(From the 5th Day of Lent)
One of the primary tasks of development is to fully realize that one’s parents are not idyllic god-figures.
The second task is to figure out what to do about this reality.
Sometimes the parents un-deify themselves quickly and efficiently by being absent, abusive or otherwise awful. The developing person can quickly get into the task of figuring out how to live a functional life in light of the awfulness. For some though, the un-deification is long and tricky. These are parents that are kind, well-intentioned, and even do some things right. Things like sheltering a kid. Providing for their every desire. Creating a happy home environment. Working hard to provide for them. Even imparting spiritual wisdom in the process.
I come from a family like this. A family that did many things well and right. We look good to the outside. Generally anyone who encounters any member of my family system likes and appreciates us.
But let’s face it, there’s more to health than being appreciated by an outsider.
After thirty-three years being part of this family, I’ve realized that few of us have any emotional tolerance. Few of us have remotely sophisticated skills for conflict resolutions. Most of us don’t talk about serious issues. For sure we don’t talk about our family system. We talk plenty about other members of the family system, in order to criticize them and make ourselves seem better in some way, but few of us step back from the system to reflect on the inter-relational patterns.
Lacking the ability to reflect on a pattern, we are doomed to perpetuate it. In the case of my extended clans, this means patterns of escapism, perfectionism, enmeshment, passive-aggressive confrontations, and substituting happy interactions for vulnerable and authentic encounters.
I figured something out about perfectionism. When a person comes from an emotionally abusive family system, one can easily be sapped of confidence and security. With a broken capacity to trust, relationships take on a highly performance oriented tone. One might begin to love through service and find value in doing things for people. But because relationships are not sure and self-worth is fleeting, everything one does must be done so perfectly.
When perfection is your default standard, everything you do is not a task to be accomplished, but an opportunity to fail.
I see this in myself. My self-confidence is fleeting, my sense of worth unstable. I feel most safe in a relationship where I can make tangible, useful contribution(and even better if it’s an offering unique to me). I take risks only very carefully and rarely because, why open myself to failure if I know how to succeed?
This is not wisdom. This is fear.
This is not even my fear. This is a fear that belonged to my ancestors for multiple generations!
I’m tired of living in a mind-set the size of someone else’s fear. More than that, I do not want to perpetuate this pattern with my own kids.
I want my kids to know on an instinctive and unconscious level that they are decent, worthwhile human beings, even in the presence of failure.
I want my kids to be able to identity highly specific nuances of powerful emotions, put words on them, feel them, and express them in edifying ways.
I want my kids to be able to be fully present with their reality and not be overwhelmed.
I want my kids to be able to be fully present with a person, and not get bored and need a distraction, and not get overwhelmed by the other person’s life, but be able to be calmly stedfast, authentic, vulnerable, individual and together.
That all starts with me. With me and my partner together. This radical change starts with us reflecting on the family patterns that formed us, and that now we largely reject. This starts with us being fully present in our own selves.
The new patterns will show up most on stressful days and when I am angry because of the stress. (I’m writing this from the midst of a family vacation, so I have an abundance of stressful moments to study) Any given stressful moment will affect me bodily and emotionally. Instinctively, I perceive these moments as threats, as attacks on my competency and comfort. My unhealthy response is to lash out to be controlling, domineering, or just flat out self-indulgent. When I am like this, I am acting like my ancestors in a way that will harm my wife and kids.
But what if I am not tied to the patterns of my ancestors? What if through hard work, great diligence, and an abundance of nurturing relationships, I am able to re-write my family narrative, even re-forming my epigenetic code, becoming a bit more spiritually healthy every day?
I aspire to a new pattern of spiritual and emotional health. Spiritually being absolutely confident that I can trust God to preserve me, even in the midst of the awful competence-threatening-anxiety of a family vacation. Emotionally, this means me being able to handle someone’s(my kids’) big emotions without tensing up and wishing they would go away. This means having a stressful day of family vacation and not feeling like I’m spending the whole day waiting to get to a stiff drink or a good show.
My family handed me a broken script for how to react to distress and be in relationships. But this script can be re-written. Choice by choice. Anxiety by anxiety. Reaction by reaction. Belief by belief.