Growing up in a dysfunctional family, I learned many powerful lessons. I am sharing a list of some of the most valuable ones so far.
When raised in constant chaos, unpredictability, and fear, you don't think about what lessons you are learning through your experiences. We focus on surviving.
As I continue my healing journey, I have been reflecting on lessons I learned growing up in a dysfunctional family, especially as a South Asian woman. I was only focused on surviving the day. It wasn't until I read a quote by Richard Kadrey that stuck with me-
"When you're born in a burning house, you think the whole world is on fire. But it's not."
When I stepped outside of my burning house, I realized I was going to be okay. I decided to share with you 15 lessons I learned growing up in a dysfunctional family. You will learn to reflect on your experiences, and hopefully, find some of these lessons to move forward in your healing journey.
15 Lessons I Learned Growing Up In A Dysfunctional Family
1. I accepted that I come from a dysfunctional family
Acceptance was a big piece of my healing journey (and the scariest). Like many children of immigrants, I watched my parents struggle as they were raising us. They left their country and moved to the land of opportunity for my sisters and me. The guilt and confusion that surrounds this was not easy, and it continues to be something that I learned to separate.
The pressure of showing our family that their sacrifices were indeed worth it. Whew! I found all the excuses in the book to justify why their behavior was okay. I needed it to be okay. Not being okay at the time meant something was wrong with my family, which is a scary reality.
The breakthrough came with the help of therapy, and I accepted that my family was unhealthy. Growing up in a dysfunctional family was not something I needed to hide. Acceptance did not mean I was blaming those who did me wrong, but rather the first step towards liberating myself from the burden I carried of masking the pain.
2. Anything that comes at a cost to my mental health cannot and should not be worth it.
When it comes to our family's needs, growing up, I learned that I needed to sacrifice my own needs or at least place the needs of others before my own. Unfortunately, mental health is an incredibly neglected topic in our community and something we are only starting to discuss.
I first learned about mental health when I moved back to the United States in high school. I had started understanding the impact of the dysfunctional family dynamics I grew up with and reason I was constantly feeling stressed out, depleted, and zoned out of my own life.
I started to understand the privilege of accepting that anything that comes at a cost to my mental health cannot be worth it. I learned the importance of setting boundaries and tuning into my needs before I showed up for anyone else. My ability to care for those around me was much better when I learned to prioritize myself first.
3. Life is all about the choices I make.
Growing up as a South Asian woman, I frequently relied on my family to make choices for me. My ability to choose for myself was always there, but the fear attached to it was real. Also, at some level, it never occurred to me that I could choose for myself because, like most of us, our parents/family have been making decisions for us. It wasn't until I hit rock bottom with my depression that I realized I was paying a considerable price for the choices they were making for me. That is when I chose to take control of my life.
I accepted that I could live another way even if my family chose not to. Therapy allowed me to explore possibilities that I didn't think were available to me. Distancing myself from the dysfunctional family dynamics became necessary when I started reflecting on my ability to make choices. I was not leaving my dysfunctional family behind; I was beginning to learn how to choose healthier alternatives for myself allowing me to be there for my family.
The ability to reflect on this lesson also allowed me to work on my relationship with my family- a choice I made for myself. My parents also saw that they raised me right and could trust that I would make a decision that had been well thought out.
4. I am not responsible for maintaining my community's honor at the expense of my mental health.
Despite the physical, mental, and spiritual damage caused, there was an expectation to respect my elders and our community members. The classic 'what will people say?' haunts many of us. I cared about what people would have to say for a long time. Now that I think about the 'why,' it was because I was raised to believe that how our community viewed my choices were also directly related to how my parents raised me. If the community did not approve, your parents/family disagreed.
When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you learn to keep your mental health a secret and our struggles a mystery; you don't ask for help, you aren't allowed to challenge outdated thought patterns, marital pressure, etc. - this all costs your mental health. So as I started my healing journey, I began to question this guilt I felt every time I decided that wasn't the norm.
Despite what the community believed, is the choice I made for myself a reflection of my authentic self? If yes, then it was worth moving forward. Also, the realization that this is a challenging process. The guilt, shame, and confusion that come with making these choices remain extremely real.
5. It was never my job to heal my dysfunctional family.
Those who grew up in dysfunctional families may feel we have to take on the responsibility of healing our family. I know I felt that way. It was hard to see my family suffer. I wanted to take that pain away at whatever cost. However, I have realized and accepted that the dysfunction my family members live with was not mine to fix.
We must each take responsibility for our healing journey. Guilt and Shame can consume us when we feel like we failed to heal our loved ones, but it was not a burden I needed to carry. Their pain was their responsibility, just like my healing was my responsibility. This is something I continue reminding myself.
You can choose to share your journey and things you have found helpful to break out of the cycle of family dysfunction, allowing your family members to see that there is a world outside of the burning house.
With my own family, my parents have evolved a lot. Our relationship has improved significantly, and we have continued to get closer. I have learned to pick my battles and realize that there may be certain things they might never understand due to the generational gap, which is okay. So I listen to their experiences, take what I find helpful, and leave the rest.
6. My parents and family members are the first templates for my relationships and attachments.
Our parents and family members are our first templates for how we see and approach relationships. Most of us who grew up in dysfunctional families might see dysfunctional patterns, abuse, neglect, etc., and consider this normal because we grew up in that. It was my normal; it was my family's normal. My attachments to my parents and family influenced my attachments to other relationships in my life. It created my attachment styles.
This template was an essential insight during my healing journey after reflecting on my patterns and how I showed up in my relationships. The point was not to blame, but the point was to understand. I needed to understand my patterns and engage in some self-reflection, allowing me to show up in a way that is not projecting past trauma.
Working on my attachment style also allowed me to change the way I was showing up for my family. I learned to prioritize my needs and then be available for my family allowing room for empathy and growth.
7. It does get better.
No matter my current circumstances, I knew things would eventually change one day. All I had to do was take it one day at a time and make it through that part of my life. My family dysfunction did not define me- my choices did.
When we are in the midst of chaos, it can be hard to see a potential positive to our situation, but I am so glad I did not give up on myself. Choice by choice, I pulled myself out of the mud and am so proud of the life I created for myself. On the other side of the dysfunction is healing.
8. Unprocessed trauma does not just disappear.
Trauma is not just in your head. It doesn't just disappear if you ignore it long enough. It leaves imprints on your body and can adversely affect your future health. FORTUNATELY, our body is like a miracle machine with tremendous potential to heal. Our past traumas do not have to continue affecting us.
I have found therapy, journaling, yoga, and a sense of belonging the most valuable ways to start when processing my trauma. What works for one person might not work for the next, so I highly recommend speaking to a professional who provides the safe space and expertise to help you.
Pay attention to your patterns because that is where the answers are. Healing is possible, and you deserve it.
9. My healing journey is deeply personal to me. It is okay if my family does not understand it.
I had to release this idea that I must fix everyone around me to get what I needed. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, you think you have to care for everyone before yourself. Removing that idea helped me realize that I was more than capable of continuing my healing journey on my own. When I started seeking help, I didn't know the trauma was inside my dysfunctional family. I just had this feeling that something was wrong.
As I went through therapy, I reached a point where I realized I needed to leave my house. So I started transitioning a couple of days out of the week, which was hard for my family. They didn't understand why I wasn't around as much anymore.
Don't get me wrong, the guilt I felt for not being home was REAL! Also, when you are surrounded by chaos most of the time, you might notice your anxiety spikes up when you are not in it anymore. This is normal as you transition out, and it does get better. I knew I could not heal in the same environment that made me sick. I had to love from a distance until I was ready to return.
10. My value is not determined by the sacrifices I make.
Please read that again, and keep reading it until it makes sense for you.
11. It is okay to break away from tradition.
This was a big one for me. My mom is religious, and I watched my dad spend his time trying to prove to her and us why there was no God. I grew up with a distorted image of religion and traditions. I attended a Catholic school which made things more confusing. Who do I pray to? Which God is the good God, and which one, according to them, was not the good one?
More importantly, if there is a God, then why am I suffering? As I grew older and learned more about the true meaning of what tradition and religion meant to me, I decided to redefine that for myself. I no longer call myself a religious person. I am a spiritual being going through a human experience.
12. Love does not mean your ability to tolerate.
How many times have you heard people in our community say- "when we love someone, we take out our anger on them," "family always comes first," "we do it because they are family," "women are stronger than men, they can handle it" etc.?
Let me say this loud and as straightforward as possible, love does NOT mean your ability to tolerate it. Being less tolerant of toxic behaviors does not mean you love the person any less. It means you respect yourself more. Have those boundaries!!
13. Boundaries are not bad (even if you are not from a dysfunctional family).
Boundaries are such a hard concept for people in our community to understand. I learned about boundaries during therapy and worked through the guilt for setting those boundaries.
I realized as soon as I put boundaries in place, my family tried to justify or rationalize their behaviors and started playing the victim card. It is essential to reflect on the 'why.' Why did I have to put this boundary in the first place?
I came to realize that boundaries are not a bad thing. It does not make me a bad person. I have the right to say no, and the right to take care of myself FIRST. We are not told enough that putting ourselves before our family is OKAY.
Also, boundaries was the reason I was able to get close to my family again.
14. Your sibling's healing journey will look different than yours despite growing up in the same dysfunctional family.
Many of you wanted to know why you and your siblings cope with your trauma differently, despite similar situations. Some expressed anger that their sibling was doing okay, and they weren't, despite growing up in the same dysfunctional house. Some expressed fear for their sibling's mental health safety, and some of you were healing together.
Many variables can be in play- age, gender, resiliency levels, coping skills, support system, the level of trauma they endured, etc. I have three other sisters, and they process trauma very differently. Initially, was the anger there? Yes. It is a normal response to trauma.
I always stress this- you can only be responsible for your healing journey. You can't force someone to take on their healing journey because you feel it's necessary. Instead, do the inner work, validate your experiences in a safe space, and move forward to creating a more fulfilling life for yourself. That's where it starts.
15. You deserve to live a life that isn't always in survival mode.
I wanted to come home and know that I could rely on those who lived in that house. The first step towards my healing journey was accepting that it was not always the case, especially regarding emotional support.
I started reflecting on my patterns during specific situations and looked at how my family would respond to that situations. I knew I needed to make a change the moment I realized our patterns were similar. As I left the toxic environment, I realized I deserved a life where I thrived.
Allowing myself to step outside of the dysfunction also allowed our family to start healing as we made space for difficult conversations. It allowed me to create room for empathy and forgiveness- a choice I made for myself.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family came with many valuable lessons from learning how to take care of myself to the importance of seeking help when needed. But most importantly, it taught me self-compassion. I hope these lessons help you feel less alone and normalize your emotional experiences.
You are worthy of taking up space in this world.
Rooting for you, always!
What are some lessons you learned growing up a dysfunctional family?