I’ve learned that going to the pain in a safe non-judgmental environment is what heals it.
In my article How To Really Heal Your Family Karma, I described my early attempts to heal some of the emotional wounds that I had inherited from my family of origin.
Things didn’t go quite as well as I would have liked, but now that I’m a little further down the track in my own healing journey, new possibilities for healing are opening up in my extended family.
I’ve been having some challenging conversations with my sisters lately, who are both married with late-teenage children. Now that their children are mostly grown up, they have a bit more time to take a step back and look at how their families are unfolding without the constant pressure and demands of raising small children. I’m also further down the path of healing the wounds I inherited from our family of origin which has opened the door to conversations about the patterns of dysfunction and trauma that run through our extended families.
Recently, with my eldest sister I saw her tear up as she said, “I know that mum will never be proud of me.” I know from my conversations with my mother that she is actually proud of my sister; but pride is an emotion and since my mother doesn’t express her emotions directly, she never tells my sister.
I was able to sit with my sister’s distress without being so triggered that I would have to rescue her and make that painful feeling go away for both of us.
“It’s okay. I know that God loves me,” my sister went on to say in a clear attempt to save herself from the pain. Again, I just listened. I know that the love of an imaginary God can never really compensate for the pain of not being able to feel the love of a real live parent.
Despite the religious rhetoric and the passage of 40 years, it’s clearly not okay.
We can’t reason emotional wounds away with religious logic, and they don’t just heal themselves automatically over time either. But this wasn’t the time for a debate on theology or the use of religion to avoid dealing with family issues.
Then in a conversation with my other sister, I raised the issue of whether unresolved emotional family baggage has contributed to the perfectionism, anxiety and stress behind her daughter’s chronic illness. Any issue we don’t deal with from our family of origin is passed on unconsciously to our children, so by avoiding her own family karma issues I fear that my sister has inadvertently passed them onto my niece.
The Christian bible talks about God punishing “the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” Psychologists call it the “multi-generational transmission process.” Family systems therapists see dysfunctional patterns passed down unwittingly from parent to child every day.
This idea didn’t go down well with my sister who told me she has never had any therapy, “I just don’t see the point of it.” Nor has her husband sought help for the issues in his family of origin.
“The point,” I said, “is that you now have a perfectionist daughter with a stress-related chronic illness. Her perfectionism must have come from somewhere.”
“That’s just who she is,” my sister replied. So we discussed nature versus nurture.
Is perfectionism and the associated need to win love and approval from our parents by what we do rather than by who we are genetic or learned?
For me, I’ll side with nurture on this one.
When our parents don’t freely show us love in a form we can recognize as a young child, we learn that we need to earn love and approval. Yet it’s difficult for a parent to freely show love to their children when they were wounded by their own parents being unable to do the same for them.
My sister is wary of all forms of therapy, “All the psychologists I know have really messed up lives themselves;” citing one of her best friends as an example. I couldn’t help noticing that this was the same attitude our parents had towards therapy that became an excuse to avoid seeking help for the problems in their relationship.
The real issue here is a fear of the vulnerability that effective therapy involves. We just don’t want to face our inner pain nor show it to anyone else. We’re all deeply ashamed of how we really feel.
But this attitude of not acknowledging nor dealing with issues due to fear and shame is exactly what keeps dysfunctional patterns running in families for generations.
My sister became angry over the connection between avoiding her own issues and her daughter’s illness, “I’m upset that you think that what I’ve done has contributed to my daughter being sick.”
Well yes, I had to acknowledge that this would be a distressing thought for a parent, and it is exactly what I was thinking. No parent is perfect. The implied suggestion that a parent must always have done the best thing by their child and could never possibly contribute to their child’s suffering sounded like just the kind of perfectionism that I suspected my sister may have unconsciously and unwittingly passed on to her stressed-out daughter.
I wasn’t keen to let my sister off the hook just because she was upset.
The only thing I can see that that is going to motivate her to deal with the issues behind her daughter’s perfectionism and the stress that it causes is to feel the pain of it herself—pain she’s currently avoiding. We seek help when the pain becomes unbearable; otherwise, as my sister kept saying, “What’s the point of seeking help if I don’t need it?” Or rather, if we think we don’t need it.
This was the first conversation with my sister in which I was able to sit with my own feelings of discomfort about her being angry and upset with me. In past conversations about family issues, I’ve often been overwhelmed with fear and unable to function. I’ve had what Daniel Goleman calls an amygdala hijack. If my sister can incapacitate me by expressing her anger forcefully enough, I’m not free to act in accordance with my values and express what I need to in that moment.
My fear of upsetting my sisters, and to a lesser extent other women, is an unconscious projection of my latent fear of upsetting our domineering mother.
My own healing has involved a lot of letting go of fear regarding other people’s emotions, so this time I only felt anxiety at about seven out of 10—significant, but not incapacitating. I was still able to say what I believed needed to be said.
By the end of the conversation my sister seemed slightly more open to the possibility that unresolved issues in our wider family could be contributing to her daughter’s illness, and that it may be worth exploring this issue in her own life further.
Once we’re no longer afraid of the fact that really showing up may trigger other people’s pain, we become a healing presence in our wider family. We don’t even have to do it consciously; it may be better sometimes if we don’t. Just being our true selves will bring issues up for other people.
I’m still learning to be authentic around the family that taught me to suppress my true self in the first place.
When other family members develop the awareness that we’re doing them a favor by illuminating their pain so they can heal it, because their reactions no longer trigger our own pain anymore, everyone can benefit.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo Credit: Sana/Flickr