NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, February 22, 2016

Being the Different One in Your Family

In a prior article,  The Role of the Family Scapegoat in Dysfunctional Families, I discussed how the family scapegoat is usually made to feel like s/he is "different" from the rest of the family and the cause of the family's problems, even when s/he isn't really the source of their problems.  In this article, I'm focusing on what it's like to feel "different" in a family.

Being the Different One in Your Family

Examples of Being the "Different One" in a Family:
  • A first generation child, whose parents are originally from a different country, not only feels different, but often feels conflicted because s/he can feel caught between the family's traditions from their country of origin and the culture of the new country.
  • A child, who is gay, in a family that has traditional views of what it means to be a man or a woman, can feel different from other family members and, depending upon the family.
  • A child, who has liberal views and who grows up in a family who conservative traditional views can feel different.
  • A child, who is artistic and who grows up in a family that devalues artistic skills and wants their child to pursue a more mainstream career, can feel devalued and question his or her own views.
  • A child, who grows up in a family where the parents and the siblings all abuse alcohol and drugs and who all dropped out of high school, might feel misunderstood because s/he values education and wants to avoid abusing substances.

These are just a few of many possible examples of how a child can feel and be perceived as different from other family members.  There are many other examples.

Of course, there are families who are open minded and who can accept a child who is different.  This can help the child to feel accepted and loved as well as accepting of his or her own values.

The problem arises when being "different" in the family is perceived as being "less than" the rest of the family.  The parents might feel that the child's differences are a threat to the family and, in that sense, the differences feel dangerous to them.

The following scenario is a fictionalized example of how growing up being the "different one" in a family can be difficult and how this problem can be overcome in therapy.

Mark grew up in a traditional religious family.  He was the youngest of five children.

When he was a young child, he never questioned his religion.  But when he was in his mid-teens and he socialized with friends and their families from different backgrounds, he became increasingly aware that there were other ways of seeing the world and he began to question whether he believed the basic principles of the family's religion.

When he told his parents and older brothers that he wasn't sure if he believed in these basic principles, they were stunned.  His father became angry and told Mark that the family's religion is what got them through many difficult times going back to Mark's great grandfather's time and probably before. He felt that Mark's questioning was heresy.  He warned Mark that no good would come of it.

Mark couldn't understand why his father was so upset.  But, after he experienced his father's anger, Mark kept his questions to himself.  He continued to observe the family's religious traditions but, inwardly, he continued to wonder how meaningful, if at all, these traditions were to him.

As Mark entered college, he was encouraged by his parents to take business courses so that he could become an accountant or a business manager.

During his first two years of college, Mark's college required him to take certain core courses where he was exposed to many different subjects and new ideas.

By the time he was a college Sophomore, he was very drawn to art history.  But when he told his parents that he wanted to be an art history major instead of a business major, they were even more upset than when he told them that he was questioning their religion.

His parents talked to him about how financially difficult it had been for both the mother's and the father's families and for them before Mark was born.  They stressed the importance of choosing a major that would be "practical."  They didn't want Mark to struggle financially the way they did or the way their parents did.  They urged him to major in business because, as a business major, he could find a job, whereas as an art history major, he might end up jobless.

Mark considered what his parents told him.  He was aware that his older brothers followed their parents'  suggestions and each of them was doing well financially.  They had secure jobs, and they seemed happy with their choices.

But Mark was becoming increasingly aware that he wouldn't be happy as a business major.  He understood his parents' concerns and their practical advice, so he felt torn.

He was also more and more aware of how different he was from his parents and brothers.  He loved them very much, but he knew he needed to find his own way, which was probably going to be different from the rest of his family.

He also felt that his parents were still traumatized by their experiences of going through difficult financial times.  Even though they overcame their earlier financial difficulties, he knew that, on an emotional level, they never got over their fear and sense of vulnerability.  It was as if they were living in the past.  He knew they couldn't see that he had opportunities now that they never had.

Feeling more and more conflicted and confused between what he wanted and his loyalty to his family, he decided to start therapy.  This was difficult for him because, on a certain level, he felt he was being disloyal to his family by going to therapy (see my article:  When Family Loyalty Gets in the Way of Your Psychotherapy Sessions).  

He didn't tell his family about his therapy because he was sure they wouldn't understand.  He knew that they would think that he shouldn't talk about the family to a stranger, even if the stranger was a licensed mental health professional.

During his therapy, Mark's therapist, who was trained as a hypnotherapist, helped him to have greater access to his unconscious feelings and wishes by using clinical hypnosis.  While he was in a relaxed hypnotic state, his therapist asked him to imagine his future self as he wanted himself to be when he completed college (see my article: Experiencing Your Future Self: The Self You Want to Become).

As Mark became more comfortable with hypnosis, he was able to gradually put aside his conflicts and focus on what he wanted for himself.  As he did this, he felt how deeply he wanted to pursue a career in art history.

Over time, with increasing confidence, Mark became more open to exploring this possibility by seeking out people who were already in the field, including his professor.  With more information from people in the field, Mark realized that he wanted to pursue an art history career, possibly working in an art gallery.

After he graduated with a major in art history, despite his family's disapproval, Mark went on to get a graduate degree in art history.  His degree also included business courses related specifically to the art world so he felt he would be better prepared for the field.

As part of his educational courses, Mark interned at one of the more prestigious art galleries in New York City, and by the time he had his Master's degree, the gallery owner hired him full time.

Although his fear was that he would alienate his family, he came to realize that his family still loved him, even if they didn't understand why he wanted to pursue a career that was so different from what they wanted for him.

Over time, as Mark continued to advance in his career, his parents' and older brothers' disapproval softened and they came to accept that Mark was happy in his field and that's really all that mattered.  Mark also let go of his conflictual feelings about being different and embraced his choice.

Getting Help in Therapy
Being the "different one" in your family can be an emotionally painful and lonely experience if your family members don't understand or accept what you want.

Trying to appease others by sacrificing your core sense of self will only make you unhappy. Although it can be difficult to be an individual who is different from other family members, being true to yourself is the best way to lead a fulfilling life.

If you're struggling with feeling different, rather than struggling on your own, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who can help you to deal with these emotional struggles, learn to be an individual, and feel more confident (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me:
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.