Article by Dr. Ng Wai Sheng (PsyD)

Image by Erika Wittlieb @ pixabay

“My family is dysfunctional!”

That was the first thing my client Jack (pseudonym) said in his introduction to me about his family. This was our first session.

Sitting in front of me was a young man in his 20s, very handsome, very articulate. He has been suicidal and diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

I looked around at his family members who were present with him in session. His father appeared highly anxious and overactive, whereas his mother appeared withdrawn and lifeless. His two younger siblings had their heads down and remained silent. But everyone in the room could sense the tension and hostility in that very moment.

Soon enough, I learned that they were far from being an agreeable family. In fact, they were very good at protesting every single thing about what each other said. All except one recurrent story: “our family is dysfunctional”.

Indeed, what you believe about your family can become perpetual reality…

The couple had a turbulent marriage, with multiple affairs on both sides. What upset Jack the most was when he learned that his mother had to undergo abortions a few times from those extramarital affairs. Jack  was very angry and disappointed with everyone in the family: he blamed his father for neglecting his wife and children, and his mother for being too weak and unable to protect herself from men. Jack saw his two siblings as just “selfish brats”; one only cared about getting his way, the other was stuck in computer games. Growing up, Jack and his siblings were used to witnessing their father’s aggressive outbursts and their mother’s parasuicidal gestures. They often felt lonely and helpless, but they each found their own way to act tough, and distract themselves from the family chaos…

As I listened to this family’s history, I began to hear a different story, about the trauma and grief that this family suffered. And it seems to me, what’s closer to reality, but often overlooked or taken for granted…This is a family of strong survivors and superheroes! In spite of all the hurts and pains they each went through, not to mention the shame and stigma of exposing themselves to an outsider like me, this conflictual family came together in therapy to find healing for one member. And in bringing his family together, Jack became the “healer” for his family, with the help of his therapist.

Just imagine, if this family can see themselves as superheroes, and even begin to live out the superheroes story, they might actually begin to create new experiences for themselves! They might actually become better people to themselves and one another! The same is true, if we live as though this is a messed-up family, then we are bound to perpetuate negativities, and inevitably create more trauma and grief for ourselves and each other!

This is not about romantic idealism, trying to deny evilness or cruel realities in our midst. We acknowledge in all soberness, all the aggression and violence that was done to us, and that we do to others. What we really need is a FULLER story, not just a tunnel vision that sees only all the bad, or all the good.

How can we hold both the good and bad, in all its tension and paradoxes, as part of a larger LOVE story? We need to hold both tension, like how yin and yang complement each other, and exist within one another. Beyond labeling pathologies, we need to attend to the hidden trauma and grief that organizes how every family function or dis-function.

Which aspect of your life story that you struggle with or so desperately want to disown?
How can you see a new LOVE story coming out from your trauma and grief experiences?
What story do you want to create in your own life, in your family, your community, and your nation?

Disclaimer: All stories presented in this article are based on, or inspired by actual events. In certain cases, incidents, characters and timelines have been changed for privacy and confidentiality purpose. Certain characters may be composites or archetypes, and are not intended to depict or allude to actual persons or families. Any resemblance to actual incidents, persons, places or events is entirely coincidental.

Published On: January 28th, 2018 / Categories: Blog Post /