Sometimes Family Isn't Family
...and other confusing things that come with titles people don't earn
Years ago I had a client whose Dad wasn’t very involved. He lived states away, he had a new wife and new, much younger, kiddos, had never been to any extracurricular activity of hers in any way shape or form, couldn’t tell you which school she went to, didn’t make an effort to know about her social life, and rarely foot the bill for anything of hers even though he was “rolling in the dough”….the list goes on.
In painting a picture of their relationship for me she was sure to tell me about a time he forgot to pick her up from the airport. Like, just totally whiffed on which day she was coming in town.
She was angry. She was disgusted. But all of that she tried to hide under the surface of an I-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-him attitude.
I didn’t buy it.
I asked what she thought it meant about her that he forgot to pick her up from the airport.
She said, “It means he’s an asshole.”
Maybe not the most inaccurate statement, but not the answer to my question. My question was asking for self-reflection and vulnerability, not blame and criticism.
It was visibly hard for her to get there. She struggled to put down her protective I-don’t-give-a-fuck wall enough to say that it probably meant she wasn’t important to him, that she felt like an afterthought a lot of the time, and that she wasn’t worth her Dad’s time.
What was extra heart-stabbing was that it seemed to her he was a different kind of dad with his much younger kiddos. Before they had come along she’d explained away his inability to be the kind of Dad she needed to herself by believing he just wasn’t cut out to be a dad. With the half-siblings in the picture it was now extra hard not to take this personally.
Even though she “didn’t give a fuck” about him, he seemed to be the topic of our conversations quite a bit. I could feel that she gave him power over how she felt about herself - she was engaging in self-destructive behaviors that didn’t align with a person who loves and values herself.
My brain was trying to figure out how to effectively untangle her perspective of her enoughness from him. I knew that just saying, “You know this doesn’t mean anything about you, right?” wasn’t going to be enough...she was already saying things like that to herself with a side dish of anger and resentment that made it clear she didn’t fully believe any of it.
TANGENT WARNING! - THIS IS WHY AFFIRMATIONS DON’T WORK. If you hate yourself and then you commit to telling yourself you love yourself in the mirror 10 times a day you’ll most likely end up feeling worse. Affirmations work when they get you from thought A to thought B, but fail miserably when you try to push yourself from thought A to thought Z.
If the affirmation is too big of a leap and doesn’t truly massage your beliefs to the next better-feeling place, you’ll tell yourself you love yourself, your heart will sink, you’ll think, “Ew, no I don’t. I suck,” and then add to the *I suck* supportive evidence stack Exhibit T-24: you can’t even do affirmations right. And then you’ll look in the mirror and say, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Yikes. Sometimes our inner selves can be real jerks.
I sat back in my chair one day, after listening to story after story of how her Dad had whiffed in the parenting department, and said, “You know, he sounds more like a crazy, scatter-brained, distant Uncle than he does a DAD.”
She laughed. I said, “No, seriously. What if we took the title of Dad away from him? What if we called him what he is based on how he behaves - something like….Crazy Uncle Joe?” She was laughing hard now... I think questioning my sanity a wee bit.
“Ok, ok….let’s say you have a crazy, distant, scatterbrained Uncle and he whiffs on picking you up from the airport. Does that feel different than if your DAD forgets to pick you up from the airport??”
“YES. SOOOO different.”
I said, “When it’s your Dad, it’s so EASY to take it personally, to make it mean something about you that YOUR DAD would forget you. It’s easy to feel big anger because you feel deep hurt. If it’s crazy Uncle Joe how is that response different?”
She laughed, “Jesus H. Christ, Uncle Joe - get your shit together.”
YESSS!!!! We were both laughing now.
More accurately labeling this person’s title based on his behavior over time, not the moment his sperm landed in the right place at the right time, took his power away and gave it back to her.
We spent the rest of our time together that day bringing up real-life *Dad* examples, and trying on how it felt to replace “Dad” with “Crazy Uncle Joe”.
It was like the difference between trying on clothes that are 2 sizes too small for you that someone has maliciously labeled with your size just to mess with you, and trying on clothes that actually fit….and you feel damn good in.
It’s easy to give people power over how you feel based on their title, or position, or age, or status. We attach a lot of meaning to all of those things.
But so often parents aren’t our parents, your sister can’t be your sister, or your husband isn’t really your husband. And maybe sometimes your neighbor is your unconditionally loving and always-there-for-you sister, and maybe your Mom is your Mom and Dad, and your cousin is more like your brother...and maybe your friends are your family and your family is a group of middle schoolers who talk about you behind your back and are incapable of being excited for you when things go well.
I recommend getting really clear on who’s what and assigning validity accordingly.
Your happiness is your job. When you find a way to let them off the hook for how you feel, you can meet them where they are (even from a safe distance) and love them all anyway....and maybe look yourself in the mirror one day and see awesomeness.
PS - Have a relationship that's feeling off-track? Feeling misperceived or misunderstood often? Like you used to see the best in each other, but now can't joke the way you used to without someone flying off the handle? No worries, friend. Miscommunication is SO EASY, but it's a slippery slope you don't have to stay on. Check out the CONFLICT Sucks Online Course and start working today to get your best friend back.
Great article! It’s interesting that we can create mind shifts just by reassessing what title a person has or what function they perform in our lives. And it’s true that we assign “family” titles to those who aren’t blood relatives, so it makes sense that we can change our mind sets to assign other titles to actual family members.
10/19/2020 01:11:10 pm
I am struggling right now with this exact situation (sort of). This is a great strategy and hope to be able to put it in practice for myself. But how do you get past the internal thought process of "why am I not worthy"? And how do you distance from people who live in close proximity who NEED the codependence?
11/20/2020 08:06:41 am
This hit home today. I will be applying the crazy uncle joe example to my life!
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