January 04, 2010

Boundaries, Patterns and Healthy Change

Vesuvius from Portici by Joseph Wright of Derby, 18th century.

Nary a Christmas has come and gone without something wicked this way coming-eth, exploding the myth of familial unity and peace. A get-together at my house is like releasing a heavy-duty snow blower in a peanuts factory. The chaos used to confuse me, trigger my guilt, and depress me—considering how hard I tried to avoid splattered peanut butter on faux-painted woodwork. My hopes for happiness, Christian charity, and familial unity have been systematically defeated each and every year, leaving me with a sense of personal failure. Oh, woe be I. Madame Responsible isn’t capable of making delectable sugarplum pies with a sack of aging lemons, a spoonful of rancid vinegar, and a couple of moldy rat turds.

It all started a few months ago when I agreed to host Christmas dinner for my parents, my siblings, their partners, and all their kids and all their partners. I love hosting BIG dinners, especially during the holidays when there’s an excuse to eat fattening desserts and over-embellish tabletops with garish and not-very-tasteful decorations. This year though, I expected houseguests to reciprocate my generosity by respecting my efforts. I expected them to appreciate my willingness to let them invade my privacy so we could celebrate the holidays together. Rather than holding myself accountable for making other people joyous (or blaming myself if they weren’t), I let them take care of their own happiness. I shared responsibility for creating the holiday spirit with everyone else. My secret wish was they would be as concerned about my happiness as I am about theirs.

As usual, little problems between siblings started brewing prior to Christmas and still, I didn’t enmesh myself in their issues. If they had issues with me, they were invited to speak with me directly. Which I knew they wouldn’t do because that’s not how it’s done in my family. We ignore 'issues' until they escalate and finally, little issues that could have been resolved, feed annoying volcanoes. So when my brother was supposed to make arrangements for his family to camp out in my family room, and he didn’t call, I didn’t call him to tell him he should call. I figured it was his job to ‘ask’ if he could stay in my home.

Lo and behold, his family showed up expecting to be received in typical fashion but this time, I told him to buy the milk for the kids and oh by the way, were they planning on getting a hotel room since I wasn’t prepared to keep them overnight. From my point of view, making sure his kids had beds, and his wife had the ‘right’ pillows, and their favorite breakfast foods were in the pantry, was their parental responsibility, not mine. I am more than happy to accommodate people (accommodation is a basic personality trait for anyone living with and loving a narcissist, after all); what I am no longer comfortable with is accommodating people's entitlement to my generosity; nor am I comfortable with the expectation that big sisters take care of everyone else without making demands or expecting appreciation OR respect. Even in this direct conversation, I was not cruel or abusive---just direct. Once my stance was clear, we made a joint decision to gather bedding for everyone and set up make-shift sleeping quarters in the family room.

I believe at this point, they are quite clear about calling me prior to visiting. We had a little 'falling out' a few months ago which is why they probably didn't call me in advance. And yet, they felt entitled to eat and sleep in my home? Not that they wanted to speak to me, or so I presumed when my sister-in-law marched in the house, sat on the sofa and stared at the wall. Of course, I DO have beautiful walls faux-painted by yours truly. Sometimes I sit and stare at them, too.

Then, one of my brothers-in-law got angry with my father. His pattern of behavior is to act like a spoiled brat who needs more attention than the hostess can afford to offer. So when he chose to be offended by the tone of my father's voice informing him it was time to eat at the holiday table, my brother-in-law decided not to eat with the family.

Neither would my sister-in-law.

My downstairs family room was filling up with ‘pouters’ who weren’t even speaking to each other either. The animosity between those two goes back years...definitely an irresolvable relationship. I guess it's a good thing I have a couple thousand books for them to choose from in their voluntary isolation from the dinner table. There's a decent television downstairs, too; though I'm not sure if Sesame Street is still on TV.

I am pleased to say that I did not run downstairs and attempt to fix their unhappiness. Nor did I instigate table conversation about the two absent family members. In fact, nobody paid them any attention at all. Those of us who were still speaking to one another, went ahead and had a grand time, laughing, eating, talking about diets, New Years Resolutions, and playing games along with second helpings of dessert. No guilt, no self-blame, no enmeshment of boundaries. It was the best Holiday Dinner I've ever hosted.

Familial Patterns

This year, due to self-help-recovery for the neurotically guilty, the annual holiday eruption was not a surprise. A couple of us had already predicted Mount Vesuvius blowing her top, blanketing my house with lung-searing ash, rocks the size of non-alcoholic rum balls, and molten lava overflowing the festive punchbowl ringed with gay poinsettias. Anybody want some eggnog? Just clench your front teeth and strain the magma chunks. Pretend the lumps are marshmallows. That’s what families do when direct confrontation scares them more than gagging on crystallized shards. Family members offering throat-choking eggnog to their kids because after all, surviving life-threatening libations is a tradition. They had to drink the stuff and their parents had to drank it and the ones before them gulped annual swigs and maintaining the status quo is justified in the command, “We had to swallow the stuff and by gosh, you kids can choke it down, too!”

What some folks call tradition though, some folks call a ‘pattern’. And patterns ought not be handed down to the next generation if those patterns interrupt intimacy, trust, and love while increasing fear, denial, entitlement, and enmeshment. Whether we learned the pattern at our grandfather’s knee or our mother’s breast, the task as an individual is to stop justifying bad behavior by taking responsibility to break traditions patterns ourselves.

If there is always a destructive conclusion to family get-togethers, then there is a pattern attending your notice. Once you can pinpoint the pattern, you can correct your sense of helplessness by changing your behavior. Even a small change will have an impact. Just try it and see. In the family system, there is a pattern to the chaos and there is always something you can do to intervene in the process. Maybe you can’t save the woodwork from a wintertime scrubbing, but you can save your dignity and self-respect by not accommodating someone else’s destructive behavior.

What changed for me this year, was that I didn't feel resentful for being taken advantage of, OR for being taken for granted. Once I could see how 'resentful feelings' are created during stressful holidays, then I could intervene and change 'the pattern'.

Volcanoes in Living Rooms

Ken Hon, a volcanologist, says putting together the pieces of a puzzle is what intrigues geological scientists. Their job is to understand past activity and predict what's likely to happen in the future. The other task motivating scientists to scrutinize tectonic change is to warn local communities if another blow-up is imminent. Once the chain of events begins and the volcano is grumbling and snorting, there's nothing short of virgin sacrifice to suffice its anger. (By the way, I tried throwing myself down a volcano’s throat a few times but it never seemed to work according to legend. Perhaps the problem was my virginity, it certainly wasn’t my ‘commitment’.)

What I learned about volcanologists though is that some mountainsides are too dangerous even for skilled scientists to study up close and personal. Some aren’t. The less dangerous family-of-origin-volcano-variety would be the crater in the center of my familial mountain range. Out of necessity, I left the puffing volcano behind in California. Moving closer to my family-of-origin though, is akin to jumping out of the frying pan into a…….Jesus-Wants-Me-For-A-Sunbeam-Toaster.

My family-of-origin is certainly not the high risk danger of tiptoeing through daisies without realizing you could be scalded alive at any minute by the menacing narcissist---all because of the ‘look on your face’.

Now I watch for familial patterns preceding eruptions (theirs or mine) and even though there’s a lot of smoke and rumbling, my life is not in danger. The family will survive. In fact, when hot lava just below the surface of consciousness finally erupts, everyone has a chance to SEE what they may never have known was there. That means a family blow-up can be an opportunity. For instance, my son went back to Texas and one of his New Year Resolutions was to Stop Pouting.

I think the biggest problem causing eventual blow-ups in my family-of-origin is: Convergent boundaries. Just like tectonic plates, when a ‘self’ bumps up against another ‘self’, the resultant friction causes stress. When the stress exceeds capacity and people’s patience wears thin, something spectacular surfaces. And once this chain of events is set into motion, spewing is inevitable. Venting pent-up steam ends up involving the whole family rather than the two who didn’t confront one another when they could/should have.

Feeling resentful is also inevitable if we disrespect ourselves or allow other people to take us for granted.

We don’t like those fierce conversations in my family-of-origin and for years, I have colluded in pretending problems will simply disappear. This is very unhealthy behavior if the goal is to create a 'safe' family. The thing about unhealthy family systems is that people are frightened to say anything for fear of causing a problem. Or, they aren’t really sure where they start and someone else begins. Maybe they have given up hope and don’t feel like anything they can do will affect the outcome. Once we feel like we have no impact on the system, powerlessness and helplessness continues the pattern and we lose respect for ourselves. Besides:

Denial Does Not Appease a Volcano's Fury

“Ovid believed the flame was fed from "fatty foods" and eruptions stopped when the food ran out.” I contest this theory most vociferously. Re: the fattening eggnog factor. There were plenty of fattening foods in my house and even a couple of virgins (or so they claim) and still, the volcano's fury could not be quenched.

When eruptions terrify people, frightened families ignore the proverbial volcano in the living room. They pretend, deny, hope-for-the-best, rationalize, over-please, and coddle narcissistic family members who grate on everyone’s nerves and turn Christmas into a high-anxiety event rather than a celebration of intimacy and peace. God forbid siblings should call one another on their less-than-frankincense-and-myrrh behavior (aka: stinky). We shut our eyes, hope for the best and get the Pine-sol ready for January clean-up. We polish the place spic-and-span and then September comes around. Then October. Anxiety peaks in November, and learned helplessness takes over. December arrives and denial trumps all reality. The volcano blows and we spend the next six months cleaning up the aftermath.

With wise yet wary eyes, I now have a great deal of respect for the destructive powers of repression, suppression, denial, and accommodation of bad behavior. We have to be able to predict how long it will take before somebody eventually blows a hole in the ozone (or the ceiling). Tiptoeing around the volcano doesn’t eliminate the risk of being wiped off the face of the Earth when she blows her top. And if you do survive her fury, bystanders won’t be sympathetic to your ‘suffering when you tell ‘em you kept backpacking on Mount Vesuvius because you ‘felt in your heart’, that you were safe this time. That this time, you would do everything perfectly and appease those mountainous egos.

Stop Accommodating Bad Behavior: Yours or Theirs

My task is changing my ‘accommodating’ patterns and allowing eruptions to occur, as they will. Once I began asserting myself, valuing my worth and contributions, and expecting reciprocal respect, the family system began to change. I didn’t have to attack anyone, triangulate conversations, or find a scapegoat to blame. Just make little changes in myself. Developing a strong sense of self is a process and reading a book on boundaries won’t change behavioral patterns overnight. Change is s-l-o-w, fraught with failures and false starts. In any dysfunctional system---be it family-of-origin, of creation, at work, in the community, wherever relationships are established, this seems to be very true:

Your HEALTHY change in familial patterns will be evidenced by other people's UNHEALTHY reactions!

Ain’t that a bad piece of news to deliver for all the hard work you’ve done in the hopes of increased intimacy, honesty, and trustworthy relationships?

Changing patterns, even a healthy change in an unhealthy pattern, threatens the status quo. Some people won’t like ya for it. If they aren’t pathological though, they’ll love ya for it later.

P.S. This is a quick-synopsis of Healthy Boundaries. The link to the pdf article is located under Resources.
You can say no or yes and you are ok when others say no to you
You have a strong sense of identity. You respect yourself.
You expect reciprocity in a relationship---you share responsibility and power.
You know when the problem is yours and when it belongs to someone else.
You share personal information gradually in a mutually sharing/trusting relationship.
You don’t tolerate abuse or disrespect.
You know your own wants, needs, and feelings. You communicate them clearly in your relationships.
You are committed to and responsible for exploring and nurturing your full potential.
You are responsible for your own happiness and fulfillment. You allow others to be responsible for their own happiness and fulfillment.
You value your opinions and feelings as much as others.
You know your limits. You allow others to define their limits.
You are able to ask for help when you need it.
You don’t compromise your values or integrity to avoid rejection.



PDF excerpted above: Healthy Boundaries

Wikipedia: Volcanology


  1. You're back! Hurray!

    I'm sorry teh volcano blew, but happy everyone got out alive. And how excellent that you were able to change your behaviour and change your expectations of theirs--that's something I'm still working on.

  2. Hi Maeve!

    I got a lousy cold towards the end of the holidays which set me back a couple of weeks.

    Thanks for missing me!

    I hope you had a nice holiday, too!


  3. Great article. Once again it brought up many things for me. One thing as far as family of origin that has bothered me forever, is how my brother treats me. He's older, successful, has 5 children, and is impossible to get close to. Part of me thinks that because we as children has a dysfunctional growing up. I am now twice divorced from abusive marriages, he is very Catholic, and would not listen to me when I needed support. It seems he doesn't want anything to touch his perfect life. Recently he asked me via email how my new job was. I was so darn happy that he showed some interest, that I rambled on and on. He never wrote back. To me, it was like a slap in the face. I felt bad, and part of me was angry that I even wrote, and another part was angry that he didn't respond. I was going to write and ask "why", but then I figure it just continues the dysfunction. I don't understand it, and still sometimes struggle with being treated as I deserve.

    Another thing said to me over the holidays from my sister was that I'm always a rule follower. At first I felt a sharp ping with that, but after thiking about it, I'm proud of it.

    I could go on and on, but all in all, you're blog ALWAYS helps me in some way.

    Triple Hugs To You

  4. Read this because of the title. This is exactly what I needed to read. Thanks. I prefer to know I have a lot of hard work ahead of me rather than "a secret" that doesn't work. I am starting the changing the patterns campaign in my family and this information is very useful.

  5. What a trip down memory lane, Ruth.

    Some of my old patterns are creeping back like moss on a sedentary rock. I needed a reminder that "Every day is a new day" and we can start over at any point in that day.

    Amazing how difficult it is to change patterns even when we know the outcome is self-destructive (or leads to volcanic eruptions!)


  6. Thank you! Entertaining read and oh so familiar family/work dynamics. Presently receiving some back lash for healthy changes but I will survive and a brilliant opportunity to have a good look at myself - what am I doing to contribute to the dynamic?


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