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March 11, 2024

The Cost of Growing up in a Dysfunctional Family—& How to Become a “Cycle Breaker.”

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“A dysfunctional family is a family with more than one person in it.” ~ Mary Karr


Well, going by this, every family brings with it some level of dysfunctionality, doesn’t it?

A family has all of these unique entities bound to each other by blood and emotions, and they bring in their individual elements to function as a unit. Some clash of ideologies, opinions, ways of being, personalities, choices, conflict, disagreements, and misalignments will always be a part and parcel of human relationships and families.

A family needs to be a self-sustaining, self-sufficient functional unit wherein all members can comfortably rely on each other, communicate their thoughts and emotions, understand each others’ needs and desires, and create room for each person to grow at their own will and pace. A little bit of dysfunction here and there is understandable and accepted as well.

However, when we talk about a dysfunctional family, there is more to it. It is a family unit that is characterised by persistent and harmful patterns of behavior, communication, and relationships that impede its members’ well-being. In such families, there is often a breakdown in healthy communication, trust, and emotional support as it is riddled with conflict, chaos, and instability. In some, there is also a prevalence of emotional or physical abuse, neglect, substance use, financial crisis, addictions, and other kinds of unfair or ill treatment.

Being a part of such a unit that defies the very idea of a family is not only hard but extremely painful and more so for a child. When a child is born, he is completely dependent on the adults around him to care for him and give him a safe, nurturing environment where he can freely explore, grow, and get his needs met in order to become a fully functioning, healthy adult who is capable of taking care of himself. An adult who not only knows how to survive but also thrive.

It is in this family unit that every tiny human being learns how to interact with himself and the world around him. Therefore, being surrounded by healthy adults in a safe, healthy, functional environment is a must for children. But what happens when a child grows up in an environment that is the opposite of all this? He grows up feeling lost, confused, and afraid.

When adults find it hard to navigate so much conflict and so many dysfunctions around them despite the fact that they are mature and developed enough, imagine what it does to a child. Sadly, that’s not something that a lot of adults can even begin to comprehend because they are so busy normalising and glorifying the existence of some things that shouldn’t come with the category of family.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family impacts us in so many ways that we might not even realize, such as:

1. It constantly keeps us in survival mode where we feel we’re not able to be our true self and are always trying to meet some ends. We’re worried, anxious, and small things stress us out.

2. It leads to mental, emotional, and even physical issues because of the constant patterns of conflict, chaos, stress, neglect, verbal or physical onslaught that we have to keep managing.

3. It creates dents in our self-esteem because we’ve grown up in an environment that could never really understand, accept, and embrace us for who we are and is constantly trying to turn us into a version that we are not. We grow up questioning our self-worth because people around us never give us the importance that we need.

4. It makes it difficult to forge and maintain healthy relationships because the relationship lens is covered with so many traumas and unhealthy ideas about relationships because of previous experiences and conditioning. In fact, a lot of us don’t have a concept of what a healthy relationship even looks like because we’ve never seen it.

5. It makes us feel lonely, isolated, and not understood and this is more for someone who simply doesn’t fit into their own family mould.

6. We think that a lot of unhealthy, dysfunctional patterns of behaviours are actually normal because that’s what we know.

7. We struggle to understand and manage our own emotions because either we didn’t receive the emotional support that we needed while growing up or we picked up unhealthy ways of coping from our environment—or both.

8. We struggle with insecurities of all kinds and aren’t able to trust our decisions. Hence, we’re always worried and unsure of ourselves and our choices.

9. We feel disconnected with ourselves and struggle to embrace who we really are or want to be because we’re afraid of being criticised, rejected, and abandoned.

There’s a lot more that happens when we come from a dysfunctional family where our needs are neglected or not met and our emotional world has been chaotic or empty or both.

But just because we come from such a family doesn’t mean that there is no other way. There is another path that one can choose to take—the path of a cycle breaker. Even though dysfunctions can run from one generation to another, there will always be someone who will wake up and smell the coffee. There will be one person who will feel the pain and discomfort deeply and won’t be able to fit in no matter how hard they try. They are the ones who will feel all the above and more and will eventually fall apart and break down, only to learn to put themselves back up differently each time.

Cycle breakers are the ones who will be forced to recognise the dysfunctions and faulty conditioning that run in their families and work on themselves to forge a different path. Is everyone a cycle breaker? No.

Can everyone be a cycle breaker? Yes, if we so choose.

But being a cycle breaker is not easy. It is difficult, challenging, and painful on so many levels. First, the realisation that no matter how hard you try you just cannot adjust in your environment and that so many things don’t add up for you makes it so hard for you to live peacefully.

Second, you will find yourself grappling with numerous mental, emotional, and physical challenges that will keep nudging you to take help so that you can find alternative courses of action. You will always find yourself questioning why things are the way they are only to realise that it’s you who will have to change and then it’s about really getting down to it and doing the work on yourself to intentionally break out of years of conditioning and dysfunctions.

While everyone has the potential to break these cycles, not everyone does. In fact, some don’t even realise that there is another way of being because the dysfunction seems so normal. For some, the dysfunction becomes a part of their personalities and life and simply resign to it out of helplessness.

Then there are those who have an inner voice that tells them that this is not it and there has to be another way out. Only when they decide to become intentional with themselves and their lives will they be able to slowly break out of these painful cycles.

“A cycle breaker is someone who grew up without any example of the kind of life they wanted or needed and fought like hell to build that life later.” ~ Nate Postlethwait

In order to break out of years of faulty and dysfunctional conditioning, one needs to:

1. Understand and become aware of the unhealthy patterns that are a part of us and our family’s conditioning.

2. Acknowledge and work through the impact of those dysfunctional patterns and difficult experiences on ourselves.

3. Take stock of our own mental, emotional, and physical health.

4. Learn to set healthy boundaries even with families and build assertiveness skills to stand our ground.

5. Develop and focus on our vision for our own life.

6. Challenge and change our own unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving that are coming in the way of our own growth.

7. Understand that maybe we will not get the kind of love, understanding, acceptance, and validation that we want from our own family.

8. Work on reparenting ourselves.

In essence, it’s about going against everything that we have seen, experienced, and believed all these years to create a different set of ideas and beliefs that feel more aligned with who we are and want to be at the cost of feeling like a constant misfit in our own family and, sometimes, that is what we truly need to do, irrespective of how painful it may be because it will be.

Accepting reality, adjusting expectations, and going within one’s own self to do the deeper work of healing and reparenting is more than simply being tough. It’s an experience that we don’t want to have yet at some level we need to because that’s the only way out. When we don’t see reality for what it is and don’t make informed and intentional choices, we succumb to a life of unhappiness, misery, and unfulfillment, and life has a lot of ways to make us feel this way anyway. But we do owe it to ourselves to take charge of our own lives.

“Breaking a bad cycle can sometimes break a system. But breaking a system will always break the cycle. It’s only a difference in degree of certainty.” ~ Alexandra Bracken

It’s only when we decide to break cycles of dysfunctions and step into a more intentional life do we become able to:

>> Differentiate between what is truly healthy and working for us and what isn’t.

>> We are able to choose better and more effective coping mechanisms that make us more resilient.

>> Create a healthy relationship with ourselves and others around us and build new ones that fit in with our definitions of healthy relationships rather than accepting them just because they exist in a certain way.

>> Set and maintain clear and healthy boundaries that protect and preserve our mental, emotional, and physical peace.

>> We feel more aligned with our self, life, and visions.

>> We are able to be our true selves as we begin to see ourselves from a clearer and cleaner lens.

All of this requires a lot of work to unlearn faulty patterns and learn newer ways of being. It takes time, patience, and energy because at the end of the day, it is about unbecoming who we were and becoming who we are—that doesn’t happen in a day. It is and will always be a journey of a lifetime.

It’s not easy being a cycle breaker, but it’s rewarding for sure. It may not be everyone’s journey, even though it can be. But for anyone who chooses to break out, there is and will always be light at the end of the tunnel—a light that will lead you home to yourself and that in itself is worth it.

“Be the person who breaks the cycle. If you were judged, choose understanding. If you were rejected, choose acceptance. If you were shamed, choose compassion. Be the person you needed when you were hurting, not the person who hurt you. Vow to be better than what broke you—to heal instead of becoming bitter so can act from your heart, not your pain.” ~ Lon Deschene


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