‘Maisel on the family’ is a weekly column written by Eric Maisel in which he shares his insights about family life.
I’m a retired family therapist, an active life coach and creativity coach, and an avid mental health reformer. Scott Peck begins his much-loved The Road Less Traveled with a simple, eloquent announcement: “Life is difficult.” Tolstoy famously begins Anna Karenina in an equally eloquent way: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Life is difficult and family life is even more difficult. Working as a family therapist with families, as a life coach and creativity coach with individuals, and as a mental health reformer within a system that isn’t helpful enough, I know that family life regularly takes its toll and that, when it does, little help is available.
There is no pill that can make family life easy. There is no pill that can spare you pain if one of your parents is alcoholic, if one of your children is troubled or if your mate is cheating on you. Family life can feel tremendously difficult. Because of the unavoidable intimacy and interconnectedness of family living, each person in a family is held hostage to the personalities, agendas, and shadows of everyone else in the family. You can’t easily avoid your mother or your father, your mate, your children, or your siblings. In a picture postcard family, where everyone loves one another, roots for one another, and never criticizes one another, you might flourish beautifully. In many families, just surviving is the issue.
How can you survive—and thrive—in a difficult family? In this column you’ll learn how to stay calm even in a highly stressful environment, how to maintain your balance in the middle of family crises, how to set boundaries that keep you safe and sane, and more. However you personally experience emotional distress in your family—as anxiety, depression, addiction, procrastination, mental confusion, physical symptoms, etc.—I’ll help you acquire the tools you need to make every day feel better.
Tip: You may be accustomed to thinking of your “symptoms,” like feeling nervous, sad, or distracted, as “personal problems.” But they may be family problems. Families can be toxic and can cause inner disturbances in you. You may find your “personal problems” dramatically reduced when you overcome your difficult family.
Families can be difficult in all sorts of ways. One of your parents may be alcoholic, abusive, and unreliable. Your mate may be absent, distant and “barely there” for you. Your teenage child may be having school difficulties. Your older sister or brother may be scathing and cruel.
Sometimes the difficulties are subtle and hard to grasp: you don’t really feel good or safe inside your family but you can’t quite put your finger on what’s feeling dangerous or off. Virtually all families are difficult in one way or another and that might almost be the definition of a family: a difficult place to be.
Any grouping of human beings produces difficulties because each person in that group has his or her own personality, opinions, secret agendas, defensive style, mood swings, and habitual ways of being indifferent to and careless about the needs of others. All of this is intensified in a family, where you are supposed to rely on family members who may not be reliable, care for family members for whom you don’t really care, and deal with family members who may be hard—and even impossible—to deal with.
What can you do to help yourself survive—and maybe even thrive—in this problematic environment? Please follow this column to find out!