuroses, etc.

There are lots of really useful books we can read,& we can get some counselling, too, if that might help. I’m told cognitive therapy can help us re-route negative mental pathways we tend to go down inside our heads,& with only a few brief sessions, not years & years, or even months & months.

The way I see it, reading books & getting some counselling are not likely to hurt, & as I often say to myself when contemplating something scary, challenging or awkward, “What the heck do I have to lose?” Usually, nine times out of ten, the answer is “Nothing” – not a single, blessed darn thing… We need to heal this very, very hurting world…& if we’re going to do that, we also need to heal our very, very hurting selves – & I’m pretty sure we need to work on these things simultaneously.

Let’s graduate from our dysfunctional families/dysfunctional selves, shall we? Instead of lugging them around with us, 24/7/365, for the rest of our lives…


P.S. I’m just as neurotic & screwed-up as anyone else on the planet, by the way; I’m entirely aware of this. It must also be said that my childhood was not nearly as horrendous as many others have had to endure; this too I do fully understand...

P.P.S. The book Brain Sex – The Real Difference Between Men & Women, by Anne Moir & David Jessel is a good (& quick!) read on the subject of female/male brain differences. Some of the mental/emotional challenges that can plague us are due to brain chemistry, or to put it perhaps more accurately, are exacerbated by brain chemistry. Male & female brains are not constructed the same way. I think it is most helpful – even essential – to understand this…

P.P.P.S. Under the ‘Recommended’ tab on this blog, you’ll find a post entitled ‘Books I Most Heartily Recommend.’ There’s also one called ‘3 Great Opportunities for Personal Growth.’

(1) Rob Brezsny - quoted with permission