How to Stop Complaining About Your Dysfunctional Family and Start a New Chapter
A Transitional Character Identifies a Destructive Pattern and Sets Out to Change It
While chatting with my 77-year-old mother recently, she characterized her years of parenting my sister, brothers, and me as “martyrdom”: defined in the dictionary as any experience that causes intense suffering. While feeling wounded, I certainly wasn't surprised because my mom never esteemed the role of mother and often referred to parenting as “the selfish life.” Growing up in Catholic boarding schools, she had always planned on becoming a nun, but when she announced her intentions to her father, he forbade it. Marrying my dad and having four children was not her dream, and she was a reluctant mother at best. Her rejection of the maternal role was nothing new in my family's history; my grandmother and great-aunt were indifferent moms as well who eventually abandoned their young daughters. By recognizing this pattern of apathetic mothering and working to break it, I became a transitional character – the first woman in generations to fully embrace parenthood. You, too, can become a transitional character and leave your dysfunctional family behind.
By Becoming a "Transitional Character," You Break Free From Your Dysfunctional Family and Help Future Generations
You will find that it is necessary to let things go; simply for the reason that they are heavy.
What Is a "Transitional Character?"
A transitional character may not have super powers such as the Hulk's astonishing strength or Spider-Man's technical prowess. Yet, within a family's lineage, a transitional character has an almighty influence to right a wrong and stop a destructive pattern whether it's alcoholism, divorce, physical abuse, name-calling, obesity, infidelity, poverty, or illiteracy. A transitional character is that insightful, determined person who says: “No more! This behavior stops now with me. I don't have to parent as I was parented. I will be the change I want to see.”
The concept of transitional characters was first put forth by Carlfred Broderick, a 20th-century psychologist, family therapist, and author. He wrote this about transitional characters:
"The most noteworthy examples are those individuals who grow up in an abusive, emotionally destructive environment and who somehow find a way to metabolize the poison and refuse to pass it on to their children. They break the mold. They refute the observation that abused children become abusive parents, that the children of alcoholics become alcoholic adults, that 'the sins of the fathers are visited upon the heads of children to the third and fourth generation.' Their contribution to humanity is to filter the destructiveness of their own lineage so that generations downstream will have a supportive foundation upon which to build productive lives.”
You Can't Heal What You Can't Feel
I don't regret my past. I just regret the time I've wasted with the wrong people.
How Does One Become a "Transitional Character?"
My journey to become a transitional character was not planned. It came about by accident when my 4-year-old son got diagnosed with autism, causing me to fall into a deep black hole of despair from which I could not escape by myself. I was in my forties, already struggling with depression and social anxiety, just as my three siblings were. My son's diagnosis was the impetus that sent me to a therapist. She connected the dots so I could see the complete picture of my life – how my current grief about my son related to my mother's reluctant parenting when I was a kid.
The therapist helped me deal with old wounds that were re-opening because of my son's condition. At this desperate point in my life, I was longing for a mommy – someone to hug me, cry with me, listen to me, and tell me everything would be okay, someone who would make me feel less alone and less afraid. My mother's coldness at this time only increased my feelings of hopelessness, making me recall how emotionally unavailable she was during my childhood. It was the realization that we never had a close mother-daughter bond.
The therapist helped me come to grips with my mom's reluctant parenting and her inability to give emotional comfort. The hurt little kid in me was finally able to see that my mother's indifference was not because I had been a rotten kid – ugly, stupid, and unlovable. She had rejected me because her mother had rejected her. It was now my responsibility to stop the pattern.
While forever grateful for the therapist who grabbed my hand and pulled me from that dark hole, I believe that many people can become transitional characters without professional help. They simply need to shine a light on their family of origin, do a little detective work, and discover the dysfunction that plagues their family. Identifying the problem is the first step to developing an action plan that will eradicate the destructive pattern.
Michael Jackson Sings "Man in the Mirror," a Song About Personal Empowerment, at the 1988 Grammy Awards—an Amazing Performance
Inner peace begins the moment you choose not to allow another person or event to control your emotions.
How Does a "Transitional Character" Break the Damaging Pattern?
Safe with my therapist, I was able to feel the feelings that I had suppressed for so long. Under her care, I slowly weaned myself off anti-depressants and stopped numbing myself with food. I became pro-active in my journey to become a transitional character.
The first step I took was studying my family's history -- especially my mother's childhood, which was filled with rejections. Her mother, an alcoholic, and her father, a narcissist, couldn't keep their rocky marriage together and, not surprisingly, divorced when she was 6. With neither parent equipped to care for her, my mother went to live in a Catholic boarding school run by the Sisters of the Presentation. A few years later, her mom died from cirrhosis of the liver, drinking herself to death at the age of 36.
Tucked away at Catholic boarding school, my mom became indoctrinated into the religious life and became convinced it was far superior to anything else. She attended Mass each morning where she found peace in the rituals, the commitment, the sacrifice, and the love of God. Nothing in her life would bring as much meaning as being part of this faith community. This was her home, where she belonged, and where she dreamed of staying.
Unfortunately, my mom wasn't strong enough to stand up to her father and pursue her desire. As an only child, she feared disobeying and disappointing him so she reluctantly followed Plan B, becoming a wife and mom. She married my dad at 22 and, like a good Catholic girl, began having children in quick succession even though she had no want to mother.
By looking at my mom's life, I discovered why she had always been such a shadowy figure on the sidelines of my childhood – always there but never there. Her story of living a life she never wanted had become our story, too, and we all suffered because of it. I knew it was time to make changes for the sake of my children and future grandchildren.
How Does a "Transitional Character" Make an Action Plan?
Upon finding the dysfunction within the family, a transitional character forms an action plan to stop it from afflicting her children and future grandchildren. She doesn't waste time playing the “blame game,” pointing a finger at mom, dad, grandma, and uncle to say they're at fault for the family's problems. She's intentional, logical, and goal-oriented in finding ways to stops the destructive behavior.
With the therapist's help, I looked at specific ways my mother had hurt the relationship with her kids. I then decided upon strategies to do it differently with my sons:
Seek advice from professionals, not my children. When I was a teenager, my mother confided her marital problems to me over many years. This was heady stuff at the time, and I felt flattered. Looking back, however, I realize how inappropriate that was – how it damaged the relationship I had with my father and how it burdened me with adult issues when I needed to focus on my own adolescent life. Moreover, as a teen with limited experience, I was not qualified to offer advice to my mom about her marital woes.
Admit when I'm wrong. My mother has always been extremely thin-skinned and cannot take even the slightest criticism. Seeing herself as a martyr, saint, and victim, she holds herself above reproach. Her inability to joke about her foibles and frailties made it impossible to have a close relationship with her. With my own children, I vowed to acknowledge my weaknesses, shortcomings, and screw ups. They know I make mistakes but try to learn from them.
- Start new family traditions. While growing up, we sat in front of the TV for hours like zombies. My mom used television as a babysitter instead of interacting with us, taking us places, and sending us outside to play. With my kids, I vowed to limit the role of television in our home by starting new traditions such as Family Game Night. On Fridays we order a pizza and gather at the dining room table to play games. When the boys were little, it was Don't Break the Ice, Uncle Wiggily, and HiHo! Cheery-O. Now it's Killer Bunnies, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride.
- Accept my children for who they are. Our children are not placed on earth to fill empty places in our hearts or boost our low self-esteem. My mother never saw me for the kid I was: introverted, anxious, and sensitive. She projected on me what she desired: a gregarious and lively daughter with effortless charm and likability. Having a son with autism pushed me to see him as he really is, never compare him to others, and celebrate his uniqueness.
- Don't stuff my feelings. My mother couldn't deal with my emotions because she was too preoccupied with her own. At an early age, I learned to keep my feelings in check by overeating, and I became an obese teenager. As a young adult, I continued to silence them with anti-depressants. Now I feel every feeling, and I deal with them as they come – no more stockpiling emotions for a big blowup later.
A Therapist Can Expedite Your Journey Toward Becoming a "Transitional Character"
There are some people I'm glad I'm not close to anymore.
Becoming a transitional character has empowered me as a parent and a person. I no longer feel like a victim of my childhood but a champion of my children and future grandchildren. I've learned that changing family patterns is a daunting task -- requiring perseverance, patience, and hard work. You, too, can become a transitional character and leave your dysfunctional family behind. But believe me, it's worth the effort.
When I was reading this book, it seemed like the author was speaking directly to me. I had so many moments of recognition as if she knew me and my family situation. Whether you're trying to maintain relations with a dysfunctional family or break free of one, this book is immensely helpful. I highly recommend it for your journey.