April 14, 2024

What I Learned about Family—From 3 Decades in Over 30 Countries.

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If you’ve been following my writing, you know that my relationship with the word “family” has been complex and often ebb and flow with holiday sentiments and all it conjures up.

I grew up with my core family in different places (England and China); since I was three years old, three decades, and 30 some odd countries later, my core family still remains split between China and Canada. Home for the holidays was often a luxurious wish more than anything else. From the age of 17, I thought to myself, if I am responsible for paying my own rent here onwards, then I could pay it anywhere in the world, why just in Canada?

I didn’t see it as a burden, but as liberation. I fled the cage. I fell in love with studying maps and figuring out where my next steps would be. I always needed to fill my days with meaning, which meant I studied or worked or volunteered my way around all the places I’d been. I turned 20 during my gap year working in Munich; I turned 23 in Haiti after the quake that garnered world attention; I spent holidays in orphanages in Tibet and a summer in refugee camps in the West Bank. I worked in art and music therapy camps in the Balkans the way I took to art and music as therapy. But the void I had and the pain I tried to suppress by visiting “more painful places” needed real therapy to address. I got that, too, eventually in New York, my longest stint. Dissociation can only work so far for sentient beings. For me, it had an expiration date.

The void I had never addressed directly is absent parents and emotionally absent parents. Prior to now, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was feeling, or enough therapy to address what’s buried so deep, coded in me before I became conscious of it all. If I had known that this would be the phantom blueprint of my path, I would have surely looked at it under a microscope much sooner, which is why I hope what I share today might meet you where you are, whether you’re ready or not. After all, if you didn’t care about family, you wouldn’t have gotten this far reading…

I don’t know of any perfect family—and often the picture-perfect ones are the worst. All I know and have seen are variations of the same theme: dysfunction. In the East, this is not a topic for conversation, and in the West, we don’t like to talk about it either. All around the world, we have this in common. So why is it so difficult to say that we care about our families even though they are dysfunctional and we want it to heal?

And when it comes to what to do about it, the general advice points in divergent directions: the Eastern advice is for staying—to stick with it through everything, whereas the Western advice is to leave. I have done both and conclude that whether staying or leaving, they are just different styles of handling our external circumstances and softening some of our symptoms. Fundamentally, it is the inner world that needs attention and medicine first, and we can’t escape ourselves.

It was 2018 when I first realized that if I cared so much about family, and was so affected by it, then I had been treating it wrong. So, I changed my relationship with the word “family,” and started truly prioritizing it. Six years later, I’ve made good progress but also have stepped on some landmines that blew it all up again. I’ve made different progress with each of my parents, one who is still refusing to talk to me, so of course, the work never ends. I don’t speak here as a success case, but rather a work-in-progress.

I’ve been a subject of punishment and silent treatment since my memory began, and it’s only recently that I start to see how this has conditioned me to become codependent and endure more abuse than I otherwise would have, because I’m “malleable” and “resilient.” I became easy prey for older predators—male and female—because I was programmed to fall and fit into the cracks without sound. But not without injury. Over the past year, every morning and every night, I ask myself, where are my blocks? Where are my blind spots? Where am I limiting myself?

My studies in politics have taught me that power is positional, like pieces on a chessboard. Once we recognize the architecture of the family (or company, or any group entity), we can identify hierarchy and where power resides. Unfortunately, in dysfunctional families, personal power or agency for children is not encouraged, as it forms the antithesis to parental control. If we are robbed of this as children, it will take years, even decades, of therapy later on in life to trace back to this origin, and rebuild. Therapy buzzwords don’t provide fixes for voids that are decades old. The inner work is often done in the dark.

Here are my notes from this journey:

1. Some people have vested interests in keeping us where we are. Every such interest is a wall we face, if we want to change our current circumstances. People will threaten, manipulate, gaslight, guilt-trip us when we challenge these power boundaries. This is why breaking patterns is incredibly difficult to achieve. Be ready when this happens. How will you counter them?

2. Our families are the earliest molders of our attachment styles. As we rebel against our families, we will inevitably go through cycles of detachment and attachment until we are grounded enough to choose what stays. The best thing to do is to be mindful and conscious of what we choose to attach to and detach from.

3. The strongest system is one that repeats its patterns. Take notice of what is being repeated. If you don’t like what is being repeated, then create your own counter repetitions.

4. Just because something is familiar, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Learn to distinguish the familiar from the healthy.

5. Silence is never just silence. Prolonged silence adds up to a phantom equation that will shape, control, and warp power dynamics. Acknowledge the ghost. What is not being said and why?

6. Comfort and medicine are not the same.

7. We can change family dynamics by what we bring to the table. Each of us is like a chemical element. When we know what the other person is made of, we can temper ourselves so that the chances of instantaneous combustion is low. However, even when we have the best of intentions, when we don’t know what the other person is carrying, it can often be trial and error. Ultimately, we can only be responsible for what our chemical makeup is. We can’t do the work for others. We can’t fix someone who is addicted to pain.

8. We will find far more resonance with people who have shared our path than with family members who have made different life choices.

9. Our success threatens people who are less successful, even if they are family, even if they are friendly to us. It is a wild thing to realize, but true on every count. If we want to keep peace in a system like this, it’s better to dress the success down than to stay unsuccessful and a victim of circumstances. (Success defined as getting what you want, achieving the goals you have for yourself.)

10. Where sacrifice is involved, the lines between hero and victim can be blurry.

11. When we become healthy and whole, we threaten the systems that are dysfunctional. There are consequences here too.

12. Few people will have our best interests at heart. To be useful is not the same as being valued. I have labored much of my life to become indispensably useful for people and workplaces. In the end, I always left, because I was not valued. Today, I work for myself.

13. Men can be toxic; women can be toxic; family can be toxic. All toxins, regardless of where it comes from, make us weaker. If we’re not a drug addict, we don’t have to take the bait. If we have an addiction issue, then we need to look at that separately.

14. Love is love, no matter where it comes from, but it can’t come from poison or black holes.

15. Grief isn’t reserved for funerals. Grief is the other side of love and desire, and its intensity measures just as much if not more in the shadow world. We can’t truly regulate our emotions without knowing what it is that we are grieving. If we have love within our hearts, we hold grief within our bodies. Locate our pain points, and pour love there, first.

16. Oftentimes, it’s strangers who have gone through parallel experiences who will help you see your blind spots. Takes one to know one. It is why I have written all of the above.


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