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If You Were Raised In A Dysfunctional Family How To Overcome The Unspoken Rules

What Is A Dysfunctional Family?

There’s no government benchmark on what constitutes a dysfunctional family. However, if you identify with any of these characteristics, as an adult, you may have been raised in one.

Some characteristics of being raised in a dysfunctional family:

  • Feel isolated

  • Unable to express feelings

  • Depression

  • Feelings of shame

  • Frightened of criticism

  • High levels of anxiety especially in relationships

  • Low self esteem

  • Think things are your fault

  • Have a fear of authority

  • Seek other’s approval

  • Feel guilty a lot

  • Judge yourself harshly

These were ways we learned to survive when we were growing up. Our parents may have been alcoholics, street or prescription drug dependent, religious fanatics, sexually acting out, very controlling or found some other way of distracting themselves from their problems.

Whatever it was, it affected us and still does.


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The Dysfunctional Family And Mental Illness


How It Affected Us As Children

Children raised in loving families with open communication and firm boundaries grow up in a supportive environment that offers them the freedom to experiment, say out loud what they’re thinking, make mistakes, try out new roles, build positive self-esteem and flourish.

Children raised in dysfunctional families, however, rarely learn the life lessons that create strong personalities. Instead these children have to survive their childhoods by creating a semblance of their own ‘normal’ amid the chaos of the dysfunctional family. This survival tactic is at the expense of genuine personal development.

Most children of dysfunctional families blame themselves for the family problems and think that if they tried harder, were somehow ‘better’, more intelligent, successful, sporty, kinder, funnier the chaos would stop and that they and their family would be happy. It’s the way children naturally work unless the adults show them different.

What Are The Unspoken Rules?

All dysfunctional families embody a set of unspoken rules. The rules are generally built around the parent’s dysfunction. These rules may be abusive to the children but they also acted as a stabilizer because at least we knew what was coming.

Some examples:

  • Keep the family’s secrets a secret

  • Don’t allow yourself to have any feelings

  • Don’t show any vulnerability

  • Don’t expect others to be reliable

  • Don’t trust other people

  • Placate people in power to get what you want

  • Always suss out the other person’s feelings or manner before responding to them

  • Put other peoples’ needs before your own

  • Don’t be honest, it doesn’t work

  • Don’t try and resolve issues because that doesn’t work either

  • Don’t ask for what you want, you’ll be punished

  • Don’t count on others to help you

  • Don’t expect other people to be compassionate

  • Don’t talk about your problems

  • Stay in pain and don’t let it be exposed

  • Learn to deal with being shamed for the person you are

  • Deal with the violence by keeping quiet

  • Don’t ever challenge anything

  • Fit in

  • Deny the abuse

  • Remember their problems are bigger than yours

  • Try and make them love you by being successful or a hero

Where Do These Rules Come From?

These rules are generally borne out of the parent's need to keep away feelings of shame and guilt, confusion and anger.

Many parents need to act out in some way by using substances or behavior to keep them away from painful feelings. This acting out might have included alcohol, compulsive sex, gambling, drug abuse (street or prescription), work, food or spending money they don’t have.

The children of dysfunctional families tend to take on board these systems of coping as a direct reflection of their worth as an individual. They don’t see the problem lying with their parents; they see that they themselves are the problem. They need to guard their parents because their own safety depends on it.

Some Ways I Followed These Rules In My Own Dysfunctional Family

I was raised in a dysfunctional family with my mother having (in my opinion) an extremely narcissistic personality.

Her becoming pregnant with me was an accident on her part but she blamed me for ruining her life, which by that she meant that my birth had broken her future. Here’s four examples of how I followed some of the rules.

I learned to deal with being shamed

Every day I heard things like:

You should be grateful for your life

I’m ashamed you're my daughter

You're a lazy good for nothing

Everything’s your fault

If it wasn’t for you I’d be happy

She didn’t balance it with positive statements. My mother never said she loved me, or even liked me. I tried to anticipate what she wanted to make her be nice to me. I became hardened to hearing these nasty comments by disassociating myself from the hurt they caused me.

Dealt with the violence by keeping quiet

There was violence every day. My mother, and sometimes my father, thrashed me with shoes, pulled me by my hair, dragged me upstairs by my ears or just slapped me. I was complicit with the violence and never challenged it. The violence wasn’t as painful as the verbal abuse.

Didn’t trust other people

I was a frightened child. I didn’t have good relationships with other children. I had to keep the abuse to myself and, consequently, I was a loner. Being alone meant I didn’t have to expose my wounds.

Make them love me by being successful or a hero

I didn’t believe I was loveable and that I had to prove myself to my parents by achieving things. I put this at the top of my list. However, I couldn’t maintain my concentration at school and regularly came bottom of the class, which led to more beatings. I wasn’t so good at sticking to this rule.

The Rules Don’t Change Just Because We’re Adults

Just because we turned 18 and left home, it doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to follow these rules as adults. Many of us had internalized those rules and they still govern us even if we own our own house, get married, have children and keep down a successful job.

As adults we may be still trying to get people onside through people pleasing. We might also still feel like one of life’s victims or still feel terrified of being abandoned.

We might be frightened of another person’s anger with no way of understanding our own. We may attract people who’ve also been raised in a dysfunctional family because they seem normal but then having two people with this history can be a recipe for disaster. Once children come along, the sequence of family dysfunction is recycled.

Were You Were Raised In A Dysfunctional Family? How To Overcome The Unspoken Rules In Adulthood

There are many ways to overcome the dysfunctional family rules in adult hood. Here are my two favorite ones, favored for the way they cut incisively through the fog:

  1. Treat ourselves as war veterans with PTSD

  2. Look At Our Denial

Treat Ourselves Like War Veterans With PTSD

For any of us that were raised in a dysfunctional family, the chances are we will be suffering some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. War veterans are associated with having PTSD but research[i] has shown that children from very dysfunctional families have the same delayed after effects and also experience nightmares and flashbacks with the same feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.

Shame based dysfunctional families have a traumatizing effect on the children. The abuse is accumulative and goes on for a significant length of time. There was never any escape from the abuse because we had to go back to our homes every night.

We didn’t experience any safe haven and had little outside support. Even if we did we didn’t talk about it much because it was too unsafe. We spent a long time numbed out. We disassociated from our emotions; we had to because the only people who could help us were often the enemy.


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Look At Our Denial

The biggest hindrance to recovery from a dysfunctional upbringing is denial.

We needed to be in denial when we were children to protect ourselves. We had to deny the obvious - that we were being violated. We learned to give into the demands of our family systems and die a little death every day. We had to learn to disassociate ourselves from our true selves, the part of us that was in pain but we had to deny that pain.

Now, as adults, it’s time to look at what really happened.

One thing we do not need is self-reproach for not having faced up to our problems sooner. The quicker we recognize that our denial has done us a great service, the better we will feel about moving forward. There is no point in pushing us when we are in denial.

Denial is all-powerful and if there is a power-struggle taking place between our denial and someone who wants us to change, our denial will win. It is the ‘mother of all saviours’ and will prevent us from cracking up for as long as we need it.

Denial may seem from the outside like an ignorant state in which to live, but it is a very practical way of keeping a problem at bay. Denial is a form of survival. People who are denying their own depression need to be left alone until they are ready to come out of hiding on their own terms.

Nothing needs to be done except a simple acknowledgment that those unspoken rules may have something to do with how we live our lives as adults and denial kept us safe for a long time.

Recovery Is Possible

Being raised in a dysfunctional family doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Recovery is possible. We don’t need to suffer in silence or feel alone and crazy because our past trauma is leaking into our present life. Many people have found the support they need to recover their lost self with the help of supportive others.

I found others to guide me forward and I live today with healing and a renewed sense of life. There is help available for anyone raised in a dysfunctional family how to overcome their trauma issues. A good first step is to look at the family’s unspoken rules.





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