There is a deep need in all of us to belong, to be part of people we can call home. Generally, ‘home’ is our family, those individuals we are connected to by blood. Within a good enough family, we are supported, loved, protected, comforted, and celebrated. There is an experience of reliability and dependability within this unit of family.
But what happens when this is not our experience? When our family unit hurts? When we are deserted and manipulated. When loving us is conditional, and no one speaks up for us. Often it is the denial of these experiences, by significant others, which causes more pain than the actual events.
This is a family theme which often presents in my counselling room, and people trying to survive these family units, can range from ages 16 to 80 years of age. People can live their entire lives trying to get a family member’s love, approval, recognition, or an apology for injuring them emotionally or physically. The first step is recognition and validation; these painful experiences happened, and to sit with the reality of this, can be painful on so many levels.
The next step is to consider the stages of grieving we experience. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler brought us an understanding of the stages of grief in their book On Grief and Grieving. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We may not go through all the stages, or necessarily in this order, however, it is important to recognize and validate which stage/s we are experiencing. Mourning the stage/s we are in is essential for our healing. Let’s walk through each one of these stages together:
We can be in this stage for many years when it comes to the painful and unfulfilled relationship we have with a family member, especially a parent. Denial allows us to pace the absorption of the reality of our relationship with such a family member. We often cannot swallow this painful experience whole, and must digest it little by little.
This is our protective emotion; when we are trying to protect the painful, underlying emotions of not feeling worthy, not being good enough, being vulnerable, and ashamed. This anger can be directed at the individual family member, at others who stood by and did nothing, and often this anger is directed inwards, which could lead to symptoms of depression.
Wanting our experiences with a family member to be different, we often embark on a bargaining journey, which can take years. If I please him or her, or change myself into what they want me to be, buy my way into their hearts, and do everything they want me to do; surely then will I have what I need. The truth is, at some point, we need to stop bargaining, and say enough now. This means we recognize we are powerless in the face of what a family member is not willing, or cannot give us, for whatever the reason may be for them.
I mentioned earlier in this post when we grieve, we often turn our anger inwards, in other words we become angry at ourselves. We ask questions such as: ‘What’s wrong with me?’, ‘Why can’t dad just accept me for who I am?’, ‘Why am I unlovable?’
This can become a contributing factor to our experience of depression, and we need to be gentle with ourselves. With any experience of depression, it is vital to seek the support from a medical professional, trained in mental health and well-being, for an expert diagnosis, and taking a collaborative approach to professional support, such as counselling. The reason for this encouragement, is over the years I have seen many clients misdiagnosed with depression, when indeed they are processing a grief experience.
This stage of the grief process does not necessarily feel good, or even mean we are okay with it all. It is about acknowledgement, and validation that the situation hurts, and is unfair. We have lost out!
It does mean we let go; not in anger or vengeful thinking, because this will keep us attached to the family member in a negative way.
There is an old saying: ‘Unforgiveness is like drinking poison, and waiting for the other person to die’. Forgiveness or letting go is about us, not the other person. It is freeing up emotional energy to invest in our own life, and the family unit we build in the future. Don’t allow the past to continue to take away from you now, and in the future.
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Copyright Sandra Bowden