If you are a part of the Brown Girl Trauma community, you may have started to realize you grew up in a dysfunctional family. This one is it.
Do you ever hear your friends talk about how supportive their families were/are growing up, and you find your thoughts going at war with each other? Or maybe, now as an adult, you are finding yourself unable to choose healthier ways of responding to your environment. How many times has this thought come to your head, 'I am alone in my experiences.'
The South Asian community does a good job of brushing topics like abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction under the rug. I have also seen them normalized. It does not surprise me then that most of us grew up thinking we are crazy or alone.
However, when you brush essential topics like these under the rug, you do not realize their impact on your life. Growing up in an unhealthy or dysfunctional family forced you to adopt unhealthy survival habits. These survival habits continue to show up in your workplace, relationships, experiences until you do the inner work. You will continue to regress to a stage in your childhood.
If you are someone like me, I KNOW you are angry. You are angry that you were robbed of a childhood. It doesn't seem fair that you are working twice as hard to repair the damage you didn't even ask for, and because you are so busy repairing, you are now missing out on adulthood. I understand. Take a breath.
You are now reaching a stage where you know you are NOT alone. There is an entire community that stands with you, and healing is possible.
What is a Dysfunctional Family?
A dysfunctional family is a family in which members cause harm to your physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social health. The word 'dysfunctional' carries negative connotations implying people are dysfunctional which is not the case. People are not dysfunctional, their unhealthy patterns, choices, and behaviors are dysfunctional or unhealthy.
A dysfunctional family has abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction like substance use, mothers being treated violently, witnessing violence, constant arguments, unpredictable (often chaotic) behaviors, extremely rigid or no rules at all, alcoholism, threats to safety, incarceration, untreated mental illness, divorce (having children constantly pick sides), and cultural expectations. This list can go on and on depending on the severity of the dysfunction.
There are 3 unspoken rules in desi dysfunctional families- don't talk, don't trust, don't feel. It is the language of denial that allows the dysfunctional patterns to continue.
1. Don't Talk
We want everyone to think we are a normal, functional family. We pretend that everything is okay. This is where the secrets, shame, and guilt come in because you were made to stay silent. It is also a reason a lot of you on this page might have shared that you thought you were alone in your experiences.
2. Don't Trust
Your basic needs were probably not met at all or they were met halfway (conditional love) which can be extremely confusing. This is where the lack of trust comes in. This rule also caused you never to seek outside support. Talking to someone might shake your survival, or worse something terrible could happen. You and your family isolated yourselves, and now as an adult, you have rigid ways of dealing with life.
3. Don't Feel
Only certain emotions were allowed in the house. Anything else needed to be hidden away. You want to express your feelings in a healthy manner now but may have grown up watching your parents/family cope in extremely unhealthy ways. The most common emotion I saw growing up was anger. You choose to reveal feelings that will get your basic needs met and suppress the feelings that put you in danger.
Functional Family vs. Dysfunctional Family Characteristics
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Types of Dysfunctional Families
There are many different types of dysfunctional families. Depending on the type of dysfunctional family you have, you may carry different types of problems into adulthood.
1. Addiction and Mental Illness in Dysfunctional Family
This type of family where one or more parent has an addiction, compulsion, and/or mental illness influences the entire family. When we think of a typical South Asian family, mental health is not something you may have talked about, let alone mental illness.
Most of our parents did not have the luxury to stop and think about their mental health. Does that excuse their behaviors? Most certainly not. It does, however, allow us to create some space for empathy.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family surrounded by drugs or alcohol can lead to a chaotic and unpredictable upbringing. You may have felt a sense of confusion throughout most of it. This is where I think dysfunction in South Asian families may be different from other families.
When you first question the dysfunction, some of it is so normalized within the entire community that you think you are crazy or not normal.
How does our community handle it?
The way our community handles alcohol and substance use is by acting like it's normal, denying it, ignoring it, pretending it does not exist, keeping it a secret, shaming people that struggle with it, acting like it's not a big deal, in silence, or justifying it. How many times have you been to a family party, and the uncles get intoxicated to a point they can't stand straight. Don't even get me started on how women are shamed for drinking.
It is one thing to socially and occasionally enjoy yourself with drinking. However, when that drinking consistently interferes with your ability to function in your environment further leading to disrupting others' lives, that is when it starts to get dysfunctional.
The severity of dysfunction also matters. Some parents might have a drinking or substance use problem causing them to emotionally or physically withdraw from their environment. At the same time, some parents might physically, emotionally, verbally, or sexually abuse their family members, therefore, engaging in their environment in harmful ways. Some parents who are unable to show their affection towards their children when they are sober may do so when they are intoxicated in a not age-appropriate way anymore. Some families may experience financial hardships.
You may have been in a space where you are constantly worried about your siblings or parent's safety, which made leaving the house impossible. This inconsistency and unpredictability of not knowing which parent you may have tonight affect your mental health significantly.
Looking at your generational history, it is evident that most of our parents have some form of undiagnosed mental illness. It becomes problematic when that family member refuses help, and you have to take on the role of a caregiver to meet their needs.
2. Emotionally Detached Dysfunctional Family
In an emotionally detached family, one or both parents fail to provide adequate emotional support. Most children of immigrants can attest to this. Your parents might have provided all you needed to be successful in life but missed one key ingredient: emotional support. It is very uncommon in desi dysfunctional families to receive hugs, saying I love you, or holding hands.
If you have tried to attempt this, you may have noticed it turns awkward rather quickly. Our parents didn't grow up with emotional support, so their response makes sense. However, this taught you to repress your own emotions. As you got older, you continued to suppress your feelings leading to difficulties sharing how you feel.
Growing up, family dinners, talking about your day, talking about dating life, doing activities together were probably uncommon. As you showing up in your relationships, it may be overwhelming if you are asked to share too much too soon. It just does not feel normal. Feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem, and fear of abandonment may be common.
Now you may be wondering why this is dysfunctional? Again, it depends on the severity of dysfunction, and not having emotional support as a child can damage their self-esteem and emotional health. When your emotional needs are consistently denied, ignored, invalidated, or not appreciated- that is emotional neglect.
3. Controlling Dysfunctional Family
Parents treat their children as possessions and have strong authoritarian control over their children. This is the family where mistakes are not allowed, but high (primarily unrealistic) expectations are placed on their child. Punishments often include hitting, spanking, and/or yelling. Because of this, you may now be finding yourself unable to learn from your mistakes or make decisions on your own.
Parents are often found to be the decision-makers for their children in the South Asian community. All significant and meaningful life choices are made by the parents, usually with little regard for their child's wants. This creates resentment, anger, and, more important, concerns like depression, anxiety, and substance use as you get older. The classic 'because I said so' is something we have all heard at some point in our life. When you choose to do something against their control, you may have been met with guilt trips, manipulation, chaotic, and/or unpredictable means.
Other unhealthy ways of controlling are constant comparison, excessive criticism, inadequate or ineffective communication, expectations of perfectionism, and conditional love.
4. Abuse & Neglect in Dysfunctional Family
This is a family where abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) and neglect (physical and emotional) are prevalent. Witnessing violence in the house or forced to participate in the violence is also abuse. The constant unpredictability, chaos, mothers being treated violently all impact your mental health.
5. Ultra-Religious Dysfunctional Family
This is an excessively religious family. Their life choices, experiences, surroundings are all in response to their religious beliefs. The South Asian community is well known for its traditions, rituals, and ideas. There is nothing wrong with being a religious person. We need religion to keep order and hope alive in society. I do believe that. However, when parents, family members, and/or community use religion to control their child or force them into their beliefs, that is when the dysfunction starts.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I've found that most dysfunctional families can fit into these 5 categories that we can further expand on depending on the type of dysfunction and severity. A family can be more than one from this list as well.
Dysfunctional Family Roles
1. The Caretaker:
- Makes excuses for the family
- People Pleaser
- Wants the family to stay together, so will try to smooth over the conflicts
- Taking on the problems that are not theirs to carry
- In denial about the severity of the dysfunction
- Tries to fix the dysfunction by self-sacrificing
2. The Scapegoat
- Usually blamed for the problems in the house
- Often seen as the problem child and black sheep of the family
- Internalizes shame and guilt
- Craved independence and distance from the family
- Constantly criticized
- The whistleblower of the family
- Ignored for speaking the truth about the dysfunction in the house
3. The Hero
- Takes on a parent role
- Strives for perfectionism
- Constantly trying to make the family look good-caretaker of the family
- Often burdened by guilt, shame, and pressure that they will never talk about.
- Tries to normalize the chaos by false hope
- Successful on the outside, but struggles internally
4. The Lost Child
- Invisible family member.
- Withdraws as a way to deal with family dysfunction.
- Tries to avoid all conflict and talks about family dysfunction by spending time alone.
- Deny their own needs by burying their feelings of guilt and shame.
- Difficulty making decisions.
- Tries their best to not create any problems.
5. The Mascot
- Uses humor as a way to avoid family issues.
- They crave approval.
- They appear as if nothing really bothers them but often burdened with guilt, shame, and fear.
- Constantly busy to avoid facing the dysfunction in the house.
- Usually feels confused and lonely as they continue to avoid feeling pain.
The Impact of Growing Up In a Dysfunctional Family
Depending on the severity of the dysfunction, you may have some long-lasting effects. Many of you have connected with each other's experiences not because you knew one another but because you had similar survival strategies or understood each other from a cultural perspective. For some, it was therapeutic enough to realize you were not alone finally.
Some common traits you might be noticing in yourself are:
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Feelings of loss
- Taking everything personally
- Addictive habits
- Getting emotionally flooded easily
- Unable to regulate your emotions
- Having difficulty living a life that is not full of chaos and unpredictability
- Not having a 'normal'
- Constantly seeking approval from others
- Performance anxiety
- Loss of identity
- You constantly play the victim card
- You try to 'fix' people
- Fear of abandonment
- Low self-esteem
This list is not exhaustive but gives you a pretty good idea.
How to Deal With a Dysfunctional Family
The first step towards healing is recognizing you come from a dysfunctional family. This takes incredible courage to do. Like many South Asians, you realize your family's sacrifices to ensure you have a successful future.
To question their ways of doing it may feel like you are abandoning them or betraying them. However, it is important to reflect on how your past is affecting your current and future life.
Ways to deal with a dysfunctional family:
- Spend time around people who are good for your mental health, provide you with a stable environment, and that has consistency in behavior.
- Physically distance yourself during heated situations. Don't try to explain or make demands for them to change especially if your safety is in question.
- Have a routine to keep yourself busy.
- Setting goals. For example, working towards getting out of the toxic environment.
- Sleepover at a trusted friend or family member's house if that is an option.
- Journal out their triggers, actions, and words. Then journal how that made you feel, what words triggered you, why, and how that was not related to you.
- Have boundaries in place. If boundaries are not respected, reflect on how your boundaries were violated.
- Find a mental escape: meditation, music, yoga, chai break, art, shower, watch funny videos, call/visit a friend.
- Find a space in your house that you consider safe. For example, your room or closet. If you can't find the space, substitute it with taking a walk outside or call a trusted friend/adult/family member.
- Therapy: Find affordable therapy options like sliding scale therapy, community mental health clinics, therapy apps, local support groups, or crisis hotlines.
- If you are a student, contact your School Social Worker, School Counselor, Teacher, and/or Coach. They are there to help you.
- If you live in a home environment where there is violence or immediate threats of danger, seek help right away.
- Have a code word that you share with a trusted adult or friend in the event you are in an unsafe situation and need an alternate option.
- Find an ACA meeting near you.
- Create distance between their behavior and your self-worth.
- Remind yourself- you will get through this.
JOURNAL PROMPTS TO RECOGNIZE YOUR PATTERNS:
- What are you feeling right now?
- Identify what triggered the situation driving the emotion.
- How did you act because of this emotion?
- Was there a better way of coping with your feelings?
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Healing means working through those rules and understanding that they no longer serve you. It is important you talk about your experiences in a safe space. Building trust will take time, but when you learn to set boundaries and understand your needs, you will learn to trust again.
Finally, it is important to process ALL of your feelings. This can be terrifying at first since they might have been suppressed for so long. It can be confusing and you might find yourself labeling emotions according to what was acceptable. This is where journaling, therapy, and talking about your experiences with people you consider safe is important. Read my post on 'The 15 Lessons I Learned Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family'
Most of us struggled with the shame, guilt, fear, and loneliness we are feeling. It was not your fault. You are enough. You are worthy. Your family dysfunction does not define who you are-your choices do.