Learned the lessons, still doomed to repeat
November 18, 2011 7:39 AM   Subscribe

Regarding family and friends, how have you been able to let go of dark/problematic pasts, and moved forward?

Specifically, parent relationships. The family has a long history of a wide array of mental disorders, from depression, manic-depression, anxiety, etc.

The majority of childhood and teenage years were spent constantly trying to answer -- and then escape -- the question, "what's wrong with me?". There was a parade of therapists and speciality doctors. If there was not depression before that period, there certainly was after that.

What worked -- after all that -- was moving away, first within the same state, and then to a different country. As adulthood unfolded, much of the negativity and depression were contextual. With distance, new experiences, and new friends came perspective, self-esteem, and finally joy of life. The first two years of the mood abroad were often lonely and difficult, yet that difficulty was real due to the recession. In time, the depression completely faded and several wonderful years unfolded. Life was fun, light, and both friendships and career developed authentically.

During that period, trips home were few, far between, and brief. Usually involving weddings or funerals. This last summer, on a three-week trip, everything was fine, but toward the end, the thinking of family and old friends started seeping in.

Negative. Depressing. Anxious.

I was pleased to return to present life, where joy, health, and success abound. Following the visit home, family and friends have been keeping in better touch. A parent came out to visit for a short five day trip.

Overall, the trip was great however we were in a cafe, and they criticised my personality. "I don't know what's happened to you. You are so distant now, we don't talk like we used to. And it's not that you live here. You're different, and it's not good."

Those charged words. "You are" "different" "not good". Like a time-machine back to teenage years. Years wasted hating myself. The self-destructive college years. And everything that could have been.

And then the life I loved... until that conversation. That was two weeks ago, and now, I feel inauthentic and depression creeping in. I am looking to transition careers, and my previously strong momentum has degraded into a monotone, lifeless job search.

I will dig myself out of this hole. It will take a few weeks, but it's nothing new.

The question is how have y'all managed to develop boundaries with your loved ones? How can I both interface with my family and old friends, without falling into their line of thinking? It's as if their depression and anxiety are keys to my own. I have learnt not to turn that key and have surrounded myself with people that do not possess those keys.

Yet, my loved ones, who I would love to have rich, strong relationships with, continue taking me to bad places. Is it always going to be a choice between mental health and family and old friends?

Would prefer less analysis of my situation (yes, I have a therapist at the moment) and more stories and anecdotes from your experiences of people you love that mess with your emotions.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
To keep it simple: Your parents are wrong. They have every right to express their opinion, and you aren't obligated in any way to correct them, but let their opinions bounce off of you like anyone who's wrong about something.
posted by xingcat at 7:46 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yep, it sounds like you were in a good place, literally. You found a new place to live, friends etc and were enjoying life. This distance is actually working in your favor. And it will allow you to see your family from a new perspective where hopefully (and I know it is easier to say than do) their negativity won't affect you as much. You have built a good life! Don't let it be disturbed by old bad memories, keep them separate! Or try to let them go. Ps part of the hardest part is realizing that you may not be able to have the rich strong relationships with family members that you want. You have to accept what is, and create a bit of space so that you can live your life on your (happier) terms.
posted by bquarters at 7:54 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yet, my loved ones, who I would love to have rich, strong relationships with

You have to let this fantasy go. You go into life with the relatives you have, not the relatives you wish you had. You're not going to have rich strong relationships with your loved ones. You will, however, build a community and a group of loved ones that you do have very strong relationships with. Someday you might have children, and for all your differences with your family, you will both share the common experience of child-rearing, and you and your family might find you have something you can both bond over.

And it's not just you. Your parents probably had some fantasy of how their child was going to be someone with them for life who was going to share in all of these common interests and experiences that you would do together, and it probably frustrated them to no end that you didn't fit into that vision they had. They're having problems letting that go, but you have the opportunity to be the one to finally put those expectations and fantasies to rest for yourself.
posted by deanc at 8:07 AM on November 18, 2011 [16 favorites]

"You're different, and it's not good."
Maybe what they're really saying is that you've changed so much (in positive ways) and that scares us. When people take steps to improve their lives, and succeed, that can be threatening to the people around them, because it makes them doubt their own lives. Change is scary.

Yet, my loved ones, who I would love to have rich, strong relationships with
You have consider: are they really capable of this? In some ways, you just have to grieve the family and childhood that you wanted, but didn't get. You've created a great life - kudos to you! - and the only thing that you can really do is live it the way you want to. If your family and friends want to be with you on that journey, that's great. But if they don't, then you can't really convince them or hope that they will join you. It's sad, but if you want to keep yourself healthy, that's what you gotta do.

Is it always going to be a choice between mental health and family and old friends?
I think so, unfortunately. I think the key is to continue keeping the visits short and brief, no more three-week stays. Keep in contact if you want, but don't go further than what your mental health can handle.
posted by foxjacket at 8:26 AM on November 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

The question is how have y'all managed to develop boundaries with your loved ones?
That took time. I did move a couple of hours away and across the border too. I spend the two or more hours in the car gearing up for the visit, and use the trip home to decompress. I know, as with fish, it begins to stink after three days. I try to make the phone calls, so I'm mentally prepared for them; and so that they have specific things to talk about so derails don't lead to turbulence; and I am grateful that my husband and daughter are great buffers. I just plain do not speak to or have any contact with some of the extended family, now that my grandmother has passed and do not entertain gossip about them (I really do have to say "Mom, nothing you can say about C__ will surprise me, so even don't start, please.) The few times we've bumped into them in public, mere politeness with no warmth is all that I've put forth. Then I can hold onto the pride of having good manners and that gets me through. When it comes to personal remarks, well, see below.

How can I both interface with my family and old friends, without falling into their line of thinking?

I sometimes pretend they are characters in a book or movie that I play a role in. I tell myself things that compartmentalize them: "This is just how my mother acts in these situations." or "My grandfather/her history/the time she grew up in/their current environment/the crew of biddies she hangs around are what taught my mother to feel this way." And I have little mantras that help me not to be ever-surprised at how they are: "Hypocritcal Uncle is Hypocritical" "Needy Cousin is Needy" "Evil Cousin is Evil" and I remind myself "This is how the person I want to be would respond."

Yet, my loved ones, who I would love to have rich, strong relationships with, continue taking me to bad places. Is it always going to be a choice between mental health and family and old friends?

We are very, very lucky that we have friends that have become like our family. We call them "the Family We Choose" (as opposed to the one I got stuck with). I love to have rich, strong relationships with them, because it's having the relationships that are important, I've decided - not having them with people who make you nuts. I have a respectful, understanding, and abiding relationship (hey, I'm no prize either) with, and am working on a more and more mature attitude toward, the relations that I still must deal with - but I've stopped trying to make silk purses from sow ears. It helps that my dear friends and mrgood help me see the amusing side to everything, love my stories so I can blow off steam, and assure me that I am fine in all this. Good luck to you.
posted by peagood at 9:01 AM on November 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

I don't know exactly what's going on here, but neither do the posters above. It strikes me that you really seem to want your parents to be responsible for your unhappy childhood, but you haven't really been able to specify what they did wrong exactly, besides be depressed, which will have been difficult to deal with but is not their fault, and try to get you treatment for your depression/anxiety, which many people would say was good parenting. Conversely, you are interpreting their remarks on your being distant as somehow invalidating your whole personality, but I'm not sure how different it would look if they were simply upset that you had effectively cut them out of your life.

I suppose I see two possible narratives here: in the first one, your parents and family spend your whole childhood invalidating and undermining you, you finally get away, and then they try to drag you back down every time they see you. In the other, you have an inherited tendency to depression and anxiety, which you are treated for in childhood without complete success. After a series of life changes, you go into remission, and decide this is because your family are no longer in your life. The remission is extremely fragile, and you remain oversensitive any criticism, particularly on the part of your family members. They are upset at losing a relationship with you, and clumsily try to express this, but you interpret it as a personal attack.

I don't have a preference for one of these narratives over the other, but if the second is closer to the truth then you won't be well served by acting as if the first is, and vice versa.

Long story short, you need to figure this out with your therapist. There are no shortcuts.
posted by Acheman at 9:09 AM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

The question is how have y'all managed to develop boundaries with your loved ones? How can I both interface with my family and old friends, without falling into their line of thinking? Is it always going to be a choice between mental health and family and old friends?

My data point. I come from a family of alcoholism, mental illness, etc. When I could financially/professionally stand on my own, I moved across the country so that there was no less than a full day's travel between me and my family. I find that my own depression/anxiety/anxiety has been so interwoven into my relationships with them that, for now, the only solution has been to quarantine/isolate. In my case I see it as a clear choice of my mental health over family and old friends. My evidence is in watching various family members attempt to have a relationship with me, only to "crack" after so long and revert back to unhealthy patterns.

e.g. Last year my sister played her definite part in my nervous breakdown, which was brought on by work stress, but I had a handle on it until I was naive enough to talk to her one day. She heard the upset in my voice and pulled a complete 180 from "can't wait to see you this xmas" to "I can't stand the thought of having to deal with you this year". We had been on good terms for months leading up to that point, without any bullshit behavior. IMO she "could not help herself" from reverting back to 7-yr old behavior when she saw I was finally weak, but naive enough, to trust having her in my life. It was this kind of incremental crazymaking that led to the breakdown. She won't own any part of it, so I will own mine by choosing not to have her in my life anymore.

IME people from your depression-fueling past helped hammer your "shortcomings" into you; whether consciously or unconsciously, they don't know any other [healthier] way of interacting with you except to fall back on what worked for them before (i.e. passing the buck onto you for not fitting into the melodramas they have circulating in their heads). Unless they can show me they have the self-awareness to catch themselves in toxic, negative-reinforcing behaviors (and thus show genuine caring for me by protecting me from it), I stay clear.

Mental health is such a delicate balance, especially if you grew up in a place of mental illness. I am still working on this, but I am maintaining a clear rule across the board (family, friends, strangers, everybody) that I only have people in my life who deserve to have me. I am not perfect, but I believe at least this much: I deserve to have people in my life who want to consistently show caring for me, and who will hold themselves accountable for their mistakes (just as I try to hold myself accountable for mine).

The majority of childhood and teenage years were spent constantly trying to answer -- and then escape -- the question, "what's wrong with me?"

It may be worth deliberating that if your caregivers were mentally ill/emotionally unavailable, how would they have been able to recognize what was right with you growing up? Maybe you were doing 90% "right" and only 10% "wrong", yet you've been conditioned to focus only on that "wrong" stuff as though it were the whole part of you. If you can find a way to (in therapy or on your own), let it go. Because,

(1) These people are not qualified to judge the right/wrong in your life, choices, and/or personality. They could not do it accurately when you were their child and it is unlikely that they've improved upon this area of judgment since.

(2) What's "wrong" with you could very well have been what's "right" with you; being they were in the throes of various mental health challenges, they would not have been able to recognize, reinforce, or even RELATE to healthy behavior/development that was visible in you.

It's like using an uncalibrated, wonky ruler to measure yourself ONLY because it was the first one you were given. Learn to recognize when you've started using it again (i.e. when you start feeling depressed about your self-worth). It's an obsolete tool you may end up carrying with you for the rest of your life; that doesn't mean you ever need to use it again.
posted by human ecologist at 9:52 AM on November 18, 2011 [7 favorites]

I developed boundaries the same way you did. I went to college(during which my Dad died) and then moved away. The 1st year I was away, I didn't have a phone. Partly to save money, and partly so that I could control contact. Over time, my siblings also moved away and/or confronted my manipulative, critical, alcoholic parent. Like you, I was able to strip away some of my unhealthy self-beliefs, and get healthier. My Mom was good to me in some surprising ways, but was so toxic in person that I limited contact. Time passed. Due to my job, it was easy to say I couldn't be present for holidays, or visit often.

Over time, my Mom learned that if she was unkind, I would get off the phone, leave the room, leave the house, leave the state, etc. There's a reason I made sure I had a rental car. She still pulled plenty of manipulative games, but I was better able to simply choose not to participate, and to remove myself from the situation. We had an okay relationship, not the mother-daughter relationship I wished for, or perhaps she wished for, but loving, pretty honest, and reasonably healthy. When she was in what was clearly the end of her life, it was hard. Old, sick people revert to unhealthy ways, and may not have the energy to be kind, or sweet.

You can only change you. In my 50s, I still have some unhealthy, limiting self-beliefs. But I keep working on them, and on me. A good therapist is a huge help.

Specific advice. I believe in honesty, but also in keeping my mouth shut sometimes. If someone says to me Why do you live so far away? I'll respond I could never understand how Mom and Dad could leave Northern New England; I love it here. If a family member said You're different, and it's not good I'd respond Wow, that makes me feel bad because that would be true, and it would let them know their behavior was hurtful. If they continued to say things that hurt, I'd say I have to be going now. In fact, I'm doing that at work. A few people are being huge jerks, and I'm trying to set boundaries that say I deserve respect. If you're disrespectful, I'll act on it.

You deserve love, courtesy, respect and to be allowed to be yourself, the self you want to be, not somebody else's version.
posted by theora55 at 9:58 AM on November 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think you're being a little thin-skinned here. You already know what these people are like; that's why you left. They haven't changed and you did. Don't give them so much power. This is one of those times where you do the eye roll, either in your head or even in person, and say, "thank god I changed, I'm so much happier now. I'm sorry you liked me more when I was a depressed and unhappy wreck."

Stand up for yourself and your sanity and your happiness. Don't let the petty remarks of people you've limited your contact with (for good reason) undermine you. When you start obsessing over the remark, call her a bitch in your head and remind yourself of what you have. Make a list of things you're grateful for.
posted by shoesietart at 9:59 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Been thinking about this a lot myself as the holidays approach. A couple of things worth remembering:

1. Misery loves company. In my case, people in my life who have not had the willpower to make improvements in their lives can't STAND the fact that I am now happy in mine. It's a cyclical pattern across many codependent generations and the only way for me to escape was literal distance. Distance makes setting emotional boundaries easier.

2. You do not have to put up with abusive behavior. For me, insults such as "You're different, and it's not good," or criticism of my life/choices/personality are instant conversation-enders, whether we're on the phone or sitting face-to-face in a restaurant. View this however you want — as punishment by withholding access to you or as self-preservation (which is how I see it in my case).

3. These people are humans. They are just as flawed and hurting as anyone else, and are just as affected by their own personal experiences as you are. That doesn't excuse their behavior, but it may help you view them more sympathetically.

Other than that, deanc and foxjacket's advice really rang true for me. The hardest part of all was realizing I can never had that storybook relationship with my family. It's just not possible, not matter how hard *I* work at it. Finding a loving and supportive partner made coming to terms with that a whole lot easier, so I wish for that for you.

You might want to read up on borderline personality disorder. Not saying you or anyone in your family has it, but it gave me some perspective on the "I hate you, don't leave me" mentality.
posted by Brittanie at 12:23 PM on November 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes give up the fantasy. You will be so much happier.

About 2 years into my wonderful marriage I had to deal with the furious anger of realizing just exactly how wrong my parents were... I went to hypnotherapy. Which helped a lot. It might help you to learn some self-meditation-hypnosis techniques you can practice when you accidentally find yourself in the old head-space now and in the future. Your childhood programmed you, you are always pushing back the tide of the past to stay newly self-programmed in the present. It's what it is.

Lastly. I eventually just let them all fade away, having boundaries but being re-exposed to their sickness hurt too much to continue. What a blessed relief!
posted by jbenben at 1:05 PM on November 18, 2011

With my mother, who is the only person in my family with whom I have any relationship at all, I've developed some stiff boundaries AFTER I had worked through some processes of anger, resentment, and finally, acceptance and some forgiveness for my childhood and her role in it. I don't go home, but we do talk on the phone. I've found that not dealing with her, and by extension the rest of my family, in person, it saves me a ton of stress because my life and emotions are no longer quite as enmeshed with theirs. Sort of an "out of sight, out of mind," thing. I just refuse to engage with anyone on the unhealthy level that they choose to live on, and so when I see the conversation going that way, I end it. With the members of my family that there is just no growth, no possibility for real reconciliation or even understanding, I don't even speak.

Yeah, it still hurts. Deeply, at times. And there are times when I feel so utterly alone in this world. But it helps to remember how the choices I've made about my life have made me so much happier and that ultimately, they can't take that away from me unless I let them. And I won't. And neither should you.
posted by sm1tten at 3:52 PM on November 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

You hadn't mentioned if there was any insight your life away gave to that central question of your early years, of what was wrong with your situation.

Have you tried inviting your family, or old friends to see you where you are now? It might be something strongly diagnostic, and caring to your parents, to consider once you've gotten yourself more centered again.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:42 PM on November 18, 2011

They say family is the first institution. I look at it as the institution I escaped from. I left 3.5 years ago and not one family member knows where I am.

I had fantasies for a long time that we were or could one day be a normal family. But we can't be and won't be because these people are sick and I cannot fix them - not if I want to be well.

I find people try to recreate old dynamics because they aren't comfortable with a new script. It makes them nervous because it means they have to change in some way too, and they don't know how or don't want to.

Don't let your family crab bucket you.
posted by it's a long way to south america at 11:00 AM on November 19, 2011

It's a long way, I hadn't heard about 'crab bucket-ing' before.
The Crab in a Bucket Mentality
Crabs in a bucket
Interesting reading.
posted by theora55 at 12:08 PM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

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