Creating Your Own Family Culture
“What’s your family like?”
I didn’t know why, on our first meeting, my therapist was asking about my family when I had bigger issues of anxiety and depression to discuss. But I obliged.
“My family is great. Mom and Dad are still together, still in love after 35 years of marriage. And I have four siblings. We get along like all siblings do, I suppose.”
Upon a deeper dive over the course of months, I began to realize that while my upbringing may have been normal to me, it wasn’t exactly healthy. We all teased each other. We never said what we were feeling. We didn’t talk about real things. We didn’t know how to be vulnerable with each other.
I was determined to bring these revelations back to my family. Determined to be the bigger person in order to facilitate change and show them how I had grown and evolved. But my family only saw me as my old self. Would they always see me as this other person I no longer identified with?
It’s easy to see my own personal growth and feel like my family is unwilling or unable to see it, but I can’t only be this new person behind closed doors. If I want my family to accept me, I have to put myself out there and be vulnerable.
But what happens when we try to be vulnerable with our loved ones and are met with unacceptance or disregard? What then?
Playing The Game
Every family has its own culture.
In my family, the way to win points is to make someone laugh, even if it hurts someone else’s feelings. Being funny and quick-witted is the ultimate score booster. So that’s the goal. Intentional or not, that’s what we’re all trying to do all the time: make each other laugh. We’re not going to give you a hug and say, “I love you.” We’re going to laugh and say, “That’s hilarious.” (This shouldn’t be confused with someone laughing at you because they think you’re an idiot. That basically reallocates all your previously won points.)
The first time I went home after this revelation I swore to myself I was going to take a backseat and not get involved in old dynamics. I simply wasn’t going to engage.
But as soon as I walked through the door I felt the familiarity and comfort of being back in Jersey.
It starts with cursing. That’s the Jersey way. The aggressiveness progresses to petty and immature things likened to saying, “I know you are but what am I?,” types of comments. I don’t even want to do it. It flies out of my mouth and I think, “Why did I just say that?” It’s too comfortable, too familiar, too easy.
Besides the sheer habit of sarcasm, wit, and banter, being my new self would be too vulnerable. Even though I plan to do it, my shell hardens. Everything is very surface and jokey. I find myself raising my voice and competing for attention and laughs, just like everyone else.
The Cost of Winning
The only way to open up with each other and say how we really feel is to drink heavily, which we do quite well. Alcohol is a staple at Bleecker family get-togethers. Especially for me.
I’ve only cut back on my drinking in the past few years. It’s been intentional and deliberate. I’ve created an environment for myself that supports a less-drinking lifestyle and my life has drastically improved because of it.
But my family hasn’t seen that.
They don’t know that drinking to the point of drunkenness doesn’t feel good anymore. They don’t know that after dinner I’d rather read than drink three glasses of wine and binge watch a Netflix show. They don’t know that I’ve been writing under a pseudonym since February and have been publishing essays each week.
They don’t know because they’re not around. They also don’t know because I haven’t told them.
While I’ve grown a lot in the past five years I can’t say the same for my family. Nothing ever seems to change with them.
But maybe they feel the same way. Maybe they are reverting back to old dynamics when I walk into the room. Maybe they are scared to be vulnerable. Maybe they feel like drinking is the only way to connect. Maybe I should cut them some slack.
Instead of assuming that my family isn’t open to the idea of me changing or even them changing, I could try a little harder to make them feel safe. How do I do that?
I could be quiet and listen more. Really listen. Ask follow-up questions. Be curious. Let them know I care. And of course, I could be less sarcastic. Which is difficult because sarcasm begets sarcasm. But while the points always feel good in the moment, I never feel like a winner after a family gathering.
Changing The Rules
I have tried to be vulnerable with my family.
I very nervously told my brother I wanted to have a good relationship with him. I told him this through tears. I told him I loved him. He seemed to hear me, but months later reverted back to old ways as if the conversation never happened. Since then I don’t put any effort into reaching out to him.
My older sister told me that writing is not a job. “If you’re not making money, then it’s just a hobby.” I consider myself a writer even though I don’t make money doing it, but she has decided that it doesn’t count. We no longer talk about writing.
I told Mom about the writing class I was in. I told her I was hired to be a mentor. She didn’t say much in response. “Oh,” and “Cool,” was pretty much all I got. There was no curiosity, no follow-up questions. It didn’t make me feel like she actually wanted to know anything more. It made me feel like I shouldn’t bother telling her things.
I know my family loves me and they care in the way they know how to care. I can’t blame them for being the way they've always been. The real question is, why do I care so much? Why am I so affected by my family’s perception of me?
A New Game
We all want to be seen. Really seen for our true selves. But vulnerability is hard. Dr. Marc Brackett explains that people have not been taught how to talk about their feelings or express their feelings with the people who have known them the longest:
“It pains me that we have gone through life with the inability to be our authentic selves with the people we love the most. What do we need to do to create a society where that’s part of the past?”
I don’t know, Marc. But when you’ve put yourself out there to be vulnerable and are met with rejection, it’s difficult to continue being vulnerable. Instead, I talk to my husband about it. I write an essay about it. I continue on my path of personal growth without my family. And I think about the culture I want to create with my new family.
I imagine sitting at the dinner table. The thing I want my son to feel, my husband to feel, and me to feel is something I never felt at my family’s dinner table: safety. Safe to say what I’m thinking, safe to talk about my real feelings, and safe to be vulnerable. Fostering a sense of safety means listening when someone speaks, validating their thoughts and feelings, and encouraging them to be open and honest.
It’s important to still put forth the effort with my parents and siblings. If nothing else, it’s good practice to be brave and honest.
But it’s also one of the things I’m most excited about as we start our family. My husband and I get to create the culture. We get to decide what our family is like. We get to throw the point system out the window.
Winning won’t be measured by laughs in our family. Winning won’t be measured at all.