After seeing the giant book of Norman Rockwell illustrations on my mother’s coffee table during my recent visit, I’ve noticed there’s a belief pattern that I’m dubbing “the Rockwell storybook family syndrome”. She and her sister are once again not speaking, and this time my mother is questioning whether or not she actually wants a relationship with her only sibling, given the years of hurtful experiences between them.
She flips back and forth between those sentiments and the big nasty SHOULD: “but maybe we should see each other and have a relationship because we’re sisters and we’re the only ones left!” This is followed by a big sigh and a sense of despair.
I see this pattern frequently with clients, this idea that life should follow a certain course, that families should behave in specific ways, and that people should get along simply because they’re related. These ‘shoulds’ and idealistic expectations are all well and good if you happen to be fortunate enough to have grown up in a family that was respectful, supportive and harmonious most of the time. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met too many people who have had this experience! If you’re one of those who have, well, right on! You likely have a lot less baggage to clear than the rest of us who grew up in dysfunction junction!
When clients come in proclaiming all these righteous ‘shoulds,’ I sometime ask, “so how’s that working for you? Does it make you feel happy and connected, or do you feel disappointed, frustrated and sad?” It’s clear that there’s an attachment to the ‘shoulds’, the expectations, the vision of some Rockwellesque storybook image of what a family should be and how they ought to get along. I believe that it’s one of the main drivers behind holiday blues for many people.
So, how on earth can we stop ‘should-ing’ ourselves? If our family relationships aren’t the picture-perfect image of love, care and acceptance, how do we stop running the exhausting patterns of ‘shoulds’ that bring us such unhappiness and discomfort?
Acknowledge unreasonable expectations
The first step may be to simply become aware of any underlying assumptions you’ve made about your family relationships. Do you hold any of the following expectations?
- get along
- love or like one another
- support one another
- accept each other
- stay in touch
- say “I love you”
- get together for holidays
- enjoy one another’s company
- eat dinner together
- take care of each other
Of course it’s wonderful if your family does all these things. Most families, however, are operating from a whole pile of ‘shoulds’ that are keeping things glued together in a big dysfunctional tangle.
Clean up your side of things
We may not like it, but the fact is that we can’t change someone else. We can, however, change our thinking and perceptions. This may be a shocker to you, but I’m going to recommend using EFT or other mind-body therapies to do this!
Some things to consider when looking at your side of the equation:
- Is it possible that you may be participating in or perpetuating this dynamic in some way?
- Are you fully accepting and understanding their point of view?
- In what ways are you holding judgment about their actions or behaviours?
- What old beliefs about yourself and the world come up when triggered by family?
If you think this may be an issue for you, here’s a short exercise to help you take a look at it more closely, as well as further information about creating more realistic expectations: Families and Expectations Worksheet
I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts and stories about this. Please post them below!