Tuesday, March 22, 2011

At what point is it okay to put yourself before your family?

Dear Edahn, 
I'm moving out of my house in a month and feel like I'm abandoning my family. My family life has been chaotic. I was molested by my brother when I was 13. My sister developed anorexia. The same brother that abused me suffers from a condition that keeps him dependent on those around him (me), so I've had to be his caregiver. My mother has gone through cancer and has always been manically depressed; I mother her emotionally more than she mothers me. My dad doesn't surface from his work desk. My parent's relationship has always been on the rocks. I strove for approval, but my straight-A report card only received a "you could have done better if you didn't play games." 
All this time, I've been expected to stand strong for the family (even at 14). I initially rose to the challenge, but after a few years I started crashing. My dad said I was the rock of the family and needed to pull myself together. At 18, I found a therapist who said I was depressed and close to suicide. I'm 20 now and the issue is that I'm filled with guilt because I want to move out, but I feel like I'm being a selfish daughter. My new therapist says I've been taught to accept that my emotional needs don't matter and that I need to sacrifice them so that other people can feel emotionally secure. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship last year and I didn't even really realize it until someone spelled it out for me. I'm in a relationship with a loving man right now, and I can't but help be confused/suspicious about his kindness, and I feel I need to get out before I receive whatever pain I think must surely be coming. So, does family always come first?
FAMILY DOESN'T COME FIRST when your family takes advantage of you and mistreats you, just like your husband or boyfriend doesn't come first when he's abusive. That's the easy part. You need to set up boundaries with your family so that you can live your own life and be your own person. That doesn't mean you never ever help them, but it means that you first have to make sure that you're healthy before you can start to help others. It's just like the safety precautions on an airplane, when the crew instructs the passengers to fasten their own oxygen masks before helping their child. It makes a lot of sense, because if you're not fully equipped to deliver care in an emergency, everyone's going to lose in the end.

It's really important that you appreciate what it means to be "fully equipped". A lot of people (I'm guilty of this too) like to rush into the battlefield and start fixing and serving other people. When asked about their own problems they may say "oh I'm fine" or "I'm not perfect, but I can still help others," but helping people is trickier than it looks. You really, really have to develop peace and solid self-respect before you can go out and help others, because that peace and self-respect with drastically change your understanding of how to help people. When you lack that inner-respect and peace, you can guide people in the wrong directions, even though they seem intellectually and theoretically sound, and even though so-called "experts" will advocate that method. 

A lot of people who are in the helping industry, even many therapists I've gotten to know (who don't read this blog...paranoia averted), give very questionable guidance. I can see that they don't have a deep appreciation of inner peace and self-respect or self-love (which forms the foundation for self-respect). Their inner life is filled with conflict, and their guidance reflects that. They're not just trying to help: they're trying to earn the respect and love of their clients, not realizing that it'll substitute for genuine self-respect and self-love. It's not that they have no wisdom or talent, but they haven't invested enough time developing them to fruition. It's like trying to tutor someone in Stats without having finished the course yourself: you're gonna get confused and not do the bang-up job you could do if you had waited a little longer and put in the extra effort.

In sum, I do think helping other people be happy is admirable. In fact, I think finding happiness and sharing it with others is the ultimate way to find purpose in life. But you can't share something that you don't yet have yourself. Have your therapist help you draw some boundaries with your family, assertively, but with respect and care. That'll free you up to start exploring who you are outside of the role you play with your family. It'll also give you a chance to start meditating or yogataing. It'll feel uncomfortable at first because you're so used to playing that role, but I think eventually you'll see that it needed to be done in order to give yourself the same love and care you nobly wish for others.


Got a questions? Topic suggestions? Prestigious accolades? Here you go.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with Edahn. Toxic families will just consume you. It's not being selfish - it's saving yourself.

Edahn said...

I agree with the anonymous person who agrees with me.