Stop and Listen

Did it feel good to you to live in your family?

Did you feel you were living with friends, people you liked and trusted, and who liked and trusted you?

Was it fun and exciting to be a member of your family?

Yesterday I mentioned family therapy pioneer Virginia Satir, listing the characteristics of troubled and nurturing families she identified. Satir is beloved among family therapists and social workers because of her optimistic, warm, and simple approach to helping troubled families by teaching them how to love.

Grandmother 1 by you.

In her book, The New Peoplemaking, she asks readers to identify whether their family of origin was nurturing or troubled, and helps them to do so by answering these three straightforward questions.  If you can answer “yes” to all three questions, you probably lived in a nurturing family. If you answer “no” or “not often” to all three, you probably lived in a family that was troubled.

If you answered “no” to all three questions, Satir explains that “This does not mean that you have a bad family. It only means that people aren’t very happy and have not learned ways to love and value one another openly.”

I like Virginia Satir’s compassionate explanation. It helps by mitigating the sadness one feels over recalling how childhood felt with the hope one feels about future possibilities. Even if the person who came out of a troubled family cannot realistically hope to ever have a loving, nurturing relationship with his parents, he can have hope that he can become a loving, nurturing human being in spite of having had bad start in life.

A Bad Start

Healers differ over what a bad start in life means. A bad start in a war-torn country is different from a bad start in a peaceful one. A bad start in one family may look like a very good start to another. For people with the luxury of thinking about bad starts rather than mere survival, a bad start may be to begin as a surprise or shock, as with Grandmother 2 by you.an unplanned pregnancy. Another kind of bad start is when one’s parents never stop not wanting you, and treat you as unwanted your entire life. A variation of this is when parents act like they don’t want you, but say that they do. An obvious sort of bad start comes from parents who are openly abusive, addicted, or violently rage-filled.

The most troubled families produce the most troubled people; most of us know this. But one doesn’t have to have grown up in an addicted, violent, or neglectful system to have suffered and received too little of the good stuff children need. Many adults who came from troubled families will say, “it wasn’t so bad.” Because they grew up in prosperous societies or had regular meals or played little league baseball, they think they had advantages that others didn’t have—and they did. But they confuse material advantages with spiritual and psychological ones. They often don’t see their own spiritual or psychological impoverishment until the pain is so great that their lives begin to reel out of control. Then they wonder why they feel so crazy, and they become easy targets for other people’s blame and projection.

People Making

Satir calls parenting “people making.” To whatever extent the parent or parents nurture and love their children, the children grow up to become decent and whole people. Whenever children lack nurturing, they cannot thrive. When they cannot thrive because they have no warm hearth from which to be called to their great adventure of individuation, they cannot individuate. One must have a hearth. Having a hearth from which to leave—a safe place, a love place—is essential to the later individuation of the person.

The troubled family, like the troubled group or collective, does not allow vitality or spontaneity. It levels each individual member down to a collective standard that injures what Jung called “the vital activity of the individual.” Furthermore, Jung wrote:

Any serious check to individuality [. . .] is an artificial stunting. It is obvious that a social group consisting of stunted individuals cannot be a healthy and viable institution; only a society that can preserve its internal cohesion and collective values, while at the same time granting the individual the greatest possible freedom, has any prospect of enduring vitality. As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation. (CW 6:758).

One can see how collectives tend toward dysfunction and disease by requiring conformity at the individual’s expense. Whether in a family, a workplace, a political party, or a nation, collectivism endangers individuation Grandmother 7 by you.and transcendence by demanding conformity. This is why the group identification and use of a whipping boy is dangerous, because it isolates one member or entire groups, creating group cohesion and unity at the expense of other human beings. This is why the recent political debates and each party’s insistence on demonizing the “other side” was so deeply distressing to me. When we go down that road, we are going down the very road that we know and teach is wrong on the individual level—and yet we are doing it collectively with our politics. It is a particular kind of madness that drags up the darkest parts of our selves and projects them onto others, and calls it patriotism. It is for this reason that I come to more and more believe that the path the Quakers take with regard to politics is correct. I am beginning to believe that politics and spirituality do not mix. I’m beginning to believe in the cloistered life.

The general idea of a family is to produce a person capable of individuating. First, parents teach the child how to conform to family values and rules. Next, parents teach the child how to think and act for him- or herself, for without the ability to branch off in one’s own direction, the person cannot individuate. The person must learn to transcend the system, creating “individual lines of development which could never be reached by keeping to the path prescribed by collective norms” (CW 6:759). Loving parents teach their children how to branch out without entirely breaking the branch off the tree. There is no need for violent division where love exists.

What We Learned

The necessity of first learning how to function inside a system so that one can function successfully outside it is a paradox. Still, Jung cautions that “under no circumstances can individuation be the sole aim of psychological education. Before it can be taken as a goal, the educational aim of adaptation to the necessary minimum of collective norms must first be attained. If a plant is to unfold its specific nature to the full, it must first be able to grow in the soil in which it is planted” (CW 6:760).

Grandmother 6 by you.We all grow where we’re planted, for better or for worse. People raised by wolves learn the way of the wolf. Those raised by sheep learn the ways of sheep. Only later, after leaving the pack or the fold, does the individual have the opportunity to discover that there are other ways of being in this world besides the system created by the family of origin. All are not wolves. All are not sheep. But when we first leave home, we think so. We think everyone is like us, a huge collective. We think in the worst kind of expansive, simple ways, and make big mistakes as a result.

If a person is raised in a troubled family, she brings her troubled habits with her. Since many of our systems are as troubled as the families who eject their members into these larger systems, the average person can spend a lifetime in troubled and sick systems and never know it. You can live a lifetime in a troubled family, attend troubled schools, worship at troubled churches, and work in sick systems. You can marry another troubled person and raise more troubled children. People do this all the time. I’m sure if you look around, you’ll notice that many of the systems you’re involved with are troubled. You may come to wonder if it’s necessary to stay in that system, or whether you need to do something about it.

Learning New Ways

What can be done about this? We can learn new ways. We can learn what’s healthy, and what’s sick. We can learn what grows good people, and what produces bad ones. We can learn how to be more loving and more nurturing. We can learn when to tell people, “Stop that. You’re hurting me!” We can become truth-lovers and truth-tellers, with God’s help.

Grandmother 3 by you.We can learn to doubt, question, and challenge the collective. We can learn to walk a lonely path. We can learn to see, with spiritual eyes, the spiritual collective of which we are all part. We can stop projecting our archaic, childish, parent-driven ideas about God onto God and we can consider the possibility that God may not be who they said he was, nor who we say he is, nor a God who is no more than the opposite of the God our crazy parents or culture gave us. Or didn’t give us.

Listen: The system of reacting against the family system is just as dead as the original family system. Reacting-Against is still reacting; it’s not choice. It is not a path boldly embarked upon. It is an angry path, a Fuck You! path.  We must become willing to stop reacting against everything. We need to settle down, down into good soil we find or create, so that we can re-grow ourselves and regain what was lost.

We can do this. We can consider possibilities we never honestly, seriously considered before. When our hearts ache or we feel a thrill of recognition deep inside, and when our hearts are trying to speak to us by fluttering faintly against our conscious minds, we can stop and breathe, and listen.

17 responses

  1. Hi Eve, yeah, we do talk — we actually communicate really well when we get together, there is always a lot of laughing and fun, and we chatter on until 3:00 AM, often with a rum and coke about everything. It’s weird, I guess. When we’re together it’s as if we’re still really close, then back in Maine I talk with my mom about once a week (she’s 70, working, active, and was even volunteering for Obama), but my sisters far less. Maybe I do need to think about how fun it is when we talk, and reach out a bit more often. Yeah, I do. Thanks!

  2. Irene, we have much in common, it seems. I’ve felt that we did, but when you share about the anxiety in your family or your school experiences as you just did, I know we have much in common.

    I think that all people are sensitive and not as resilient as we’d like to think, but also that some people are more sensitive than others. We know this is true, eh? So when you put a sensitive child into an anxiety-producing family or system (school) it can be quite damaging to the child. But thank God we get so many chances for healing and wholeness throughout life. Really… or otherwise, we’d spend a lifetime mourning.

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Carmen, I’ve wondered how it is that we can have strong grandparents and parents whose apples seemed to fall far from the tree. But if we look at family systems theory, we can see that our parents probably carried the unfulfilled desires and shadow images of their parents, our grandparents. Which makes them all in it together, doesn’t it?

    This is a theory that has made it easier for me to be compassionate toward my parents and to continue in relationship with them, and to temper my love and admiration for my own grandparents with some skepticism toward my own attitude (the watcher watching the watcher). My parents were the ones who carried what their parents needed them to carry, and I happened to be their child, carrying what they needed me to carry. The gift that keeps on giving.

    In the family my husband and I have built, I am very leery of having an “identified patient,” a child who is the problem child. We have had them from time to time, and with good reason, as we’ve adopted older, traumatized children who actually were problem children! In many ways, doing healing work inside our family for one another has helped, I think, to make conscious what was running in an undercurrent in both my husband’s and my families of origin. We can laughingly now all take turns (even all in one day!) at being the Identified Patient.

    I admire that you want to work with addicts, and do. This population I’ve found to be most difficult to work with for myself, although I also know that addicts are in the most pain and, among all recipients of mental health services, in my opinion those who can and will be most honest. What a paradox, for addiction leads to the craziest lying. And yet most addicts are the ones who carried and expressed the generational pain in their families. They are like the scapegoat, sent out into the wilderness, carrying the sins of Israel. I think, therefore, that your work is such a work of grace and mercy. May God bless you as you continue in it.

  4. Scott, it’s sad when a family changes like yours did, and provides for one child what it can’t provide for others. Do you talk to your sister about your family history, and why you’re so distant? When my brothers and I were finally able to listen to one another, and talk with one another, about our very different experiences in the same family, we became closer as siblings. I think that a lot of potential for improved family relations rests with siblings, if we’ll take the chance on them and work at it. But it takes two.

    I notice that a lot of families fall apart when they begin parenting teenagers, and again when the parents reach their 40s or 50s (that mid-life crisis point). These phases of family life are real mettle testers.

  5. Deb, it still surprises me that so many of us can answer “no” to those three questions, even though many folks who answer “no” would also hasten to add that their family was essentially “normal.” I know in my family we all thought we had a normal, even privileged family until my youngest brother became the symptom carrier and developed an addiction. It was when we all started 12-Step work (Al Anon for us, NA for him) that we could say “something was wrong in our family.” But our family looked just like all the other families in our neighborhood.

    And all the other families produced addicts of one sort or another, too.

  6. When I think about my family, I am predominantly anxious. I grew up anxious, and I think my parents were mostly anxious types too. My sister and I were pre-wedlock pregnancies in my mum’s second relationship.

    The answer to those questions for me is ‘mostly, no’.

    Alongside that, at school, I was a loner, except for two circumstances when someone took me up – two brief moments before I was put into another school, and had to start again. I have mostly been greatly insecure with a low sense of self-esteem. When I try to remember childhood, a lot is a blur, almost unconscious, and I’m not sure why. Bits and pieces pop up, but my active memory mostly starts after I was 11 or 12. But even then, I forgot things, like wanting so desperately to die when I was a teenager. I wanted God to do something because I was too scared to do anything to myself!(a tragi-comedy in hindsight) I just prayed and cried to the angels every night to come and take me (glad they didn’t – this memory was only reintroduced after counseling in my 30’s, like a curtain drawn aside.). I feel so sorry for that teenager, I wish I’d had someone to advise me with love and compassion. But no-one could, also because I didn’t share how I was feeling with anybody. I had already been branded as oversensitive and a prima donna. And my parents (both European) were very involved in their own issues, I think (mum told me that her relationship with my father would only have been a fling if she hadn’t become pregnant with me – she already had two other kids, and there was no welfare for single mothers then).

    I’ve found it hard at times to get a perspective when, as you mentioned, there are so many others far worse off than me. Even my mum, who came through the last world war at the age of 15 – she has been so damaged by that experience and what she saw, as many were.

    Recently I was reading about healthy boundaries and self-worth, about how they support our uniqueness by separating our thoughts and feelings from those of others. I didn’t learn about those then, but I am learning now. I understand now that in our family, my father’s needs came first, which would explain the lack of personal boundaries (there’s that button.. ). His anger always seemed to be somewhere not too far below the surface, and I saw it explode (not physically on me) if I tried to do something my own way and not his. He was and can still be rather frightening, but I think now I slowly can see someone whose bark is worse than their bite. But the fear is pretty entrenched, as is the conflicting desire to be accepted and wanted by him.

    So I have managed through counseling in the past to eventually change somewhat and become more aware, and getting older has been brilliant! I hope I’m not as dogmatic as I was, and I’m definitely not so insecure anymore. Ultimately, I am grateful for the richness of the psyche, and even for the conflict experienced, because I wonder, if there had been no conflict, would I create?

    Finally, when I read how you have the opportunity to teach your child how to make her own decisions about fitting in, I was touched by a personal sadness and outward gratefulness all at once. Such sublime beauty in that moment.

  7. This blog leaves me with a lot to think about. I read your comment from 11/12 and I want you to know that yesterday I made The Third Eve my homepage. I wanted to have something intellectually stimulating, something spiritual and something positive to start my days with and I wasn’t getting that from Google.com.

    About my family…I was an unplanned pregnancy to a 17 year old preacher’s daughter. It was a catastrophe and my mother was convinced, albeit temporarily, that I should be aborted. My mother would call me crying a few years ago to tell me I was the first real decision she made and she is happy and proud she made the decision to “keep” me.

    About my grandparents…my grandmother became a 12th grade English teacher and she also taught as an adjunt. My grandfather left her after 25 years of marriage, and my grandmother never remarried. She still gets teary when I mention my grandfather. My grandmother is a woman of great faith and she continues to serve her church and her God at age 76.

    My grandfather has always been a leader. He obtained his masters degree in clinical psychology. His bachelor’s degree was in theology. He was a minister for over 20 years and his church was one of the first in Denver to start a counseling clinic. He says to this day his favorite job was working with addicts on Skid Row. He quit the ministry and worked as a therapist in the field of addictions. (Which is what I do now). He has volunteered more places then I can recall and now at 77 he sits on the board for his counties homeless coalition and he co-leads a group for gay and lesbian youth in his church.

    I believe in a family system one can learn a lot about one’s system if one can sum up what family members have taught us, good or bad.

    What I learned from my grandmother…the importance of compassion and loyalty. What I learned from my grandfather…the importance of service and spirituality. What I learned from my mother… I dont have what it takes to do it on my own and pregnancy = shame.

    I know my family was not healthy. There were a lot of secrets and resentments which were tucked in the corners and hidden under rugs all of my life. Addiction runs in my family. It took me a very long time to see the manifestation of my mother’s control in my life. She would deny it of course and tell me I am ungreatful. She might also then give me a pill that would help “calm me” down.

    Being in this Family Systems class has sparked something inside of me. During class we meet at my professor’s office. He is a licensed psychotherapist. In class we are asked to explain our family system of origin, a family myth and our family of procreation. We are to establish rapport and ask questions with familes that volunteer their time. Seeing people through a macro lense instead of a micro lense is challenging.

    I am beginning to see that what matters is the relationships the family members have with one another and how they relate to each other. I am also starting to see how resentment is uneffective for growth and learning how to let all of my resentment go , along with forgiveness is the next task I plan to conquer.

  8. I have to say I had an excellent family growing up…until I was 16. A strong yes to all the questions until then. Then my parents started to fight, my mom had alcohol problems (actually it was, I found out later, a mix of change of life, meds for that, and alcohol…damn doctors and their prescriptions!), and my youngest sister (8 years old when it all started) really suffered from that. She hadn’t had the fun, nurturing years I had; she’s never recovered.

    I wasn’t unaffected. I detached a bit. I refused to take sides, or hate my dad’s younger girlfriends after they split. I looked at them as individuals who made some bad decisions and hurt each other too much so that even after my mom got her problem under control (sober now 24 years) they couldn’t go back. I stay in contact, visit, but don’t feel the strong family bond my sister two years younger feels. She gets irritated that I am distant and don’t deal with my mom’s problems (my dad has since died), but I just don’t feel a strong sense of obligation.

    But I’ll always thank my parents for having a core message: be positive, optimistic, and you can achieve anything. “You’re as good as anyone else until you think you’re better,” and “you’re never given a problem you can’t solve.” That was the steady refrain, with lots of fun, laughter and together time. By the time I was 16 it was part of me. I just wish my youngest sister had experienced that side of my parents.

  9. Eve, that’s exactly why I don’t listen to talk radio. It’s usually not real dialogue at all. Pundits and hosts like Rush Limbaugh strike me as champions of themselves more than anything else.

    It’s taken me a few days to mull over those three questions you posed. I would answer them neither with yes or no. I don’t remember feeling either nurtured or unnurtured, having fun or not, or feeling especially good or bad about being a part of my family. Maybe that’s reduced affect; I don’t really know. When I was 8, my mom and I were in a hit-and-run car accident, and shortly thereafter she had some sort of nervous breakdown. There were many years after where she just wasn’t really there, emotionally. My dad is not overly demonstrative either. Both of them are loving people, and I am close to them now, but I wouldn’t characterize my childhood as being particularly joyful.

  10. Ok there has to be a fly in every ointment! (grin) I can honestly answer sometimes to all 3 of the questions but not a clear yes or no. I remember some really fun and exciting times. We loved the out doors (I still do) and many great memories involve that. Swimming, waterskiing, hiking, *doing*. I have a hard time being physically still so maybe that activity filled a need there too. There was time for imaginative play as well, and our family could have a lot of fun doing work together. We could paint the house and it would somehow be fun. There were always family meals (and almost always dessert which was a marvel to my friends!)

    I also acknowledge that there were some really sucky times. My mother had no siblings and tended to use me, the eldest as a sounding board for her life issues, in effect maturing me beyond my years. Most 8 yr olds don’t find themselves counselling their mother on the terminal illness of their grandmother, for instance. My father and I didn’t get along from about age 9 or so on. My school experiences were horrific and my parents couldn’t understand this. As educators the things that were happening to me would not have happened in the school systems they worked in and they discounted my explanations to them as exaggerated or false.

    Yet my house was the house that my friends liked to be at. And there were lots of times I liked being there as well. I guess what I took away from my child hood was a strong desire to understand my kids more deeply than my parents did. I try to keep the aspect of fun that they worked to bring to our life and build off that.

  11. A big part of my healing has been learning about being a minority in a non-obvious way, and using my differences to serve.

    I hope I figure out how to do this someday.

    Reading about your interaction with your daughter affected me in ways that I have no language to express, so I won’t try.

  12. Did it feel good to you to live in your family?NO

    Did you feel you were living with friends, people you liked and trusted, and who liked and trusted you?NO

    Was it fun and exciting to be a member of your family?NO

    This explains a lot. What really bothers me is how much of it I inadvertently repeated in my own family. I can’t change what has happened but I can change what will be.

    I’m learning to listen to my self and what most surprised me is that she is wise and kind and compassionate. When I think about all the awful thoughts that ran through me head all day long, everyday, for most of my life, it still saddens me a little. What I most like is that I have let go of most of those thoughts and with them a lot of judgments. I still judge but far less and as I judge others less, I judge myself less, or vice versa, I’m not sure.

    When I was growing up my dad would yell, he was always angry and my mum would sugar coat it. I saw one thing but was told that what I saw and heard wasn’t all that bad. My mother still does to this day, changes her reality to make it fit her beliefs. Makes it tough to talk to her sometimes.

    More thinking, more work. Thank you for this.

  13. Heni, yes! Yes, that’s just exactly right. And dogmatists seem always blind to their errors, and so reject, over and over again, every opportunity they get for enlightenment.

    I was listening to the radio while driving today (happened to be Rush Limbaugh, whose humor I enjoy but whose inability to listen I don’t). He had a wonderful African-American conservative Christian caller who had some intelligent things to say about how Republicans lost the election. I agreed with the man, but Rush wouldn’t listen. In fact, this fellow, Eric, kept pleading with Rush and saying, “Listen! Wait… listen to me, Rush! I only have three minutes. Please…. listen. LISTEN. Rush… LISTEN!”

    All that pleading was to no avail. Rush didn’t listen. Then I decided not to listen to Rush, after thinking that someone really ought to hunt Eric down and give him a talk show.

    And ironically (and tragically), Rush Limbaugh lost his hearing a few years ago. Was losing his hearing also a metaphor for not listening? I don’t know. But I thought about all of that today and felt a lot of compassion for the man. I hope I never am struck blind or deaf or mute, for I’ll torture myself wondering if all these years I thought I saw, listened, and even spoke the truth and in fact was just as deluded as the next person.

    Yes, what you say happens is just what happened today. Rush Limbaugh’s dogmatism drove me away, and his caller said Rush was driving him away and other conservatives away when he might have helped. But Rush didn’t listen, and I think he should if he expects to remain a self-proclaimed champion of conservatism.

  14. So much of what you wrote here echoes the ideas in the book about the psychological roots of dogmatism that I edited recently. One way that people prop up their fragile sense of self, which was stunted or repressed by lack of nurturing in childhood, is by becoming dogmatic, saying to themselves,”I am right; you are wrong. My way is best.” Unconsciously, they are creating a “safe” structure around themselves of supposed superiority. The sad part is, in their efforts to protect their wounded inner selves, these dogmatic people usually end up driving away anyone who might have supported or nurtured them as adults. And it is so far repressed away from their conscious minds that changing it (or wanting to change it) is very, very difficult.

  15. David, as you probably know, some folks actually are in a sort of “us vs. them” divide by virtue of having IQs or personality types (or both) that are in the minority. When over 90% of other people can’t relate to you because of personality or IQ, it’s isolating. Combine that with having been raised in a non-nurturing environment, and there’s more recipe for isolation.

    Most of my children do not fit into the “norm” for one reason or another. Last week one child came home from school tearful about how odd and weird she felt among her classmates. I realized with a start that I was looking at a child who was very much temperamentally and by natural ability like myself. Unlike my own parents, I was aware enough and had enough tools to train my child how to survive and even thrive (theoretically) in the school environment. But how? What would I say to her?

    I can’t adequately describe right now just how momentous this was for me, to be standing there as an autonomous adult, given the task and privilege of raising a child who is on the “them” side of that divide you referred to. How was I to help her? I thought of my own childhood and its joys and pains, and tears welled up from deep inside. How I wish I’d had a mother I could turn to, confide in as my child confided in me, and actually be helped!

    I told my daughter, “I need to think about this. I can help you, but let me think about it and we’ll talk after your flute lessons.” A few hours later I could begin to explain on her level (5th grade) some of the options she has. I didn’t tell her what to do. I gave her some of the options I saw for her situation and admitted that I couldn’t possibly see all of them, so she might have her own ideas that we could discuss, too. Over dinner, the whole family discussed her problem and offered thoughts and ideas. And then her father and I put the decision in her hands and asked her to experiment and report back.

    She’s now in week two of her experiment. I am in week two, also. ;o) Having come out of a closed system in which experimentation could lead to explosions and mayhem, I can’t tell you enough how full of love, power, and compassion I felt that evening. I knew that I had transcended my own past and had learned from it. I know what not-help and not-part-of feels like. I also know that it’s not true that there isn’t help, and that I’m not a part. There is lots of help. I am always a part.

    I do still regularly feel on the outside, though. I call it feeling my “half a percent-ness.” I am probably like only about one half of one percent of the population and I regularly am reminded of how odd I am by virtue of not being able to “fit in” unless I adjust myself. I can’t expect others to adjust to me, although I can offer others the opportunity to adjust. A big part of my healing has been learning about being a minority in a non-obvious way, and using my differences to serve. Once I learned about why I’m the odd man out, I could forgive my parents for being such terrific assholes sometimes, too.

    So my word of the day is not “conform,” but “transform.” When others demand conformance so that they can stunt our growth, we can transform their demands by way of understanding, and patiently serve by being our true selves. It just takes a tremendous amount of faith to do that, until we develop substantial enough selves that we can actually put faith in ourselves. It’s kind of like we put faith in the crutch until the leg is healed and hearty enough to bear weight. Then we cast the crutch off and walk, and even run.

  16. One can see how collectives tend toward dysfunction and disease by requiring conformity at the individual’s expense. Whether in a family, a workplace, a political party, or a nation, collectivism endangers individuation and transcendence by demanding conformity.

    As someone who has frequently found myself in the position of being the personified concept of “other” in groups, and scapegoated for it, I couldn’t possibly agree more with this statement.

    I agree with you regarding currents in the recent election. It disturbed me hugely, probably because I have spent most of my life on the “them” side of so many “us vs. them” divides.

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