CREATING FAMILY ACCEPTANCE
Lately, I’ve gotten so many anguished questions from people who are being criticized and rejected by family for making relationship choices the families don’t like, usually for cultural or religious reasons, that I changed my mind about what I was going to write this month.
If your choice of a partner, lifestyle, religion or place to live has received a lot of criticism and threats of rejection from your family, you are probably experiencing pain and confusion. Families do this because they don’t accept that you’re an adult, free to make your own choices, good or bad, and they assume your choices will either be bad for you or a negative reflection on them. Otherwise loving and caring parents can become surprisingly cruel and heartless in these situations, because they are afraidand they turn that fear into anger. It may not be possible to get them to approve of your decision, but if you get them to think of you as an independent adult, they may be able to accept it with a little more grace.
If you’re an adult, and in college, working, or married, it’s time to grow up and move on from your family and your childhood. While it’s lovely to be close to your family if you have a good relationship with them, it is also time to build a life of your own, and the sooner you begin, the quicker you will become well- established. It’s a big change when you first leave home to think of yourself as being in charge of your life. “I’m 31 years old,” said a client “and I still feel as if someone else is running my life.” That is not a good place to be.
The key is to decide that you, and only you are in charge of what you do from this day on. You can discuss your life issues with your parents, siblings, spouse and friends, and make use of their experience and differing view points; but in the end, you are the one who must make the decisions about what to do. Even if you manage to allow someone else to make the decisions for you, you will have to live with the consequences of those decisions.
To change your relationship with your family from that of a dependent child to a fully respected adult, you must first change the way you think of yourself in relationship to your family. In other words, to stop being treated as you were when you were a child, you must stop behaving the way you did as a child. If you treat the others in your family as “fellow adults”, you’re more likely to get treated like one yourself. The ways your family interact are just habits, and they can change. Following are some guidelines:
Guidelines for Growing up within your Family
1. Call your parents “Mother and Father” or “Mom and Dad”, instead of childlike names such as Mommy, Daddy, Poppy, etc. It will make you think differently about your interaction.
2. Change your conversation to be more like the conversations you have with friends. Don’t limit it strictly to family memories, or gossip about family members, or questions about your personal life. Before you speak with family members, take a minute to think of what “adult” topics you’d like to talk about. Current events, sports, work issues (just facts and eventsavoid complaining) political or local neighborhood issues are all adult topics.
3. If you have children of your own, share with your parents on a parent -to parent basis.
4. Don’t react if your parent does or says something annoying. Just ignore it, and change the subject.
5. Don’t ask your parents for advicetry offering your own expertise insteadbut offer it as you would to a friend. Don’t push.
6. Pay attention to the balance of your interaction. Don’t let your role slide into all giving or all receiving, try to keep the score even, as you probably do with your friends.
7. In general, treat your parents and siblings as if they were the family of someone you care about, and not your own. After all, if you were with a friend’s family, and someone did something odd, you’d just ignore it, and you wouldn’t let yourself be drawn into family squabbles. You’d just be polite and pleasant, for your friend’s sake.
After following these guidelines for a few months, your interactions with your family will change, so that you can relax and just be your adult self. You’ll find that families are more fun after you leave your old childhood behavior patterns and emotional leftovers behind.
Problems with a family members may not emerge until you do something independent, and may catch you by surprise, but if you can learn to respond thoughtfully, rather than react emotionally, you’ll handle the issue better, and gain respect from the other person.
Many valuable gifts come through overcoming negative reactions, and learning to view others as reflections of ourselvesuseful mirrors. The following exercise will help you step back and look at others as a source of information about yourself, view people from a different angle and use the very people who upset you as a reflection of the internal dynamics behind your struggles.
Exercise: mirrors and teachers
1. List problem people: Make a list of people with whom you are having problems.
2. Choose a mirror: Select one of the most difficult people on the list, and think about your interaction with that person. What do you want from him or her? Do you want to be understood? To be respected? To be left alone? To be appreciated? To be cared about?
3. Relate it to yourself: Now consider how to give to yourself what you want from the other person. If you want to be left alone, do you leave yourself alone? If you want to be trusted, do you trust yourself? If you want to be heard, do you listen to your own self? If you want to be important, are you important to you?
4. Change your self-treatment: Practice treating yourself the way you would want to be treated by the person in question. For example, if you are angry because this person doesn’t treat you with respect, consider what it would mean to treat yourself with respect, and change your behavior toward yourself accordingly. If you’re upset because the person doesn’t listen to you, spend some time every day listening to yourself.
5. Learn new skills: Think about the dynamics between the difficult person and yourself, and what you need to learn that would improve the relationship. Perhaps you need to learn not to take what is said too seriously. Perhaps you need to learn to set boundaries, or to handle other peoples’ anger more effectively. Make a list of new skills you could learn that would improve your ability to deal better with this type of individual. On your list, note where you think you could learn the skills you need. From a friend? With a therapist? From books?
6. Do your part: Take responsibility for your part of the relationship. Keeping in mind that no one can struggle with you if you don’t struggle back, consider what you need to do to remove yourself from the relationship problem. Remember, no matter what’s going on, you have control over your own actions you can choose not to participate in any situation that is destructive or counter-productive. © Tina B.Tessina, 2010 (From It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction and The 10 Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make Before 40 (HCI)
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California, with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page); How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page); The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again (Wiley) and The Real 13th Step: Discovering Self-Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the Twelve Step Programs (New Page.) Her newest books are Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage and The Commuter Marriage. She publishes “Happiness Tips from Tina”, an e-mail newsletter, and the “Dr. Romance Blog” http://drromance.typepad.com/dr_romance_blog/ and has hosted "The Psyche Deli: delectable tidbits for the subconscious" a weekly hour long radio show. Online, she is “Dr. Romance” with columns at Divorce360.com, Healthapalooza.com, and Yahoo!Personals, as well as a Redbook Love Network expert. Dr. Tessina guests frequently on radio, and such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC news. Follow her on www.twitter.com/tinatessina or www.facebook.com/tinatessina