Belong or be myself? Is there another option?

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There is an innate need in us to belong. We survive better in a herd, and there is an ancient longing to be accepted into a group whether it’s a family, a political party, a religion or even the PTA.

These groups or “systems” are collections of human beings organized around an emotional center. The emotional center can be a person, a set of rules, a last name, a tradition. But membership almost always comes at the expense of our individuality—we must sacrifice some of our beliefs, some of our individual preferences, some cherished behaviors such that there is a constant tension between “togetherness and belonging” and “individuality”.

Like a solar system, in which some planets are in and some planets are out, you can feel the gravitational pull of the system. You are assured membership because you conform to certain norms, to behave or dress in certain ways, to hold certain ideas, or to be deferential to a leader or someone else in the system. This pull or pressure can feel overwhelming as it seems you will be cast out of the group if you disagree or fail to behave according to the group’s standards. And the specter of being cast out is tantamount to existing in an eternal sea of nothingness. Though you cannot see any of this, the invisible process is as real as gravity.

Groups (even nations) are on a continuum of control: North Korea would be an example of a country on the high end of the continuum for control and conformity. There are very harsh consequences for even the slightest deviation from the norm or any suspicion of disloyalty. You can lose your life at the whim of those in power. Families, though they probably won’t put you to death, can be very harsh emotionally–and can certainly cast you out for “wrongdoing” or violating their norms or values.

On the other end of the spectrum is the loving, generative family system in which individuals are prized for the unique expression of life that they are. Few of us are lucky enough to come from such a family and sometimes it seems as if families like this are as rare and fabled as unicorns. Recall the cartoon from the 90’s of the Functional Families Convention with 1 person in the huge auditorium!

The lower on the continuum of control, the healthier the system. The more people are allowed to be themselves and continue to be granted membership in the system, the more the system creates individuals who are free to think, create, and become who they really are.

In the case of a family system, members cope with this togetherness/individuality problem in different ways. Some people cut off completely from their families of origin or create a geographical solution to the family pressure. But there is a better way. It is possible to strengthen your sense of self so you have a stronger immunity to the emotional pressures of a system. You can get the benefits of membership in the tribe without the liabilities of control and manipulation. When you are able to strengthen your own sense of self by really looking at what you fear the most you can gain the confidence that you will be OK with or without the support of the group. You can then express yourself without fear of the consequences.

In the end, you must have the courage to say “I’m going to show up here as myself, even if it causes others to reject me. I am strong enough to go it alone.” And you must believe you are strong enough to live life with only yourself to depend on. You cannot want or need something from the system you wish to be independent from. And if you are able to do this you become the change agent for the entire family and patterns begin to shift that may have existed for generations.

The cost of being yourself may indeed mean alienation from your family of origin or any system you belong to. However, the cost of not being yourself may be far more expensive to you in terms of your long-term health and happiness and the wellness of future generations.

Am I doomed to repeat the past?

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Sometimes it seems change is hard to come by. You might find yourself in talk therapy, year after year after year, repeating the same sad story about yourself. If you look at your old journals they may seem painfully similar. That’s why I threw mine away; unfortunately the ideas in my brain stayed. Early experiences and learning behavior through repeated interactions in the family system can lead to a life that feels unhappy and stuck. But it is actually quite easy to change, using the Kiloby Living Inquiries and similar methods based on Mindfulness.

The mind generalizes. That’s a good thing, usually. We don’t have to analyze every time we make a left turn if this is like the same left turn we made last night. Brain goes on automatic. Great if you are driving, not great if you are trying to become the person you know you can be. The mind defaults to generalizations, until we stop, take a good look, and revise the Wikipedia entry on ourselves in our brain.

Our brain sorts things like the bins at Whole Foods. Trash, Recycling, Compost. Our painful self-story can be like the toxic waste bin hidden in the back that never gets emptied. You experience something once and make some meaning about it, either about yourself or how someone like you gets treated in the world. Then you are sensitized to experiences that are sort of like that, and toss them in that same bin…each subsequent “sorta like the first one” confirming that we “aren’t good enough”, “don’t belong”, “can’t attract a partner” or whatever. But when we take these experiences, one by one, and really look at them in the light of our adult brain, they are never what they seemed to be. Long-held ideas about ourselves, what happens to a person like us, our self-image if you will, dissolves because it cannot stand the light of scrutiny. Our self-image is just that, an image in the brain made up of old words, pictures, and body sensations.

“You should have know that’s what I wanted”

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Although we all dream of that perfect “other” who will anticipate our every need, those days were actually over at about the age of 6 months. That’s when people stopped checking in with us about whether we were hungry, tired, wanted to be held. After that, we had to ask for what we wanted…..first by screaming and crying, and hopefully later, by using our words. In co-dependent relationships, we are still either expecting people to read our minds, or we sabotage our own peace of mind by trying to anticipate, intuit, and meet the needs of others. Language gets horribly confusing when those we love don’t ask clearly for what they want or need, or when we are constantly trying to read between the lines for the true meaning of what is being said. Although it may seem oddly threatening to just come out and ask for what you want it does make life so much simpler.
Asking “Are you hungry”? instead of, “I’d like to get something to eat. Would you like to join me?” elicits in the co-dependent listener some mental gymnastics in order to answer that question: “Is she really hungry or does she think I’m hungry? Should I say I’m hungry so she can eat? I’m not really hungry but if I say I am and we eat now then maybe she will do what I want to do later.” Arghhhhhhh. So complicated.
So why don’t we all ask for what we want all the time? Fear. For some reason, having needs feels threatening to many of us. Growing up in an addictive system usually means there is only one person whose needs matter: the addict. Everyone else tiptoes around just trying to stay out of the line of fire. So how do we revise these deep-seated mental models? The Living Inquiries leads us to gently discover the fears, memories, and self stories that harm our relationships with others and keep us stuck in resentment and lack.

I don’t know how to ask for what I want

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In our on-line family program we talk about the various emotional climate of family systems. Labels like disengaged and merged describe two ways in which families interact. In disengaged family systems, it’s “every man for himself”. The family members lack the emotional literacy to talk about feelings and there is little emotional contact. Conversations are superficial and nobody gets to talk about how they feel. Understandably, in such a family, there is a covert agreement not to talk about needs, and it is likely that members’ needs have gone underground. In merged family systems, its all about how everyone feels. No one is allowed to have privacy, and everyone needs to know everything all the time. Merged families are likely to engage in histrionics about hurt feelings and insults. But in neither the disengaged nor merged families are people really good at asking for what they want. In the case of the disengaged system, family members are burying their feelings and needs. In a merged system, adults and children alike are screaming about feelings and needs. But did you ever notice when someone is hysterical that they get dismissed? They aren’t clearly stating a request, “I felt hurt and I would like you to ….”. Something so simple seems unfathomable from either the merged or disengaged culture. And yet it is that simple: Asking for what you need from a calm, centered, compassionate way increases the odds that you will get what you want. Without asking the odds are close to zero–so any probability over zero is a win!

Why do I keep repeating the same behavior and expect a different result?

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We all do it. Wake up with the best of intentions only to disappoint ourselves later in the day when we do the exact opposite. This is particularly soul shattering in the case of families dealing with addiction. We vow never to rescue, over-function and generally make life OK for our loved one, yet here we are again…..feeling coerced into doing the very thing we swore we would never do again. Are we defective human beings? Weak? Deficient in some key human skill? Not really. It is much more likely that we are being controlled by some mental program that is running just underneath our awareness. Like a computer program infected by a virus, this mental program keeps you feeling powerless to change behavior you know doesn’t work. So how to rid your system of this virus that keeps you and your loved one trapped in the vicious cycle of over and under-functioning that makes you so angry and keeps them using? Inquiring into the anxiety that is keeping this emotional and behavioral pattern alive. “What will he do if I don’t help him”. “Where will she live if I don’t pay her rent”. “It will make me look bad as a father if I don’t help fix this.” These conscious or unconscious statements are what keep YOU doing that thing you promised yourself you would never do again. The Kiloby Anxiety Inquiry can help you revise the deficient self stories and mental anxiety scenarios that are truly running the show and allow you to respond to requests or demands for help with a new freedom and clarity

I’m just the mom, why should I do any inner work?

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Addiction recovery is not limited to the person who is using. The person who is addicted has likely relied on others for help for many, many years. A person who is heavily using cannot survive for long alone. She needs others to help with the tasks of daily living such as paying rent and other bills. And although we know we shouldn’t, the fear of what will happen if we don’t step in and “help” keeps us engaged in this destructive pattern for years. It is not enough to simply tell oneself to “Stop it”. We’ve tried beating up on ourselves and feeling guilty for being co-dependent and enabling–as if the simple knowledge of what we are doing is enough to stop us. It is the underlying fear that keeps the pattern going; the pictures and stories we tell ourselves about what will happen if we don’t help. “Where will he sleep”. “How will she get to work if her car is repossessed”. “What if I say no and then he overdoses and dies?” It is the answers to these questions that keep our enabling behavior going and allow the user to continue to under-function and ironically to continue using. It’s our own fear that keeps this going, not really the pressure from the user himself. In my next blog I’ll tell you how you can become more aware of your own triggers for helping and finally let go from the inside out.