How to Stay Sane in a Crazy Family

How to Stay Sane in a Crazy Family

Three Steps to a Healthier You

We often use authorities, laws and protocols
to protect us from our own worst selves.
…. you have to protect yourself and guard your own life.
You cannot expect that someone else will do it for you.
— Erica Brown

Are you stuck in a family where everybody’s crazy and you’re the only sane one?

Do you want to gain more control of your emotional life and improve your sense of self?

Are you striving to become more self-directed and emotionally self-sufficient?

Well then you’ve come to the right place. Herein a brief three-step introduction to becoming your own family of origin therapist.

  1. Change yourself. Change the Relationship.

  2. Be prepared for your family’s reaction. They may not welcome the new you.

  3. Respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior.

That’s it. The more responsible you can be to your own values and beliefs, the greater the likelihood of strong, resilient friendships and secure intimate partner relationships. Start by distinguishing what you want in life for yourself as opposed to the roles, rules, stories, expectations, and taboos you learned growing up. Then work to develop a unique one-to-one relationship with each and every individual in your extended family system.

Murray Bowen’s Systemic Family Theory suggests that the most productive environment in which to develop emotional stability is your family of origin. Many of us would like to think otherwise, but you can’t divorce them. Your ancestors and extended family are always a significant influence in your life. The unfinished business of the past is ever present. As Yogi said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over”, and the reality is it’s never over. The lifelong task is how to stay connected without taking on other family member’s “stuff”.

As with any new behavior, the more you practice the more proficient you become. The process does get easier with time for at least two reasons:

(1) As each relationship is addressed there is that much less work to be done.

(2) The skills are transferrable.

Ronald B. Cohen of Family Focused Solutions (familyfocusedsolutions.com) explains how changing yourself within the context of your nuclear and extended family will help with your family relationships.Your goal is to change yourself within the context of your nuclear and extended family. The essence of “self-differentiation” is the process of freeing yourself, as best as you can, from the emotional entrapment of your family of origin. To engage in this process is to provide a platform for maximum growth and development.

Be forewarned. The stress and anxiety of developing self focus may be intense. You will need to periodically check in with yourself in an emotionally intelligent manner. Mindfulness and self control will allow you to convey your thoughts and beliefs concerning important, emotionally charged issues in a calm, straightforward, non-reactive manner, regardless of acceptance or (dis-) agreement. The good news is that you can succeed in self-differentiation regardless of whether or not anyone else in your family joins you in learning new, more productive behaviors that are in the entire family’s best interest.

When all else fails, consulting with a well-trained family systems therapist can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning your relationships with your family of origin in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here . If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons in the second to the right hand column at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC www.familyfocusedsolutions.com Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530
RBCohenMD@FamilyFocusedSolutions.com

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11 comments

  1. Suresh Bharadwaj on August 6, 2013 at 5:11 pm said:

    Found the article inspiring for those who would like to work towards a more liberating, truer self. To break free of the mold in which they happened to be cast, grow out and establish a satisfying identity that’s uniquely themselves and for themself.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on August 7, 2013 at 10:01 am said:

      Hi Suresh,

      Excellent reframe of Bowen’s thoughts on self-differentiation as the process of partially freeing oneself from the emotional entrapment of one’s family of origin and changing one’s part in old, repetitive, dysfunctional emotional patterns to the point at which one is able to speak calmly and nonreactively one’s personal views of important emotional issues regardless of who is for or against them, while developing a personal, authentic relationship with each and every member of your family.

      Regards,

      —Ron

  2. Nicole Jackson on August 7, 2013 at 2:17 pm said:

    This is a great article and very inspiring for breaking the cycle of generational dysfunction. I find that I am currently in this process with my family. I’m wondering what to do however with my residual guilt or other feelings that tend to arise when I get push back from them.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on August 8, 2013 at 1:24 pm said:

      Hi Nicole,

      Ah yes, push back, what Bowen calls the change back or two step reaction. He wrote, “There are three predictable steps in the family reaction to differentiation. They are:

      1. “You are wrong,” or some version of that;
      2. “Change back” which can be communicated in many different ways; and
      3. “If you do not, these are the consequences.”

      Holding the change is disruptive and anxiety producing. You are striving to become more “responsible” for yourself so that you can act more “responsibly” toward others. An important part of the Bowen Family Systems Coaching process is to help people develop realistic goals and expectations when moving planfully toward changing their part in the family dance. This includes being prepared to respond productively even if unfortunately the other person reacts unfavorably.

      The task is to learn about your family in a different way, to take a larger, systemic, multi-generational perspective. It is helpfully to hold on to the idea that you are not doing this to change anybody other than yourself. You are doing this to get a clearer picture of who you are, how you became who you are, and what the extended family influences, both immediate and multi-generational, are on you.

      Monica McGoldrick in her book “You Can Go Home Again – Reconnecting With Your Family” wrote: “If you want to understand your mother as more than the dragon lady whose domineering intrusiveness overwhelms you even at the age of 40, you need to get a picture of her as a daughter, a niece, a sister, a friend, a co-worker, a granddaughter, a lover and a cousin. Then you will also want to learn about your mother’s mother in the same kind of way.”

      Try to remember as well that you are doing this to make life better for yourself, your children, your grandchildren and future generations. The greater the amount of unresolved family emotional attachments the more difficult it is to function at a high level. “Learning about your family heritage can free you to change your future.” Best of luck on this continuing journey of a lifetime.

      Regards,

      –Ron

  3. marksmith1@shaw.ca on August 8, 2013 at 1:26 pm said:

    Describing the effort toward differentiation of self is challenging since our brain wants to simplify it or be reductionistic, i.e. A+B+C=D. Our brain also wants to think from an “individual” perspective and has a hard time maintaining a systemic way of view self in the emotional system. I think your efforts to capture something of the relational nature of working on self in one’s family of origin, in such a short article, is much appreciated.

  4. Stephanie Ferrera on August 8, 2013 at 10:24 pm said:

    I don’t think it is consistent with Bowen theory to characterize families as “crazy” or “dysfunctional.” I had a great learning moment in a clinical conference with Dr. Bowen in 1981 when he interrupted the discussion in an audience that was using diagnostic language to describe a family. He stated “I do not deal with pathology except in myself.” In that moment I experienced his emotional neutrality in a riveting way. It changed the way I thought about my family.

    Dr. Bowen took utmost care to describe family relationships without pathologizing language. Thinking of one’s family in pathological terms misses seeing the multigenerational history of adaptiveness and I think it encourages cutoff rather than differentiation.

    Other than this language point, I find the ideas in this article helpful. Thanks, Dr. Cohen

  5. Melissa Killeen on September 24, 2013 at 10:11 am said:

    Ron;
    another very timely post.
    Thank you!

  6. Sheryl on October 15, 2014 at 6:56 pm said:

    Hey Ron! Thanks for your wonderful articles.

    Question: What if you are defining a self and they just cut you off? How would you react then? Just keep waiting? I took a stand and they didn’t like it! Didn’t even get a chance to explain…

    Thanks!

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on October 16, 2014 at 11:20 pm said:

      Hi Sheryl,

      Great question that gives me the opportunity to expound on one of the unique features of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) Coaching.

      Is there a course of action that will be productive and cannot be sabotaged? The simple answer is yes; you can make change in your family relationships even without the participation of other family members. The goal of staying connected despite differences is the essence of self-differentiation. Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) posits that working on self-differentiation in one’s family of origin is always available, is uniquely applicable, productive and effective regardless of the situation, and cannot be sabotaged by those who choose not to participate. By attending to our own “stuff” we always have the opportunity to make things better. A change in any one family member’s behavior creates change in the entire family’s relationships.

      The process consists of the following three steps:

      (1) Change yourself and you change the relationship.
      (2) Be prepared for your family’s reaction. They may not welcome the new you.
      (3) Respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior.

      Work on differentiation of self in one’s family of origin is the fundamental underpinning to growing oneself up as an adult in any crisis or transition. Self-differentiation is about setting appropriate limits and boundaries, staying connected to one’s extended family of origin while maintaining emotional independence and self-sufficiency. Tasks include redeveloping personal relationships with key family members, repairing cutoffs, detriangulating from conflicts, and changing the part one plays in emotionally charged vicious cycles.

      Step 1- Resolve to be different

      If you change yourself, you fundamentally change the nature of your relationships. After all, it’s not so much what others are saying and doing as how you are interpreting their behavior that is causing your distress. Start by distinguishing what you want in life for yourself as opposed to the roles, rules, stories, expectations, and taboos you learned growing up. Becoming more ‘responsible’ for one’s self allows one to act more ‘responsibly’ toward others. To engage in this process is to provide a platform for maximum growth and development.

      Work on differentiation facilitates becoming more “responsible” for yourself so that you can act more “responsibly” toward others. The more responsible you can be to your own values and beliefs, the greater the likelihood of strong, resilient friendships and secure intimate partner relationships. Start by distinguishing what you want in life for yourself as opposed to the roles, rules, stories, expectations, and taboos you learned growing up.

      Step 2 – Be prepared for your family’s reaction, they may not welcome the new you. Indeed the initial reaction may be negative, hostile and critical.

      Be prepared for the worst. You are disrupting the status quo of your family system and it will push back. In his essay on Self-Differentiation, Bowen wrote, “There are three predictable steps in the family reaction to differentiation. They are:

      (1) “You are wrong,” or some version of that;
      (2) “Change back” which can be communicated in many different ways; and
      (3) “If you do not, these are the consequences.”

      An important part of the process is to develop realistic expectations when moving toward changing your part in your family’s dance. Learn to observe non-reactively the relationship patterns in your original family and explore your role in these patterns. Remember, you are completely in control of your process and end up in a better place whether or not anybody else in the family signs on.

      Step 3 – Respond to your family’s reaction with new, unexpected, more differentiated behavior

      Respond productively even if unfortunately others do not. Review the new knowledge you have acquired and evaluate the interactions and responses you have experienced. What worked and what didn’t, where did you get stuck and who in the family was most distressed. Then plan what you might do different next time in order to get a response that is more in line with what you are looking for. Now steady yourself and commit fully.

      A few tricks of the trade include:

      1. Be proactive
      2. Manage your time
      3. Limit the duration of stressful interactions
      4. Maintain focus
      5. Avoid triangles
      6. Avoid distance & cut-offs

      Do not be daunted or overwhelmed, a little change goes a long way. The process does get easier with time for at least two reasons; (1) as each relationship is addressed there is that much less work to be done and (2) the skills are transferrable so one does not have to start all over again from scratch. Seemingly paradoxically you cannot solve personal difficulties alone. There is no differentiation without connection, no autonomy without healthy interdependence.

      However, differentiation of self is a continuous work in progress. No individual can actualize this infinite task. We do the best we can and hope that our efforts will be rewarded. You are doing this to make life better for yourself, your children, your grandchildren and future generations. The goal is to change your relationships with other members of your family of origin to improve your life and your family’s life regardless of what anybody else does. The pathway is paved with difficulty and challenge, but someone has to do this work to break the negative cycles and it might as well be you. For those of us who consider it important enough to invest the time and energy, and choose to engage with the goal of becoming an authentic adult, the process of changing one’s part in old, repetitive, dysfunctional emotional patterns to the point at which one is able to speak calmly and non-reactively one’s personal views on important emotional issues regardless of who is for or against them is a never completed task. It is a life-long journey to a destination we will never reach, one that requires constant vigilance to the pull of fusion, cut-offs and triangles.

      The biggest block to growth is the wish not to hurt other people or have them be angry with you. This is especially true of ones parents. This fear can be so great that people do not even allow themselves the knowledge of what they want for themselves. To differentiate means to give up needing one’s parents to approve or give permission for what you do. This does not mean that you give up wanting their approval or permission. One may not be able to give up wanting approval, but one must give up needing it.

      The goal is to solve problems in current relationships so as not to leave a damaging legacy for the next generation. When all else fails, consulting with a well-trained family systems therapist can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.

      Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

      Regards,

      — Ron

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