We all think we know who we are…right? But do we really? I can guarantee whoever you may consider yourself to be, you are MORE than that. As people, we have a way of defining ourselves by our stations in life, the way others view us, our circumstances, and so on and so forth. Think about it. Do you allow yourself to be defined by others? By your spouse? Your family? Your friends? Your profession? Do you define yourself by the different “roles” you play: wife, mother, husband, father, son, daughter, friend, teacher, nurse? By your religious beliefs? Political party? If someone asks you who you are, what would you say?
Many people come to therapy in the midst of an identity crisis. Newly single. In a state of crisis because they forgot what it is like to “be on their own.” No longer able to identify as someone’s husband. Or wife. Recent college grad. No idea what direction to move in without the safety net of school and the identity of being a “student.” Empty nester. Kids have flown the coop and without the identity of “full-time mom” left to wonder, “Who am I now?” And the list goes on and on. As people, we tend to become so identified with our roles that we feel at a lost if we are to lose them. It is often during these times of change that we begin to question, “Who am I really?”
Many people have a shaky sense of self. Even in the BEST of times or in the best of circumstances. Some people live their whole life without truly defining who their authentic self is. It is easy to get caught up in letting ourselves be defined by others or by the stage of life we are in. It is the path of least resistance to let our roles or circumstances in life define us. Yet we all have heard a common regret of the dying is that they didn’t live a life true to who they really are. Be that as it may many of us do not even know who THAT is. Being asked to define who we ARE is a tremendous question…seems simple, but hard to grasp.
Developing a true sense of self is a pivotal part of becoming a mature, healthy functioning adult. It can take time and be challenging. Without a healthy sense of self, a person can develop anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems in addition to physical health problems.
Defining oneself can be a challenge growing up in a functional family. Yet many of us grow up in DYSfunctional families which can make it especially hard to separate who we are from who our family is. Many people who come from dysfunctional families or have been abused struggle with this question. There is fallout from being raised in a dysfunctional environment because we often face emotional and psychological trauma during our upbringing. When you grow up in a dysfunctional household, parents can be substance abusers, emotional abusers, physical abusers, sexual abusers, or just plain TOXIC, with the scars remaining long after childhood is over. While a person may have long moved away from their family of origin or developed some strong boundaries to deal with their interactions with toxic family members, the legacy of their upbringing follows them. Especially since people who are raised in a dysfunctional environment may currently be dealing with some real mental health or emotional challenges due to their upbringing.
Don’t get me wrong. Not ALL adult children of dysfunctional families have emotional or mental health problems. We are all the best judge of our own experiences and many people overcome a difficult childhood with no bumps in their proverbial road. Yet oftentimes when people come into therapy, regardless of their presenting problem, the challenges they are facing can be traced back to the psychological fallout from their childhood.
When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, your family’s words, actions, and attitudes HURT you. Because of this trauma, you grow up different from other children, often being asked to hide who you are to meet and service your parents’ needs. Dysfunctional means it doesn’t work, even if it appears like it does. The question may be for you not if your family of origin was dysfunctional but to what degree was the dysfunction apparent.
A dysfunctional family LACKS boundaries. Boundaries are what separate you from me and me from you. Boundaries are an important part of existing as a separate entity. Thus if you grow up in a family who lacks clear boundaries, this is going to impact your ability to develop a healthy identity separate from your family of origin.
You may be asking yourself, well how do I know if I grew up in a dysfunctional family? Below are some signs you are still being adversely impacted by your childhood:
- You take yourself very seriously and have difficulty having fun. People from dysfunctional families are hypervigilant to possible “threats” and are often scanning their environment. Oftentimes a dysfunctional home environment is unpredictable and unstable. Adult children of dysfunctional families struggle to relax and let loose.
- You constantly seek approval. I am talking to you people pleasers. Our early relationships impact our adult relationships. Often in dysfunctional families, children get parentified. Parentification is a role reversal where the child acts as the parent due to the emotional immaturity or psychological limitations of the parent. Parentified children are inappropriately given the role of filling their PARENTS’ needs, instead of the other way around. And thus in many cases a people pleaser is born.
- You are either super responsible or super irresponsible. Dysfunctional environments are usually chaotic. Thus a child may overcompensate by becoming super responsible which carries into adulthood. Or the reverse may take place where the child “gives up” because they feel nothing they do will make a difference (this can often lead to substance abuse in later years).
- You don’t know what normal is. You may know your family is NOT normal but you don’t know what a healthy, functioning family really looks like. You may even wonder if there are families out there who resemble the families you see of tv (such as my personal favorite family—Full House–90s tv family reference right there for you).
- You feel like a victim. Perhaps this is how you got your needs met as a child. It is a powerful and manipulative way to get what you want. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, it may feel threatening to you to directly ask others for what you want and need because as a child you may have been shamed for expressing yourself.
- You are extremely judgemental. Of yourself–and others. You were not shown unconditional love growing up, and instead became judgemental. Your parents may have put their judgements on you and others. In many ways you grew up feeling like you never quite measured up. Perhaps you were subject to criticism or verbal abuse and have internalized those messages.
- You lack self-control–binge eating, substance abuse, job hopping, bed hopping. You may have lacked structure in your family of origin–making it hard to develop discipline and self-regulate your emotions. You are impulsive and find it hard to manage long-term goals. You may be someone who sacrifices what you want most for what you want in the moment.
- You worry a lot about the future. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, you never know when the other shoe was going to drop. You may struggle with a chronic, low-grade anxiety. It is almost impossible for you to be at peace.
- You feel lonely. You never developed as an individual, always having to cater to the needs of the family system at large. Even when in the presence of others, you cannot shake a sense of loneliness within you. You may be hyperaware of the feelings of others but struggle to really identify and express what you feel. It is common for adult children of dysfunctional families to be codependent.
- You fear being abandoned. You couldn’t rely on your mom or dad–maybe mom or dad left when you were young or maybe they didn’t physically leave you–but left you emotionally. You may constantly be scanning your adult relationships for any sign someone, whether a friend or romantic partner, is going to jump ship on the relationship. You may even have a self-destructive side to your personality– creating situations that ensure people leave by being overbearing, controlling, overly critical. You struggle with self sabotage in life and in your relationships.
- You are reactive. This comes back to boundaries. You can’t tell where you end and someone else begins. Someone says something that triggers you and you react. (note I say you react, not respond. Reacting is impulsive whereas responding is thought out). You struggle with being tolerant of those who do not think what you think or feel what you feel. You grew up so enmeshed in your family of origin that you struggle with being differentiated as an adult in your relationships.
These are just some of a multitude of ways you can begin to see the effects of being raised in a dysfunctional family. To overcome our dysfunctional upbringing we need to first be able to recognize how it is still effecting us. All of these behaviors act as distractions to developing one’s true sense of self.
Once we understand how our upbringing is still present in our adult lives, we need to stop identifying with the roles we played in childhood. We coped using maladaptive behaviors when we were children because we needed to cope in a situation where we were largely powerless. Children NEED their parents to survive. If your parents are unhealthy or abusive, you most likely will develop maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with the pain and toxicity in your environment. Adaptive coping mechanisms improve functioning whereas maladaptive measures do not. Unfortunately as children, these maladaptive coping strategies can be quite effective in mitigating our pain and anxiety, at lease in the short-term. The problem is we often continue these maladaptive behaviors into adulthood. Once we recognize how the roles we played as children are still present in our adult lives, we then need to stop clinging to them. There is comfort in holding on to a familiar identity even a negative one. Yet just like we outgrow pants and shoes, we can outgrow our families of origins. For many of us who get therapy or embark on a journey of self-discovery, you may realize you already have. But to open yourself up to finding and becoming your true self–you need to recognize the grip your childhood still has on you. By loosening the grip on the past, it will open you up to many possibilities–including discovering who you REALLY are!