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.
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 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.
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 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).
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.
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.