We all remember Stuart Smalley, the character Al Franken portrayed on Saturday Night Live in the 1990’s. Many of us recall (some with jocularity) the “inner child movement” of the 1980’s that became very popular, introducing the concepts of family dysfunction, toxicity, and co-dependency into our popular lexicon.
Over time, however, the core ideas behind these concepts have endured. They have become validated in neuroscience and are embodied in contemporary thinking around trauma, addiction and the restorative or dysfunctional role of attachment in our social and emotional lives. For many, our primary attachment figure is a family members and our most fundamental attachment system is our family of origin. For the majority of us, our families of origin are where we first learn and experience trust, safety and security. It is where we are “wired.”
But what happens when this goes awry? What happens when a family system is toxic? What occurs in our emotional life and our own psychology when the ones who we believe in and with whom we strive for connection hurt us? What about when they injure us and are even harmful to our own emotional life. People are not, as it is said, loving and loyal all the time. This reality can be very destabilizing and challenge the very fabric of our existence.
Everyone’s journey is different, but for some the journey requires saying goodbye to our toxic families and saying hello to ourselves. Many simply leave home and build an independent life. Others do a little of both: they stay emotionally connected to the family system, but also strive for healthy separation. For them, adult emotional life can be a struggle learning and respecting boundaries and managing expectations, not doing the same thing 1000 times with family and expecting a different result. For others, the extreme result of a toxic family system can be serious difficulty developing a secure identity and personality.
Coming home means saying goodbye to our family issues and welcoming and embracing a responsibility to ourselves. It means, as the Zen teachers instruct, “growing up and waking up”. It does not have to mean severing a connection, but it could. It certainly means weighing our perceived needs and wants against the costs involved. Awakening to the fantasies of our family, our expectations, our displaced sense of expectation and external validation, and coming home to ourselves. So welcome home … seeing others in our lives clearly means seeing their limitations. It means having, in our own ways, developing compassion for ourselves. Welcome home.