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September 12, 2017
September 12, 2017
Oftentimes it seems family members can push our buttons in ways that no one else can. The fact that we are generally more emotionally reactive to our families than anyone else makes it challenging to function well within our families. The emotion inherent within family relationships creates a dynamic tension between our desire to belong to our families, and our desire to assert our independence.
For the most part, we can manage this tension, as long as things are calm. It's when difficulties arise that tensions heighten and we run into problems. Survival instincts take over at those times, and we tend to react instinctively in an emotional manner, rather than a thoughtful and reasoned way. The point to remember is that these reactions are physiological, not personal.
When our anxiety rises, our brains are hard-wired to interpret it as danger. We automatically go into fight-or-flight survival mode -- or, in some cases, freeze. We may take what someone says or does as a personal affront, when, in fact, it is not.
The downward spiral
Many families I come into contact with feel "stuck." Often something has taken place causing friction in the family, and no one is quite sure how to move forward. For example, one of my siblings once faced an extremely challenging time in his life that centered on his marriage. As the situation escalated, my brother started to withdraw from our family, leading ultimately to a complete break in all ties. I was furious. After all, from my seat, this was difficult to comprehend. I loved my brother. We grew up very close, and we enjoyed each other's company as adults. This experience led to family arguments, accusations and different versions of people's perceptions, which turned into their versions of reality. It was unhealthy and created a downward spiral. The tension ultimately infected the entire family.
Think about it though ... the issue was not what our family was arguing about, but how we reacted to each other.
Have you had a disagreement with a family member that has been tough to get past? Have you found yourself holding a grudge years later, but don't even remember what caused the argument? This shows that often the underlying issue is irrelevant.
Take a look in the mirror
Getting "unstuck" and transforming your family requires you to first take a look in the mirror. That's right -- at yourself. Looking at yourself isn't always easy, but our own behavior is the one thing we each can control. If you change your own behavior, rather than trying to change others, in due time, it will lead to a change in the family system.
This concept is supported by Bowen Family Systems Theory, originated by psychologist and researcher Dr. Murray Bowen. In fact, Bowen Family Systems Theory suggests that focusing on one's own self-awareness and self-management is the key to change.
Looking back at my own family situation, when my brother and I were each ready to approach our situation differently, the outcome changed. When we met up again for the first time in person, after a long work event far away from home for me, we were both nervous. My brother made the effort to drive a few hours to meet me in Charlotte. While filled with angst, we took a non-judgmental approach to listening and understanding one another. In the end, that hard work paid off. We are closer than ever, talk frequently and enjoy spending time whenever possible.
Viktor Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, is famously quoted as saying:
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
Breaking the cycle
If I want to break undesirable patterns, you cannot expect the person you are at odds with to be the one to do it. You should own the situation. So what can you actually do?
If you can learn to manage yourself better when engaging with others, while also experiencing strong emotions and while still acting more thoughtfully, everyone concerned will be better off.
In my previous columns ("The Right Plan Can Bond Your Family Together Better Than Super Glue" and "My Family Drives Me (Financially) Nuts") I shared research illustrating that the vast majority of reasons for the failure of generational wealth transfer are non-financial. And, I demonstrated that there can be consequences if families do not exercise a high degree of purposefulness regarding the non-financial elements of their lives. We also explored what it takes to become an Enterprising Family. Now, we've added a lens around how to thrive in an emotionally complex family system.
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Copyright 2017 The Kiplinger Washington Editors
This article was written by Cima, Katherine W. Dean, Wells Fargo Private Bank, Family Dynamics, Cfp and National Director from Kiplinger and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.