When Family Feels Like Foe
(Stigma Series - Part 3 of 6)
Sharing my thoughts on this topic proved to be much more difficult than I anticipated. How do I
share experiences that are simultaneously the source of my deepest trauma and my resilience
in a manner that is constructive, objective, and helpful to others? You try packaging all of the
reasons you felt unloved, used, or lesser than in a gift that gives others hope and courage. Well,
let’s walk this tight rope together and see where we land.
When figuring out how to navigate situations with difficult family members, there are several
strategies, but the common theme is establishing healthy boundaries. First, what is a “difficult”
family member? I’m not talking about the occasional disagreement with your parents on how
late you can stay out, or disputes with siblings about borrowed money. I’m talking about
recurring situations that compromise your mental, emotional, and sometimes physical well
being. If this post applies to you, then you know what I’m talking about.
My sibling used to verbally abuse me often, physically abuse me occasionally, and induce social
discomfort to isolate me. I craved the approval and positive attention of this older sibling, in
vain. Every time this person committed an offense against me, I would be upset for a small
period of time, but then convince myself that the faithful, Christian thing to do is to forgive
easily and move forward, acting as though everything is okay. What the young and naive me
didn’t realize was that I was enabling the negative behavior by making it easy for this person to
fall back into my good graces, with no consequence for their inappropriate behavior towards
me. There was no opportunity for remorse, establishing boundaries, and therefore no correction.
My father is perhaps the most difficult character in my life. Skilled in manipulation, half truths,
and self serving schemes. I realize now that it is his deep insecurities that led him to tear down
and use every member of my family. Leaving wife and child with deep wounds and insecurities
induced by coexisting with a fallen male figure that failed at each of his patriarchal duties. As I
learned his behavioral patterns, I was able to slowly understand and reverse the lies that were
bestowed on me. Lies of unworthiness, abandonment, hatred, and anger.
Growing up with such characters tore me down in ways I didn’t even realize until I did the deep
and difficult work of facing my traumas as an adult, and moving towards healing. It also built
me up in ways that I am so very grateful for. I fostered a resilience that could not have been
harvested in anything but a tumultuous home. I learned how to observe and identify the
behaviors of narcissists, and those who abuse because they have been abused. I developed a
deep sense of empathy, compassion, and inner strength. If I was able to survive that and
remain whole, kind, and generous, then the future is bright, and my heart has much to look
The hardest part is starting to move away from the chaos of blurred boundaries. To establish
order in your life, specifically as it pertains to your relationships, you must understand your
limits, and how you will allow, or not allow, yourself to be treated. There comes a point where
you can no longer blame others, like your parents or your circumstances, for your dismal state
of being. You must take responsibility for your current state of affairs, define who you are,
refine your personality, choose the direction in which you will lead your life, and take aim at
this direction relentlessly.
Get comfortable with confrontation. We often avoid this terrible “C” word, thinking we are
doing ourselves, and those we avoid it with, a favor. FALSE. You are not only hurting yourself,
you are also hurting the person whom you refuse to confront by robbing them of both the
knowledge that they are offensive and of the opportunity to improve. If they treat you this way,
they are likely to treat another this way, and therefore making themselves contemptible to
society. Jordan Peterson writes “To sacrifice ourselves to God does not mean to suffer silently
and willingly, when some [person] demands more from us consistently than is offered in return.
That means we support tyranny, and allowing ourselves to be treated like slaves. It is not
virtuous to be victimized by a bully, even if that bully is oneself.” The bitterness of the
confrontation will pass. Prepare yourself to weather the initial discomfort of frigid exchanges
that might ensue. Be assured that the spring will follow, and the flowers of improved
interpersonal interactions will blossom. And if they don’t blossom, then know that the land was
barren before you came along to till it.
Establishing boundaries starts with being able to have difficult conversations, or take the
necessary actions to indicate that you will not accept less than the respect you offer, and the
respect you deserve. You deserve some respect. You are important to other people, as much as
yourself. You are morally obliged to take care of, help, and be good to yourself. “You have to
articulate your own principles so that you can defend yourself against others taking
inappropriate advantage of you, and so that you are secure and safe while you work and play”
(12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos; J.B.Peterson).
I also recommend you arm yourself with knowledge. Understand the personality types with
whom you are engaging with and learn to negotiate. You must negotiate, on your behalf and on
behalf of the life you wish to establish for yourself and your family. Everything is a negotiation.
With parents, children, spouse, in-laws, and peers. This will help you realize that the problems
you are facing are not personal, and that there is something you can do about it. Educate
yourself on how to cope, and how to transform.
If you feel your family is perceived poorly by your community because of the difficult
personalities you were raised with/by, and you feel like a victim of the social stigma, then
What you focus on becomes your reality. If you focus on being an ill labeled victim, then you
will believe that to be the case. If you instead choose to concentrate on all the ways your
community brings you joy, life, and opportunities, you will thrive. Your perception is entirely up
to you. Give yourself a fighting chance; choose to bring the blessings of your church community
to the forefront, and try your best to minimize the impact of negative behavior. Surround
yourself with those of your community who can build you up and support you, and avoid the
rest. However, it is likely that this “judgement” of which you speak is a result of your own worst
enemy… the inner critic. We often perceive that we are judged much more harshly than we
actually are. We tend to be a little self centered in that way - we think people are thinking and
talking about us way more than they actually are, because they are too busy consumed with
their own problems and self-image.
Learn to grow thicker skin, and focus on what actually matters: refining your character. No one
defines who you are and what you become other than yourself. People will have many
opinions, and those opinions are dynamic, often changing as new evidence, events, or
circumstances present themselves. One day you are a villain, the next you are the lamb. The
only Judgement you are to concern yourself with is God’s. What does scripture have to say
about you? Study that and hang onto it. You never truly know what people are thinking, and
even if by some miracle you did, how important is this person’s opinion? Will it supply you with
salvation? Unlikely. So please, do not do yourself the disservice of making decisions about how
you feel about yourself based on what others may think. You are your own person and do not
carry the sins of your family. If you are consistent enough in displaying your true character,
people will see you for who YOU are, and not for who your family is.
I leave you with this, if I can survive, and even thrive while experiencing the trauma of my
circumstances, then you certainly can too. You must find the courage to do what is necessary to
take care of yourself. Not only because you owe yourself as much, but because you owe it to
God and to society to be a healthy contributing member of His Body. Show up for yourself so
that you can show up for others. Our God is a loving, merciful, generous, gracious God. He will
bless you with the wisdom and empathy you need to improve your relationships and build a
healthier future. It’s not an easy endeavor, but I promise it’s worth it. You are worth it.