When Family Ties Are Too Tight

Posted by: Farah Lodi on March 13, 2015 8:23 am

These days I’m working with several clients from collectivist family -oriented cultures. For them, the importance of family values translates into extended family having the same power, influence, rights and responsibilities as nuclear family. When family ties are harmonious then kinship is an excellent source of support and security. But when there’s conflict in the clan, then inter-personal relationships can be harder to navigate because of demanding relatives. Usually these are enmeshed relationships in a very large family unit. It’s like there’s a fire burning in your living room, where everyone congregates. You can’t escape it, you are trapped, and you feel the heat no matter what.

puzzle-210786_640For clients with this world view, a family feud centered around a distant uncle can have the same distressing effect as conflict with a spouse or brother. These clients may rely on external validation from family, have weak personal boundary strength, and easily “catch” emotions from others. The rights that one accords to parents, spouse and siblings are linked to a much wider circle of people. Stressful situations with an aunt, sister-in-law or even cousin who culturally qualify as near and dear- can lead to psychological issues for whoever is at the receiving end of demands, criticism or complaints. Hyper- arousal and elevated cortisol levels can be as easily triggered by distant relatives, as by immediate family. This can activate automatic negative thoughts of “I’m not good enough” with core beliefs emphasizing that “family should come first”. When there’s a lot of trouble the realization that “my family is not happy or normal” can result in unhealthy comparisons, feelings of helplessness and insecurity. In many cultures, when there’s strife in the family, this is a source of shame. These clients then have to deal with guilt and self-worth issues.

When the fire is in the main part of the house and clients are experiencing relationship-related burn-out, then I help my clients symbolically re-locate to another room. Distancing and detachment from difficult extended family members involves developing more adaptive and healthy personal boundaries. The challenge in counselling is dismantling rigidly held beliefs about family and helping the client see at least some aspects of their life through an individualistic lens. It involves the acceptance that you can’t please all family members, nor can you control them – you can only control your own thoughts and attitudes. New skills and concepts which may not be part of traditional family values are introduced, such as individual rights, personal space, self-compassion and self-care. Time and again, I find that I need to help my clients re-define what aspects of culture work, and don’t work for them. Therapeutic success depends on their ability to loosen tight knots when appropriate, and embrace new ways of thinking. That doesn’t mean abandoning family ties, it just means finding the right balance where you honor and respect your extended family AND ALSO YOURSELF.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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