Years ago my downstairs neighbor had a premature newborn that slept, at best, 30 minutes in between hours and hours of pitiful howling. This went on for months. It was so bad that one morning, my poor friend actually ate a banana, while in the shower, trying to multi-task and take care of herself!
Most of us can relate to the nearly comical extremes we turn to in an attempt to never wake a sleeping baby! And woe to us if we do…There goes that Saturday afternoon ESPN football game, or that cozy moment with a cup of tea and a good book you were longing for. Now you are dealing with an inconsolable, sobbing child who takes every ounce of your time and attention!
But I am not going to talk to you about children…
I want to talk to you about people…not little people…but grown-up people who are just like that sleeping baby! When they are good, they’re wonderful…charming, delightful, and great fun! But when they go to that place…you know, that dark, brooding, stormy place…they take up every ounce of your time and energy! And you are left feeling confused and hurt and wondering what on earth just happened!?
Walking on Eggshells
It can be so bad, when that family member, or friend, or coworker begins the irrational rant, raging and terrifying all those in his or her path, that we adjust our behavior just to protect ourselves. We avoid family events, we steer clear of certain topics, we stuff our true thoughts and feelings, we walk on eggshells…anything, to not wake the sleeping baby!! Only this time, it isn’t a passing phase. This time it becomes a deeply entrenched pattern…a way we guard ourselves from further pain.
Something is going on at a very deep level and it helps to understand what it is. Very few university classes changed my way of looking at life, but my Family Systems Theory class was nothing short of an epiphany, a major “Ah hah!!” moment for me. The habits we develop to deal with painful situations often stem from our childhood experiences. And understanding the family drama and the part we play can be an incredibly powerful tool for change.
Systems Theory, originated by psychiatrist Murray Bowen, looks at the emotional interconnectedness between family members. If you’re not a person who likes ‘psycho-babble’, think of a car engine. All the parts work together and a problem with one part affects the whole engine. Likewise an improvement in another part can benefit the whole engine.
Family systems are like that car engine. They have complex, intense connections. They react to each other even if they are not aware of this reaction. A lot of people will say, “Nah, I don’t have anything to do with my family. They drive me crazy so I just stay away.” You may FEEL independent and distant, but the family drama and patterns are still affecting you, in part by your need to keep your distance.
Keeping It Balanced
Relationships in any system are reciprocal to keep balance. So if one family member is high drama, another might become much more reserved. After all, there is only so much room and energy for drama in the system. If one person is using up all the “badness”, another member may feel (usually subconsciously) that she had to be extra good to balance out the system. This is something therapists see over and over in counseling. One child in the family is acting out and another becomes the super good, super obedient, compliant child. That’s not really a problem if it is temporary. The problems come when the system becomes STUCK.
Spreading the (Emotional) Flu
And while we’re talking about how systems work, let me point out another really important feature. Just like a flu virus can run through an entire family because they are in such close proximity to one another, emotions can be contagious.
When everyone is doing well–like when the baby is sleeping–the system may run just fine. But introduce a crisisl–like when the baby wakes up— and anxiety spreads through the entire system like a virus. In response, each member jumps into his expected role. Some members distance and “check out” and others ramp up their efforts to control and fix the problem. The overfunctioning person is often the one I see in therapy. Her role, for years, has been to control, mitigate, fix, or do whatever it takes to reduce the stress and tension in the family. Instead of helping, she is getting sick, depressed, and MORE anxious.
When tensions are running high, people are even MORE likely to get locked into their expected roles. And woe to them if they step out of the role the system/family requires of them!
Not sure this is true? Are you the family peace-keeper, the one who avoids conflict? Try being assertive and standing up for what you really think, and see what kind of reaction you get. Are you the one who fixes everyone’s problems at your own expense? Try saying no and see what the response is. You just broke the unspoken agreement! Don’t mess up the system! People and definitely systems do not like to change! If you change then other people have to change, and change is uncomfortable.
So back to the baby…The unspoken agreements driving that situation might be this: Don’t upset her! Do not speak the truth about what is happening! Deny reality! Pretend everything is ok. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t get help. Agree with me that it isn’t so bad! Stay in your role… fix the situation, or take too much responsibility for the situation, or ignore the situation, etc. etc.
Whew! I don’t know about you, but I think this is intense…So what now? Don’t do anything just yet! Think about these ideas, but whatever you do, don’t roll up your sleeves and tear into the family to set everyone straight!
Families can be complicated. If any of this resonates with you, consider seeing a professional counselor. In a private, confidential setting you may find it very helpful to sort out these complicated issues and develop a game plan.