The Impact of a Dysfunctional Family System
"I don't want to keep doing/feeling/thinking [fill in the blank], but I can't seem to stop myself."
Some experiences in life leave a lasting impression on us - further down in the body than where language and often even reason can reach. It is as if one part of us is ready to move forward, but another, deeper part of us is stuck or scared or ashamed and keeps us in a pattern that feels out of our control.
Adults raised within dysfunctional family systems report a variety of long-term effects such as these. Often, however, these issues are not recognized as byproducts of a family issue - rather we blame ourselves or put the blame on choices that were made along the way.
Common Signs of the Legacy of a Dysfunctional Family System
The following questions may help you assess how impacted you are by a dysfunctional family system.
Answering "yes" to any of these questions may indicate some effects from family dysfunction. Most people will likely identify with some of them. If you find yourself answering "yes" to over half of them, you likely have some long-term effects of living in a dysfunctional family system.
- Do you find yourself needing approval from others to feel good about yourself?
- Do you agree to do more for others than you can comfortably accomplish?
- Are you a perfectionist?
- Or do you tend to avoid or ignore responsibilities?
- Do you find it difficult to identify what you're feeling?
- Do you find it difficult to express feelings?
- Do you tend to think in all-or-nothing terms?
- Do you often feel lonely even in the presence of others?
- Is it difficult for you to ask for what you need from others?
- Is it difficult for you to maintain intimate relationships?
- Do you find it difficult to trust others?
- Do you tend to hang on to hurtful or destructive relationships?
- Are you more aware of others' needs and feelings than your own?
- Do you find it particularly difficult to deal with anger or criticism?
- Is it hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself?
- Do you find yourself feeling like a "fake" in your academic or professional life?
- Do you find yourself waiting for disaster to strike even when things are going well in your life?
- Do you find yourself having difficulty with authority figures?
Adapted from the Texas Women's University website
Compassion as Remedy
This process is not about putting blame on our parents or shirking personal responsibility, but is rather about starting to cultivate deep compassion for ourselves and the creative ways that we had to adapt in order to survive a discreet moment in time.
You have likely outgrown some of these old survival strategies and desperately want a change. That is great! But I contend that, to be successful in sustaining meaningful change, the first steps are:
- Acknowledge and understand why these strategies are so ingrained from a survival perspective.
- From a place of compassion, begin to notice what triggers or activates these strategies to be employed in your adult life.
- Remind yourself that you are no longer in the dysfunction of your childhood. Remind yourself what strengths, skills, abilities you have now that you didn't have when you were a child - the You of today has options about how to respond that you didn't have when you were a child.
- Gently begin to experiment with new and different ways of being, responding, and engaging that are more aligned with the You of today.
Often, this is much easier said than done and requires a lot of patience and compassion along the way. Therapy can be a very useful place to start building your awareness of these patterns, shifting your perspective to one of compassion, and beginning the process of making deep, meaningful changes that will sustain over time.
© Ellie Vargas, LCSW
Ellie Vargas, LCSW is a wife and a mama of two girls, a trekker on the bumpy trail of personal growth, and a Trauma-Informed Psychotherapist. In that order.