NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Freeing Yourself From Family Expectations and Beliefs That Are Harmful to You

Many families have longstanding beliefs and expectations that are passed on from one generation to the next.  When they work well, these dynamics can create a nurturing family bond and a sense of well-being.  But some beliefs and expectations can be detrimental to your well-being.  They can also be the unconscious source of your unhappiness (see my article: How Your Unconscious Beliefs Affect Your Sense of Reality).

Freeing Yourself From Family Expectations That Are Harmful to You

Often, there is a perception that some of these expectations might have worked well for earlier generations, and it is usually assumed, especially by older family members, that the younger generation will continue to maintain them.

Even when these family expectations haven't worked well, it's often not addressed for fear of upsetting the family "apple cart."

Under those circumstances, it becomes part of the "family myth" that the expectations and beliefs are healthy and everyone is satisfied with them (even when they're not, but they're too afraid to say it).

Examples of possible beliefs and expectations that become part of the family legacy and that are unhealthy are:
  • Family members should never talk about family matters outside of the family.
  • Family members always take care of older family members (this is usually an expectation of the daughters in the family).
  • Family members never move far away geographically from their parents and grandparents.
  • Family members shouldn't succeed beyond their parents' success.
  • Family members should never change their religion or faith of origin
  • Family members should never question longstanding family beliefs and expectations.
  • Children, even adult children, should know that their parents know what's best and they should never go against their parents' beliefs.
And so on.

The reason why not going along with these expectations can be so challenging is that family members, who are invested in maintaining them, often don't understand why certain individuals balk at them.  They feel threatened and feel the well-being of the family is threatened by individuals who refuse to perpetuate these dynamics or who even question them.

An even more challenging problem is that individuals who feel burdened by these expectations are often unaware that these dynamics are making them unhappy.  Often, they come into therapy with a sense that they are under a lot of "stress," but they don't understand why they're under stress.

On their own, they're unable to pinpoint the source of what's making them unhappy.  This is where therapy with a therapist who works experientially can be helpful (see my article:  Experiential Therapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).  Experiential therapy helps clients in therapy to have a "felt sense" of the underlying issues and helps to achieve psychological breakthroughs.

Let's take a look at a fictional vignette, which is common for many people who come to therapy, and illustrates these points:  

Mary, who was in her 50s, came to therapy because she was under a lot of "stress" as mother's primary caregiver.

Mary wasn't sleeping well, so she asked her therapist to help her to manage her stress.

Freeing Yourself From Family Expectations That Are Harmful to You

As she described a typical day, Mary told her therapist about how she gets up early in the morning to dress and feed her mother while they waited for the mother's home attendant to come.

She talked about how she checked in with her mother by phone several times a day and listened to her mother complain about the home attendant.  This was the fourth home attendant that they had in six months, and Mary feared that the agency wouldn't send anyone else because her mother kept finding faults with all of them.

Mary sensed that her mother was angry with her for leaving her with a home attendant, but neither she nor her husband could afford to quit their jobs to stay home with Mary's mother.

When she got home, her mother often barely spoke to her.  Mary would try to engage her mother in conversation to cheer her up, but her mother ignored her and watched TV instead.  This was frustrating and hurtful for Mary.

During those days when she knew her mother was annoyed and not talking to her, she would make her mother's favorite meals, but her mother would complain about the food and refuse to eat.

Getting her mother ready for bed was frustrating, especially if her mother was in a bad mood.

By the next morning, Mary was exhausted. She was often late for work and when she got there, she could barely hold her eyes open at work.  She worried that she might eventually lose her job if she didn't start getting to work on time and she wasn't more alert at work.

Her husband, who was usually a patient man, was also annoyed because he felt that Mary's mother was  taking advantage of Mary.   He was also sleep deprived.

He asked Mary to talk to her brothers about sharing the responsibility of taking care of the mother, so they could get a break.  They hadn't had a vacation since Mary's mother moved in with them four years ago.

Although she sympathized with her husband, Mary felt, for some reason she didn't understand, that she couldn't ask her brothers to help out.  So, she often felt caught between her mother and her husband, which added to her "stress" (see my article: Feeling Caught Between Your Spouse and Your Mother).

Her mother's doctor told Mary that the mother's medical condition was progressive and the time would soon come when she wouldn't be able to manage her mother's care at home.  He told her that she should start looking into skilled nursing facilities for her mother and see an elder care attorney to advise her about finances.

But Mary wouldn't even consider putting her mother in a nursing home.  She knew that her mother's medical problems would become worse and that her mother might need skilled medical interventions that neither she nor a home attendant could provide.  But she thought that they would find a way to deal with it (although she didn't know how).

Her husband understood that Mary didn't want to place her mother in a nursing home but, based on what the mother's doctor said, it seemed like there wouldn't be a choice.  He tried to reason with Mary about it, but just thinking about this gave Mary a headache and she refused to talk about it.

After they had established a good therapeutic relationship, Mary's therapist tried to explore with Mary what all of this meant to her, but Mary didn't know.  She just knew that the "stress" was becoming unbearable and she needed "tools" for dealing with it.

Although it was clear that Mary was under a lot of stress, it was also clear to her therapist that there was a lot more going on for Mary than she realized.

Since Mary was unable to consciously identify how it made her feel when the therapist asked her about it, the therapist tried a different approach to try to discover the unconscious meaning for Mary.

She used a technique that is often used in clinical hypnosis as well as in other types of experiential therapy called the Affect Bridge (see my article:  What is the Affect Bridge?).

Her therapist asked Mary to close her eyes, focus on her emotions and notice where she felt them in her body when she thought about the possibility of having to place her mother in a skilled nursing facility.

Using the Affect Bridge in Therapy

Her therapist was careful to say that this wasn't a practice run for actually doing this--Mary was just using her imagination to discover what was going on unconsciously that she wasn't aware of consciously.

By this time, Mary had been coming to therapy for a while, and she felt safe with her therapist (see my article:  The Creation of the Holding Environment in Therapy).

Mary allowed herself to notice her emotions, which she identified as sadness, fear and guilt.  She felt these emotions acutely around her eyes, her throat, her chest and her upper stomach.

Then, Mary's therapist asked her to focus on these emotions and go back to her earliest memory of feeling this way.

In a relaxed state, Mary allowed her mind to float back.

Then, a memory that Mary had not thought about for many years popped into her mind:  She was a young girl of about 10 and she was sitting with her mother and maternal grandmother.  By that time, Mary's grandmother was in her 90s and she was in poor health.  She lived with Mary and her family. Mary's mother, who stayed home while the father worked, was the grandmother's primary caregiver.

Mary remembered that her grandmother being in bed with her eyes closed.  Mary knew that her grandmother, who had been very sick for a long time and in a lot of pain, refused to get medical help.  She only wanted to stay at home with the family.

At one point, her grandmother opened her eyes and told Mary, "When you grow up, you'll be the one who takes care of your mother when she's older.  We're not one of those families who throw their older relatives into a nursing home.  Don't ever forget:  It will be your duty as a daughter.  Promise me that you'll never forget."

Mary remembered that she was so stunned by her grandmother's words that she was speechless.  She didn't know what to say.  She saw how exhausted her mother was from taking care of her grandmother, but she took care of her without complaining and without asking other family members for help.  It was understood that as the oldest daughter, she was expected to assume this duty.

Even though her grandmother was fragile and weak, when Mary didn't respond immediately, she opened her eyes wide, peered at Mary and said forcefully, "Promise me!"

Without thinking, Mary promised.  A few weeks later, her grandmother died and the family was plunged into grief.

During the funeral, relatives came to pay their respect to Mary's mother, and they told her what a "wonderful daughter" she had been to take care of her mother and how "strong" she was to never ask anyone, not even her brothers, for help.  They respected her for this and this made Mary's mother beam with pride.

Then, her mother turned to Mary and told her, "When the time comes, you'll take care of me just like I'm taking care of you now.  When I get older, don't ever put me in a nursing home--no matter what.  Promise me."  Mary swallowed hard and promised.

At the time, Mary felt the emotional burden of her mother's words--sadness, fear as well and guilt--because she felt trapped by this promise.

Afterwards, as Mary talked with her therapist about the memories that came up during the Affect Bridge, she was surprised because she had not thought of these memories in many years.

Her therapist asked her to complete this sentence by saying the first thing that came to her mind, "If I don't take care of my mother at home, then…"

Without thinking, Mary immediately said, "If I don't take care of my mother at home, then I'll be going back on my promise and I'll be a bad daughter."

This was the first time that Mary had become aware of what it would mean to her if she couldn't take care of her mother and just how powerful these feelings were.

Although she felt upset, she was also relieved to be able to get to the underlying feelings.  Even though she wasn't happy about it, it suddenly made sense to her.

Discovering the underlying feelings allowed Mary and her therapist to explore these deeply rooted beliefs and expectations in her family--going back generations--and how Mary had internalized them.

As they continued to work on this issue, Mary realized that not only would she feel like a "bad daughter," she would also feel like a "bad person," and everyone would know that she was a "bad person."  This made her feel deeply ashamed.

As time went on, Mary remembered more about her mother's reactions to taking care of Mary's grandmother.  She remembered times when her mother looked angry and resentful, even though she never expressed it.  It seemed to Mary that her mother might not have even realized how she felt because she probably didn't even allow herself to know it--let alone tell anyone else.

As an adult, Mary now realized that her mother was too afraid back then to even talk to the grandmother about getting medical care.

Then, Mary wondered if her grandmother might have lived longer if her mother had, at least, had the conversation with the grandmother about it.  But, instead, her mother and grandmother adhered to these rigid family "rules" and expectations ("The mother knows best" and "Don't question your mother"). This stifled any real communication between them and contributed to the grandmother's demise.

At that point, it suddenly became very clear to Mary: She was headed down the same path as her mother because she felt compelled to keep a promise that she made as a child that she would soon no longer be able to keep.

That realization brought Mary emotional pain on many levels:  She knew she would have to struggle with her feelings of being a bad daughter and a bad person.  She also knew how much she dreaded disappointing her mother.

But she also knew that she had to be responsible and, when the time came that she could no longer manage her mother at home, she couldn't just allow her mother to die at home when she could get medical help at a skilled nursing facility.

This is a very difficult decision that many adult children have to face, but it's especially difficult when there are unhealthy family expectations and beliefs that adult children have internalized from a young age.

Over time, Mary dealt with the younger aspect of herself (also known as the "inner child") in therapy that feared her mother's reaction.

Rather than coming from the perspective of the young child, she assumed the perspective of the adult.  She also worked in therapy to soothe her inner child.

Gradually, she got more information from her mother's doctor and explored various skilled nursing home facilities.

She also spoke to her brothers about taking their mother in for a couple of weeks each month to give Mary and her husband a respite.

At first, the brothers were surprised that Mary was asking for help.  They saw her as their older sister who seemed invincible to them since they were children.  But they also understood that she and her husband needed a break, so they began to help out.

A year later, Mary's mother's health took a turn for the worse and she needed the kind of medical help that she could only get from a skilled nursing facility.  At that point, even her mother realized that she could not stay at home any longer.

By that time, Mary and her mother had visited various nursing homes, and they had already chosen a facility close to home that had a very good reputation.  She had already had a consultation with an elder care attorney and had arranged the mother's finances so that she could go to the facility.  In addition, she made the necessary legal arrangements so that she could make decisions on her mother's behalf.

Over time, Mary developed increased confidence that, from an objective adult perspective, she was doing what was best for her mother.

Freeing Yourself From Unhealthy Family Expectations That Are Harmful to You

Although she felt sad about the worsening of her mother's health, she no longer felt driven by the unconscious emotions that were part of her family legacy and that she had internalized as a young girl.  This helped her to make the decisions that she had to make with clarity.

Her mother also got the medical help that she needed at the skilled nursing facility and made friends among the other patients.

The fictionalized vignette described above is a common experience for many people.

This scenario demonstrates how family expectations become part of the family legacy from one generation to the next and how individual family members internalize these expectations without even realizing it.

Working in therapy with a therapist who does experiential therapy, like clinical hypnosis, EMDR or Somatic Experiencing, can allow clients to discover the unconscious beliefs and expectations.  It can also lead to emotional breakthroughs.

Although it might not be easy, once you've discovered these underlying emotions, you can free yourself from a burdensome history.

Getting Help in Therapy
As I mentioned before, a common family belief is that family members shouldn't talk about family matters to anyone outside the family (see my article: Why Is It That It's Usually the Healthiest Person in a Dysfunctional Family That Seeks Help in Therapy?).

The belief that people shouldn't speak about family matters outside the family has hindered many people from getting the help that they need.

If you feel overwhelmed by family expectations and beliefs, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who has experience in this area.

Freeing yourself from unhealthy aspects of your history can free you to lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individuals and couples.

I have helped many clients to discover and free themselves from the unhealthy aspects of their histories.

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.