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Common Unhealthy Family Dynamics

In my own experience, I have become aware that I spend a lot of time avoiding a normal and healthy human experience – having emotions. As a therapist, I encourage my clients to connect to their emotions. I am a firm believer that you cannot give away what you do not have. With that being said, I am on my own journey to connect with myself and others more deeply. Learning to manage emotions, vulnerability, and honesty are essential skills learned at home. Growing up, I was not taught these skills. I have spent my adult years learning how to experience and process emotions with healthy expression. There are many different ways one can learn to manage emotions and identify feelings.

Family therapy is an excellent approach. It is common for families to fall into dysfunctional communication patterns with each other. Typically, people fall into these traps to avoid feeling. This can feel more comfortable in the moment; however, it is not beneficial to the person or the family in the long run. Facing emotions and connecting with others can feel scary and uncomfortable. It does not always look pretty and can be messy. Having a therapist guide the process can make it more tolerable and give family members greater insight into what is not working and to what is working in the family system. 

Below are examples of dysfunctional communication techniques that families fall into instead of being honest with one another. All of these communication techniques are ways to avoid emotions and confrontation. When I learned to identify these patterns, I discovered I was also missing out on connection, love, and intimacy with my family members and other loved ones. This awareness has helped improve my relationship with myself and others. As you read through these examples, I encourage you to ask yourself if you identify with any of these patterns. If so, then ask yourself, “what am I missing out on in my relationships?”. When a therapist asked me these questions, it struck a chord within me, and I realized some things needed to change. I hope this can be a good start for whoever needs to read this, as it was to me.  

  1. The Blame Game   

Failure to take accountability for one’s actions and emotions leading to the inability to validate another person’s experience. 

Example:

Sister: “My feelings were hurt when you yelled at me”  

Brother: “I reacted like that because you egged me on”

  1. Being Right

 Defending oneself instead of finding a middle ground.

Example:

Partner (1): “I do not like the way you made our bed. It needs to be done this way.”

Partner (2): “I was trying to help; I knew you would be busy this morning”.

Partner (1): “Thanks, but it’s not done the way I like it.” 

  1. Changing the Game  

Deflecting from the issue or question.

Caregiver: “I told you that your room needs to be cleaned before you can go to the movies with your friends”

 Child: “Jane hasn’t cleaned her room and she is out with her friends”

  1. Playing the nice guy

Making other people feel comfortable at the risk of your own beliefs, values, and/or needs.

Example:

An example of this would be a mom that confided her young adult child about her fight with his dad. The child listens and comforts his mom even though he feels uncomfortable and now feels pressured to take sides. 

  1. Gossip 

Talking about someone when they are not present instead of direct confrontation.

Example:

Brother: “Mary is always fighting with mom and getting her way because mom is scared of her”.

Sister: “Yeah, it’s annoying and mom just lets it slide”.

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Q: Is it okay/appropriate to see more than one psychotherapist at the same time?  After all, we sometimes have more than one massage therapist!  Just wondering about your take on this.

A: In general, I recommend having a primary individual psychotherapist who is “in charge” of treatment. That being said, there are situations where it may be appropriate and helpful to work with additional therapists simultaneously.  If you and your therapist desire additional interventions that are outside of your primary therapist’s specialties then your therapist may refer you to another therapist for specific interventions, like EMDR or neurofeedback, for example.

It’s also appropriate and often recommended to have additional therapists for different treatment modalities, like group, marriage, or family therapy. In marriage counseling or family therapy the client is actually the “marriage” or the “family” instead of the individuals. I hope this helps answer your question. Feel free to write again with more specific details about your situation.

Take good care of yourself!

Julie Hanks, LCSW

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