If you are a woman, there is a greater likelihood of carrying dysfunctional family patterns from your childhood into your adult life. Isn’t that the worst news you heard today? Yup, you are welcome.
But hang on, there is hope for change. Women can change the patterns of dysfunction that are a result of their history. And as we move forward, we can DO better because we KNOW better.
All children grow up with messages about their perceived gender behaviors. We know them because we have felt them and, at times we have put those expectations on children in our families. If you are a parent, there is a high likelihood that you have directed your child’s behavior to conform to societal expectations. We have all done it. Sister-you are among friends here.
Maybe you are not a fan of therapy, but there are some helpful pieces of information found in the theories that make up family dynamics. Like genetic similarities, families pass on dysfunctional family patterns- or as we therapist like to call them- family rules.
How to Identify Family Rules
Family rules are very easy to see when you decide to look for them. It can be scary to take a critical look at the people that you love. The ones who cared for you (or at minimum kept you alive) from your earliest memories. But the fast track to uncovering and breaking dysfunctional family patterns is to see what must be seen. Here are three quick questions to ask when searching for family rules:
What was the family secret? (you know, the thing that they all thought you did not know, but you really did-?) In my family it was my Dad’s alcoholism. Sometimes secrets are spoken or seen, other times they are invisible, only made known by behaviors and expectations.
What lifestyles were completely off limits? For example, who was the family loser? Or the family winner? What defined winning or losing?
What were the family roles for women? After spending some time digesting the broader family rules, take a deep dive into the family roles/rules for women. Look for topics like: women in careers, women as stay-at-home moms, women and money, and women and sex.
Breaking the Family Rules
Obviously the best way to identify and break the family rules is by going to therapy ( says the therapy grad student). But you can effect inner change if you are willing to be honest and focused in your self-growth. Prepare yourself for waves of real confusion and potential manipulation tsunamis when you step out of the family boat and dive into the waters of change. Generations have created the dysfunctional family patterns. As you make personal changes, expect slow and begrudging familial acceptance at best.
The Stick of Dynamite Question
As you begin to see dysfunctional family patterns and are ready to reduce their influence, you need a question that blows it all out of the water. Something simple and straightforward is best. When the family pressure is on to conform, there is no time to Google psychological Ninja moves to block the well-practiced guilt gymnastics performed by Aunt Betty. If your Aunty Betty is like my Aunt Betty, she has achieved a black belt in passive aggression and not-your-business questions. Annoying old cow.
The rules, the expectations, the manipulation, and the grab for control can all be leveled by asking yourself this question:
Do I want what they have?
In detail, do you want the relationships they have? Do you want the financial outcome they have? Do you want your children to behave the same way? Do you want the attitudes and behavior they display?
Do YOU want what they have? Ask it again. And again. And every time going forward, when there is pressure on you to conform or reinforce the family rules, ask it. Dysfunctional family patterns are broken when they are identified and questioned.
This is your new superpower!! The lasso of truth and the protective golden cuff bracelets are great for Wonder Woman, but she got those after she decided to become the shero she was intended to be. (And after doing a quick search on Wonder Woman and family, apparently, she was born by being sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta).
Challenging the family rules is hard work. Often it is lonely, and it can bring up feelings of abandonment and separation from the patterns that once ruled your life. But, like any decision to grow stronger, the muscles must be challenged and fatigued, prepared to be tougher the next workout session.
Creating an authentic, curated life takes courage and strength. Do your best to avoid falling into the trap of justifying the changes you are making in your life. If you are a midlife woman, you are grown ass. No permission needed. Take a deep breath, light dynamite question, and remember, your life is best decided by you.