So often, in families with a lot of emotional pain, one person in the family—usually one of the children—is seen as the one that causes trouble. According to the other family members, she’s always unhappy, he’s never satisfied, she cries about everything, wants too much attention and then pushes them away. They’re at their wits end. They’d rather not have to deal with him anymore. At the same time, this person on the outs with the rest of the family mirrors what they feel about him. According to him, the rest of the family is always critical of him, according to her, she’s never been good enough for them, there’s nothing she can do to make them approve of her, they’re close to each other and always leaving her out.
Painful Events or Trauma often Create Dysfunctional Families
In families with emotional pain—some people call them dysfunctional families—there’s usually been one, or more, painful or even traumatic events that the family hasn’t been able to resolve or heal from. For example, someone dies, there’s been physical or sexual abuse, a financial catastrophe has hit. The standard is for most of the people in the family stoically to try to keep on with their lives and to stuff their reactions, thinking this means that they’re strong. There’s the feeling that the less you talk about it, the more people will forget and move on. Although this seems to work, it actually keeps the emotional pain going and, in a surprisingly short time, conflicts begin and gradually escalate and the family fragments.
Families Deny Emotional Pain
And one person is often given the above role—the one who doesn’t fit in, who keeps trying to bring up the event and the pain. This person often becomes increasingly unhappy, depressed, anxious, maybe he or she has nightmares, difficulty professionally or financially. She or he becomes resentful that the rest of the family doesn’t want to “deal with” what happened and feels that it’s all up to him or her. Strange as this may sound, it’s actually true: this person is taking on the emotional pain for the whole family.
Often, the rest of the family says things like, “It’s over with, it happened a long time ago, there’s nothing we can do about it now, we can’t change the past. Why can’t you just let it go?” The one feeling the emotional pain for the family can’t let it go because it’s still there, living in the family like a ghost. The ghost is haunting the whole family, but only one person is aware of it and suffering it.
The Solution: Unpack Painful Baggage
The solution is to unpack the baggage of painful events and to distribute the feelings around to everyone, so that one person isn’t left with all of them. Take, for example, a family where the father was emotionally abusive and sometimes even physically abusive to the mother. The children are all grown up now, and the father, being older, has changed his ways. The mother’s way of dealing with the abuse was always to get through it and then pretend nothing had happened. One of the children learned to deal with what was going on by holing up in his room with a book or by playing video games to drown out the noise. The father generally felt the mother “deserved” what he had done and that she had “driven him to it.” One of the children, however, took it all in, saw and heard everything and felt the pain the mother didn’t let herself feel. Eventually, this child resented the fact that no one was doing anything about it, that the children’s needs for protection, nurturing, help with school, and a feeling of safety were not being met.
Family Systems Therapy to Move Toward Healing
Often it takes family therapy with a counselor outside the family to change the pattern. The mother needs to get that she was being hurt, that she felt trapped and powerless, maybe that she’s angry at her husband. She needs to express that to her husband and to acknowledge it to the child who has seen it all along. The father needs to acknowledge that he was hurtful, not only to his wife but to the children who had to be there for the abuse. He needs to admit that he was wrong and really feel it—and, if he’s still doing it, to stop (usually this will require individual psychotherapy). The other grown child needs to acknowledge what happened, acknowledge his or her fear of “being there” for it, of feeling guilty for leaving the other child with it, and so on.
All of this is relieving for the one that’s been holding the bag, so to speak. And it’s healing for the whole family. Family counseling with a therapist who is aware of family systems is often very useful to speed up the process of healing. For more information on healing family emotional pain and family therapy, see EFT-emotional freedom.com .