Family dysfunction

“There’s something wrong with me.” During my clinical practice, this observation from a client was often a turning point. This often represented a shift in perspective, a realization that the problem was not merely “the world out there” but “the world in here”. This often meant that the client was willing to recognize that he/she had a history of very poor choices and that these choices had created the morass that had led him/her into counseling in the first place. This usually involved contemplating various labels, i.e. diagnoses, clinical contrivances designed to “give shape to our anguish.”

This always involved addressing how harsh the world had been to the individual…dysfunctional family and all…but it entailed quickly realizing that choices one had made on a daily basis had perpetuated the problem. It always involved looking at the “chooser” that one had formulated early in life, a mechanism that continued relentlessly to perpetuate the maladaptive behavior pattern, aka the “shame cycle.”

This usually involved the experience of hell in some fashion. It involved realizing that one was trapped, that there was no escape (“No Exit” as Sartre put it), and the bitter anguish of hopelessness. This was the “bottoming out” phenomena, the reaching of the limit of the ego’s machinations, and subsequently the dawning of the possibility of a turn-about in life.

The client was often brought face to face with a real paradoxical dilemma. The more he/she voiced his/her anguish…particularly to the family of origin…the more he/she remained imprisoned in his/her private hell. R. D. Laing wrote decades ago about the dilemma of the individual who was caught in an “untenable position” in a dysfunctional family. The more this individual protests, the louder and more passionate be his/her protestations, the more “proof” does the family have that the individual is…for lack of a better term…nuts. So the anguish intensifies and so do the screams. And the family will often look on with bewilderment, perhaps asking, “What is wrong with Johnny or Susie…”

Often the client would have to realize that the validation he/she sought would never come from the family of origin. It just was not possible. Some families are trapped in their own pathology and any individual in that family that protests, that deigns to confront the systemic poison that consumes them all, will not find a ready ear within that family. That “ready ear”, that validation, is going to have to be found elsewhere. Note here what Leonardo da Vinci noted on this issue:

O cities of the sea, I behold in you your citizens, women as well as men tightly bound with stout bonds around their arms and legs by folk who will not understand your language; and you will only be able to give vent to your griefs and sense of loss of liberty by making tearful complaints, and sighs, and lamentations one to another; for those who bind you will not understand your language nor will you understand them. (from “Of Children in Swaddling Clothes”.)

Validation is powerful medicine. As Conrad Aiken said, “And this is peace to know our thoughts known.”


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