“That’s it. I’ve had it. I never want to see or hear from you again.” These words are terrible, whoever says them. But when they come from your mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother, or spouse, or when you find yourself saying them yourself to a family member, you know, for the moment, what hell is like.
Angry banishments don’t come from nowhere. They usually erupt out of years of backed-up resentments, long-held grudges. They may follow intolerable mental, emotional or physical abuse.
But soon, however justified or inevitable the explosion may have seemed, however determinedly resigned you may have tried to be about a family cutoff, feelings almost always start to change.
However shaky your family’s bonds may have been to begin with, however little or much love you may have felt toward or from them over the years, the idea that those bonds have been eradicated almost always wreaks a terrible havoc.
Losing a mother or father or child or sibling as the result of family exile can be as traumatic as losing them to death. Sometimes a good deal more, because death, at least, is usually not seen as anyone’s “fault.” Whatever we may say that we feel or think or believe about our families, almost inevitably, deep down, we yearn for connection to them.
Dysfunctional doesn’t begin to say it. Almost every family rift causes deep shame and embarrassment.
Maybe you try to ignore it, tell yourself to “snap out of it” or otherwise white-knuckle yourself into pretending that all will be well if you can just hang on long enough, put your mind on something else. But even if you manage to put up a good show, inside it’s not working. I don’t have to tell you this. You wouldn’t have picked up this book if it were otherwise.
The most important “reconciliation” is the one you learn to make with yourself. All healing proceeds from that.
All traumas are more magnified and psychologically upsetting when human beings rather than nature cause them.
On two decades of evidence of the scores of my patients who’ve faced both kinds of trauma, the psychological “death” of a family cutoff clearly tends to remain torturous, and very much more emotionally damaging.
What compounds the problem: the terrible secrecy that usually attends family cutoffs, and the related fact that there is very little formal help offered to people who’ve undergone them. Many family members feel self-imposed pressure to go on as if their lives were still normal; thus, avenues for healing and recovery become even more elusive. After all, this trauma isn’t only of human design, it’s the design of members of your own family: the very people you thought loved you most in the world. That isn’t something you’re likely to broadcast, or even tell most of your best friends in private. However, you need to talk right now, and to recognize that the task of healing from your family rift will take a much greater effort than you probably have ever previously brought to emotional distress in your life. With the right attitude of self-compassion, and by employing tactics you will learn in this book, it is fortunately an effort immeasurably worth taking.
A necessary corollary to understanding that you’re dealing with trauma of a completely different order than you have probably faced before is understanding that this healing is going to take time. There are no quick fixes here: there couldn’t be, given our natural human aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty coupled with what are generally the lifelong roots of dysfunction that led to your family rift in the first place. In short, now’s the time to give yourself permission to go slow. You don’t have to fix or resolve anything today.
“Buried alive” is a good way of summing up the feeling of dissociation you often feel after the family rift. Being cut off from the family so often devolves into feeling cut off from something central in yourself.
“They couldn’t have hurt me more if they’d just aimed a gun at my heart and pulled the trigger. It’s like whatever world of family safety I thought I was in shattered. In a way, I feel like I was shot out of a gun, and landed somewhere, alone, terribly remote from anything I thought I knew.” Lori
You are not having a life-threatening emergency, as you might feel. You are more than likely suffering from acute stress disorder and the ability to feel hope in the midst of despair can be a long time coming.
“I feel like I’m dead. I wish I could cry or scream or something. But actually right now I don’t know what I feel. It’s like I’m wrapped up like a mummy against my feelings, like there’s some huge open wound that goes so deep and is so far gone with nerve damage that the patient doesn’t feel any pain. I’ve tried to break through this numbness with my old resolve to ‘act.’ After I couldn’t sleep last night, I decided, ridiculously, to get up early this morning and go running, thinking that it would clear my head. I could see, distantly, it was a beautiful morning, but I couldn’t feel it. As I ran, exhausted, sleepless, all I could do was replay that phone call in my head, going over every word of it, wondering what I might have said differently, scouring their invective for some clue about what had happened and why they had withdrawn their love for me so violently. I thought these things rather than felt them. Like some terrible compulsion, I went over and over and over it, and got nowhere. I swung wildly from thinking they were monsters to thinking I was a monster. Then I tried to make contact with my feelings for Oliver, but even that seemed so remote now. In the middle of the compulsive buzz in my head, I just couldn’t feel anything.
This buzz of words in my head, but no real feeling attached to them, it’s like hell. The buzz just wouldn’t let up. I tried to make how my parents had treated me square with who I thought, I guess hoped, they really were. That disjunction permeates everything in my life now, it’s like I’ve lost trust in anyone who says they love me. Even sometimes Oliver … It’s like there’s suddenly this whole new awful negative identity that has blocked everything in me I used to be so proud and happy about. When I tried to concentrate on work, it was all a blur. It’s as if I had been hacked to pieces, which had been scattered all around me, and I couldn’t imagine how to bring them all back, how to be whole again.” Jason
When the effects or memories of a trauma resurface, it’s often the psyche’s signal that the underlying wound they arise from needs to be dealt with in new ways. If we don’t tend to it, that wound can continue to toxify our reactions to life over many years to come.
In every stage of life we are challenged by new psychological tasks, and often, as we face and prepare for a major life event, whatever unresolved business we may have in our past lives rears up with particular and sometimes very disturbing force.
Landmark events typically kick up traumatic recall. The best watchword here is patience, respecting that our psyches not only often ingeniously protect themselves from too much pain at the time the trauma is inflicted, but wait for us to encounter more buried effects of that pain later, when we are strong enough to deal with it. However, when it comes up again, we really must deal with it, or its latent toxicity will continue to eat away at our lives.
What is known as the ego in psychoanalytic theory describes the area of the personality that powers our psyche, the part that tells us what to do and when to do it, the chief executive officer who operates and competes in the outer world. The strength of our ego is based on the sum power of our psychological muscle. Ego represents a group of functions that as a whole reflect overall psychological strength, the ability to exert our wills to get what we want.
In the aftermath of a family estrangement, we do not generally feel masterful or competent, which leads to an unsettling feeling of loss of control. We want solutions, and we want them now. The frustration of not being able to come to quick solutions is part of what fuels the obsessive ruminations, a feeling of being trapped in impotence that can become unbearable.
When we’re shocked, it takes us time to learn how to manage our feelings. When we can’t tolerate the strength of them, we become vulnerable not only to obsessive ruminations and thoughts, but also to intermittent stages of emotional turnoff, where (as when Jason reported the “buzz” of words in his head as well as his numbness) we don’t feel anything at all. It’s as if the psyche continually, repetitively goes over the same route of attack and retreat, again and again, despite the fact that such a swing offers no lasting solution or relief. Obsessive rumination, however, is particularly toxic. And while it’s important to acknowledge, as Jason did, that it’s a completely normal symptom in the context of a family cutoff, what, apart from tolerating it, can you do about it?
First, remember that you’re still at a stage of needing psychological first-aid. Think of yourself as in a hospital emergency room, the first task is to stop the bleeding and contain the wound. This means, of course, first acknowledging that you have a wound. But it quickly requires something else. You are already familiar with some of these resources. Recall the activities that you know from past experience will soothe you. This is the time to make the popcorn, draw the bubble bath, watch the movie, get the massage, play the game of tennis, read the novel that you know can offer at least a bit of respite. Call them psychological band-aids if you want, but if they work, use them now, as long as they don’t make the situation worse, which generally means, as long as they’re not self-destructive (such as alcohol, drugs, or overeating). Soothe yourself as you can. Think of it as spreading the blanket on the bed and fluffing up the pillow. This is preparation for the real work of acknowledgment, which is simply this: to talk until you’re blue in the face. A lot has built up inside you, and it all (or as much of it as you can tolerate) must come out.
Asked about what helps a person get over trauma, the vast majority of mental health professionals will agree that talking about it is by far the treatment of choice. But how can the talk be made productive, so that it’s not just a compulsive rehashing of “how could they?” or “why didn’t I?” Some of what you need to let out will be, in fact, the “how could they?” or “why didn’t I?” brands of reaction you’ll inevitably have. The point here isn’t to censor you, it’s to beckon you to release everything about your trauma that you’ve felt you must hold back. There are, as you’ll see in a moment, ways to encourage yourself to get beyond that blame-or-defense mode, but right now, it’s more important to focus on something else: whom you choose to let it all out to. However, a yes-man or yes-woman isn’t as helpful as someone who is equally caring but more dispassionate, even if all you want and need right now is someone to vent to.
Having a place to air even our worst worries and fears and confusions is unbelievably healing.
Healing from Family Rifts: Ten steps to finding peace after being cut off from a family member.
by Mark Sichel
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