Breaking Free from Family Dysfunction

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What does it mean to break free from family dysfunction? First, let’s do a little unpacking on what the phrase “family dysfunction” even means. Webster’s defines dysfunction as “abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group”; i.e., family dysfunction. Dysfunction is also defined as “deviation from the norms of social behavior in a way regarded as bad.”  

What’s interesting to me is both definitions require an understanding based on present-day society for what is normal. But what if you are in a family, or country, where the dysfunction is so rampant that it is normal because it’s culturally acceptable? Remember, public hangings were considered normal once in America, and women are still being stoned today in other parts of the world.

So for me, society cannot always be the compass for what is good, right, or healthy. Therefore, I find it more helpful to be internally motivated rather than let society dictate what is “normal.” After all, as a dear friend used to say: Normal is a setting used on washing machines and shouldn’t be applied to people. 

Be open to exploring all avenues to reach your destination.

But back to dysfunction: Let’s say you come from a family of people who express love through food — because, after all, what family or culture doesn’t somehow use food to show love? But in this particular family, or for even one person in this family, that form of expression leads to overeating or misusing food as a way of masking emotions, also known as eating your feelings. Again, eating, or drinking, your feelings is something that is culturally acceptable — we’ve all seen a romantic comedy where a person eats a pint of ice cream or drinks too much because they’re heartbroken. So when does this culturally acceptable behavior diverge into being dysfunctional, and how can one break free from it?

I believe step one of breaking free from family dysfunction is deciding for yourself that a particular activity or belief system is not the vehicle that will get you where you want to go in your life, regardless of what your family or society deems normal. By starting at the end point of how you want to feel or what you want to achieve, you can take the next best step toward your personal goal. You just have to have a sense of what you want your life to be like and be willing to take the necessary steps to get there, which might also include getting support from a friend who’s walked a similar path, a coach, a therapist, a recovery group, or all of the above and more. Be open to exploring all avenues to reach your destination.

It’s also important to see how the behavior has served you — even if the behavior is so-called “bad.” For example, I once knew someone who had struggled with heroin addiction. He had been sober for a couple years when I knew him and was active in a recovery program. His family had a history of drug abuse, so his struggle was not considered “abnormal” among those closest to him. However, he had come to the realization that his addiction was holding him back from things he wanted to pursue in his life. As part of his recovery he realized that using heroin had helped him relate to, understand and fit in with those around him. And when he described his rituals around preparing a dose he also shared that he loved that part of the process as much as oblivion offered by the drug. He took his love of ritual and replaced it with magic— that’s a whole other essay, but yes he was a magician. I found it very insightful that he’d been able to extract and retain a core desire, his love of ritual, from what had also been a hellish existence. 

If something is demonized or shut away in a box and labeled bad it tends to grow in the dark into a much larger entity. Instead, it’s healthier to pull it out into the light, take it apart and examine each element to see what is useful and what is not.

By breaking free ourselves we become a light for anyone looking to leave the darkness.

Finally, and perhaps the most challenging part, is how can you lose the dysfunction and keep the family? I believe the answer lies in the age old adage of “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” You can love the baby and discard the bathwater. Be prepared to get splashed, and I’d recommend staying deeply dialed in to your support team so that you don’t succumb to the muscle memory of falling into whatever ways your family dysfunction manifests. It’s hard to diverge from the pack. Most of us don’t want to be outliers, after all, we are pack animals. It is therefore important to also be part of a new pack that is aligned with your new vision.

If we’re doing something different from what has always been within our family that can lead to the others in the family assuming that their actions are less desirable. Our job isn’t to judge or placate others, but simply to forge the happiest and healthiest path for ourselves. In doing so hopefully we’ll inspire those around us who want the same things for themselves. 

Recently I was on an encouragement call and a woman was sharing an experience about how she used her Buddhist practice to overcome alcoholism, which had also plagued her father. She shared this: when we speak from our mind, we can change minds; when we speak from our heart, we can change hearts; but when we speak from experience, we can change lives.

Breaking free from family dysfunction is an ongoing experience that will change the life of the person who is shedding the habits or beliefs that no longer serve them, and it has the potential to change the lives of everyone who witnesses the transformation. By breaking free ourselves we become a light for anyone looking to leave the darkness.

Tags: Family, Mental Health, Self Care

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Simbi Hall

Filmmaker Simbiat Hall graduated with honors from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a double major from the Institute... See Full Bio

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