We are having a discussion about how to have a healthy family If you are new to this series, please return to Part One: Is Mine Free of Entanglements?, and Part Two: Is Mine Flexible? Then join us here. We are examining families as a “system.” In other words, families are like complex moving machines where each individual is an integral and interdependent part to its overall level of functioning and wellbeing. Today, we move to Healthy Family Series, Part 3: Is Mine For-Giving?
Any system functions well when there is a shared mindset of forgiving. We are not talking about the traditional definitions of forgiveness when one party pardons, excuses, or absolves another. We are talking about an intentional interplay between family members in which each person is responsible for the wellbeing of the system by implementing three behaviors.
Families are healthy when they share a mindset of forgiving:
- To Self
- To Others
- To A Process
In order for a complex working machine to function, each individual part needs to be in good shape. In applying this concept to healthy families, it is imperative family members take responsibility for their individual physical and psychological wellbeing. Whether there are more serious issues or if there are less disruptive behaviour or disorders, the first priority of forgiving is to one’s self. It is the duty of each member to identify and assess areas of personal concern and to implement self-care measures. Of course, little ones and younger family members rely upon adults for care. Thus, it is all the more important for adults to implement self-care strategies, practices, and routines in order to give their best to their children.
Many years ago, I led support groups for females who were struggling with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (previously referred to as PMS or Premenstrual Syndrome). During the early 1990’s when the groups met, PMS was considered by many to be a joke or something females just made up. Even the medical community was quite leery of its legitimacy. Needless to say, females experienced tremendous shame surrounding the disorder, internalizing their feelings of hopelessness and confusion over their symptoms. To my amazement, over a period of three years there were dozens and dozens of brave females who attended the support groups. They had one common goal: to take care of themselves so that they could take better care of their families. I’ve seen individuals work hard in therapy, but none has worked harder than the females in the PMS groups. Through the process of giving to self, they changed the dynamic of their families and contributed to its increased levels of wellness.
Tragically, there are many families today who are dealing with major disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, and a myriad of addictions as well as other traumas. Without honest assessment and effective intervention, the entire system struggles to function. Many fracture and break down completely. All too often, the family rearranges itself around new norms of dysfunction influencing and impacting the wellness of other family members. If this is the case, it is critical that individuals within the family learn to implement their own self-care through counseling, self-help books, or other sources of support.
Often times clients will ask me, “Isn’t it selfish to put myself first or to take care of myself?”
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My response is two-fold:
- Self-care is not selfish.
- We are only as good for others as we are to ourselves.
Practicing self-care means taking responsibility for your wellness. Doing so contributes to the healthy functioning of the family.
Once we have established practices which address our physical and psychological needs for self-care, we make ourselves available to give to others. Just like with complex machines, when each individual part is working at its best, each contributes to the overall functioning of the other parts and to the system as a whole. At the same time, it is only natural for the working parts of a machine to experience a decrease in their level of functioning due to a variety of factors. The same is true for families. No family is going to function consistently at the same level of wellness. There are too many challenges, hardships, and unforeseen tragedies which every family faces. When these disturbances occur, it is critical that family members share in the mindset of Giving To Others. This is a time when each family member, with respect to age appropriateness, maintains their Self-Care while focusing on being other-centered. Most families do so naturally, especially in times of crisis.
The challenge before us today is implementing giving to others on a daily basis. Families are busy with work and school responsibilities. And over the past couple of decades, our relationship with technology is consuming more and more of our time. While we are constantly connected to friends and family through the ease of indirect communication, we are not really creating those human connections which fuel and feed our beings. Individuals, both young and adult, are reporting feelings of isolation, loneliness, unhappiness, and emptiness. In addition, because of our natural desire for connection with others , we are driven to participating in online behaviors which draw attention to us and validate us. Unfortunately, research has shown we are becoming less other-focused and more self-absorbed. When families take the time to connect face to face and to give to one another, belonging and love take hold and keep the family system running at full capacity.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet an extraordinary family. With four children under the age of twelve, the mom and dad parented with intention and planning. They monitored their own use of technology and were very conservative about any online activity with their children. Aside from the business of school, sports, and musical activities, the parents spent time every day one on one with each child. The older two children were involved in their church, volunteering and helping in a variety of outreach events. One of the most remarkable characteristics of this family was how kind they were to one another. The parents modelled compassion and empathy while demonstrating a mindset of giving to others. Their children reflected those loving sentiments in their treatment towards one another and to others.
It is important to note that there are times when individual family members may require more care and attention than other family members are able to give. It is critical that family members have honest conversations about their capacities for assisting or helping. As we discussed in self-care, jeopardizing our own wellness does not serve us or the system. By investing thoughtfully and maintaining personal boundaries, we can still give to others while giving to ourselves.
Giving to others during times of need brings families together. Doing so on a daily basis builds strong connections and a sense of belonging.
To A Process
As discussed, machines work well when the parts are kept in good condition. In addition, machines work well when each part is performing its function, enhancing the proper function of the other parts or shouldering extra responsibilities when one part is malfunctioning. A third component of forgiving is critical to the healthy functioning of any system- giving to a process. Periodically or routinely, machines need a good cleaning out. They need to be flushed of debris, old particles, or buildup. The same concept applies to families.
When resentments, anger, or negative emotions reside within a family system, this can and will break down the system and keep it entrenched in an unhealthy state. Healthy families are committed to a process of letting go, releasing, and flushing out of toxic buildup. However, individual members must be afforded the space and freedom to utilize whatever processes works for them.
A few examples include the following:
- Releasing or letting go: Through visualization (imagined rehearsal) or in person, choose a means to release your corrosive emotions and select a safe place to do so. Years ago, a client shared how she placed her bitterness from her partner’s betrayal into a bottle and released it into the ocean. Another client disclosed how she visualized placing her anger and grief inside of a balloon, let it go, and watched it disappear. It is quite common for negative emotions to resurface; therefore, practice this over and over as you experience them.
- Forgiveness: Forgiveness has many connotations. If you are comfortable with the meaning you attach to it, utilize it to unhook yourself from any toxic emotions. Many faiths incorporate forgiveness into their teachings. Tap into your spiritual process and free yourself from being tethered to unhealthy emotions.
- Praying or meditating: Connecting with your Higher Power or source in ways that are purposeful to you is also an excellent way of re-centering and renewing Many clients over the years chose to be in nature in order to cleanse out the toxins of family unhealthiness or of their own lingering corrosive emotions.
- Journaling or writing: When we write down our thoughts and emotions, we give them a voice. We validate them. In doing so, it often provides a natural release. Other times, journaling can provide clarity and bring closure to conflict. If writing is a comfortable modality for you, embrace it.
- Other practices or rituals: Over the years, I’ve learned from many of my clients how they let go or released their negative emotions: engaging in all forms of exercise and embracing creative outlets such as drawing, singing, dancing, painting, etc. Lastly, if you remain stuck or feel unable to flush out toxins from past pain, consider seeking out therapeutic help for empathic connection and professional clarification.
In closing, one of the best ways to keep the family system running smoothly is to keep short accounts. Healthy families are open in their communication and respectful of one another’s viewpoints. When problems, misunderstandings, or challenges between members arise, they address them in timely ways but after emotions have settled down. However, when families are not open to honest communication or when the lingering issues have created an unsafe environment in which to discuss feelings, it is best to practice individual releasing processes and to shore up personal boundaries. It is important to remember that although we cannot change the dynamic of our families, we can change how and to what degree we interact with them.
Healthy families commit to A Process of releasing and reconnecting. Doing so gives members the freedom to move forward, relishing the wellness in themselves and in the family
For more in depth reading on this subject read Kenley’s book: Breaking Through Betrayal Second Edition
Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children