Just Because It’s Family Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Toxic

We are buried in “shoulds” when it comes to what we’re supposed to do with family members who treat us badly.  We’re taught that we should feel grateful for family—no matter what. The fact that a relationship feels toxic or emotionally abusive is irrelevant; it’s family, so it’s sacred. 

Ali remembers her sister always being an angry person. After their mother died, her sister’s rage towards Ali turned up to full throttle. With their mother no longer alive, Ali became the identified enemy. In her sister’s eyes, she was guilty of something terrible. The strange thing was that she never understood her crime, never understood what she had done to make her sister treat her with such contempt and vitriol. 

Ali went on to have children and create a family of her own, as did her sister. She felt a strong desire for her children to know their cousins, to grow up with them. She also felt a desire to have a sister as she traveled through life.  And yet, each time she reached out, went near her sister, she encountered the same angry person she’d known her whole life, the same vindictive, punishing, emotional violence—all aimed at her.  Despite never knowing her original “sin” and despite time passing, families being born, people dying, her sister’s rage and negative story on her remained unchanged. 

Over the years, Ali continued reaching out, pushing herself to be her “best self,” a person she respected. She continued taking the high road. She believed too, that she should get to a place where her sister didn’t bother her anymore, where she felt only compassion for her.  But each time she reached out, she got burned.  Each interaction with her sister left her feeling icky, hurt, angry, and disrespected. Communication with her sister meant putting herself in the company of someone whose narrative of her was unrelentingly negative, and entirely out of alignment with who she knew herself to be. Initiating contact meant putting herself in harm’s way. 

After another stretch of four or five years without contact, Ali sent a friendly email expressing her wish to say hello and maybe introduce their kids who had never met. The message she received back from her sister was, once again, emotionally violent and filled with rage. In that moment, something shifted and Ali had permission, inside herself, to stop—stop being the “better” person, stop trying to feel nothing, stop trying to prove that she hadn’t done something to cause this.  Ali had reached her “enough.” The abuse had become more powerful than any of her “shoulds.”

While it wasn’t the choice she wanted to make, she decided, then, to stop interacting with her sister. It was the only choice that felt respectful and kind towards herself. Her sister’s behavior made her angry, sad, and confused, and probably always would. She might never understand why she was so filled with rage towards her, and she accepted that. But she also knew that she could no longer subject herself to the abuse. Being the “better” person now meant taking care of herself. She could not continue putting herself in harm’s way just to prove to herself that she had moved beyond all of it. The sister she wanted didn’t actually exist, that sister was just an idea. And so, she decided to remove herself from a relationship with someone who was consistently damaging to her sense of well-being. 

We hold a strong and damaging misunderstanding in this society: We believe that we are not allowed to say “no,” to draw a self-protective boundary and opt out of an unkind or emotionally abusive relationship—not when it comes to family. We’re taught that it’s not okay to say “enough”—not unless or until we can interact with someone who’s harmed us and feel completely unaffected, un-triggered. We believe that we should get to a place where we can be in relationship with someone who has mistreated us and feel okay—not enraged, not hurt, not baffled, not overwhelmed, and not just plain terrible. For some strange reason, feeling unaffected has become the litmus test for when we have done enough work to warrant ourselves the right to sign off from what feels like toxic. 

In Ali’s case, she believed (and was told by other family members) that she should stay in the relationship with her sister, “for the sake” of her kids. It was about her kids and not her. She should be willing to feel terrible so that the kids could have their imaginary relationship with their cousins. It was family, after all.

Perhaps most damaging, when it comes to saying “no” to an emotionally abusive relationship with family, is the belief that we must be partially responsible for the abuse. The idea that it takes two to tango keeps us sucking up abuse and hobbling along in relationships well past their expiration date. Before we can say “no,” we imagine that we have to figure out “our part,” how we’re to blame, responsible for creating the other’s treatment of us. If we close the door on family, there’s got to be something wrong with us we’re not addressing. 

Here’s the thing: We have the right to say “no” to what feels abusive, what hurts—even when that abuse, that hurt, comes from family. We may never get to a place where we are unaffected by someone who treated or treats us badly. Feeling unaffected is not the gauge by which to judge anything. When strong emotional pain has occurred, those emotions are stored in our body, specifically our nervous system and amygdala, the body’s emotional memory banks. The fact that the mention of someone’s name or being in someone’s company makes us feel yucky is indicative of nothing other than the fact that our body has absorbed the emotional pain we experienced, that our body has indeed lived this experience. Feeling yucky about or around this other person does not mean we haven’t done the work we need to do or that we’re to blame.

While every relationship is complicated and subjective, nonetheless, we have the right to extricate ourselves from a negative role someone has us cast in in their own internal movie.  We don’t need special permission or a secret password to resign from the part of the negative character we’ve been assigned by this other.  We don’t have to stick around in a relationship to prove we’re not the terrible person they’re committed to believing we are.  We don’t have to keep subjecting ourselves to behavior that feels abusive in order to figure out how to change it or why we’re guilty.  Because we are being treated unkindly does not mean that we are responsible for that unkindness. Sometimes unkindness is just unkindness.  

We don’t know who we will become in the future. We also can never know who someone else might become.  Still, we don’t have to wait for anything to change, or wait to feel immune to the other’s behavior, or wait to understand anything better. We don’t need to earn the right to say “yes” to being unconditionally kind to ourselves and to putting ourselves first.  Giving ourselves permission to honor and act from our truth, to take care of ourselves in the face of judgment, to let our experience be what it is and still deem it as worthy, is a profoundly empowering and healing choice.  In fact, the decision to say “no”—with our feelings as they are, with reality as it is, and without understanding anything more than we understand right now, can offer us the very freedom we are longing for and futilely searching for in the relationship itself.  The choice to say “enough” can be the change that we imagine could happen within the relationship but can actually only happen within ourselves.

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How “Should” You Do a Pandemic? Are You Falling Short?

It’s remarkable, but the feeling “I’m not doing enough” can survive and thrive even in a pandemic. Your inner-critic might be starting to kick in just about now, perhaps asking, have you been doing that fabulous yoga teacher’s classes online? Enrolling in classes through Princeton, Columbia and all the other amazing schools that are now free? How about taking advantage of the Broadway performances or Metropolitan Opera free sessions? Meditating more (since you have so much time), listening to wonderful spiritual masters, taking sound baths—happy-houring with friends? Oh, and are you tuning into the incredible musical artists giving concerts? Participating in virtual, guided walking tours through the great museums of the world? Spinning with free Peloton classes or working out with Gold’s gym? At the very least, are you cleaning every bathroom, organizing every closet, and scrubbing every floor?

With some time under our belt now in this pandemic, you may be feeling the distinct sense of a should starting to arise: you should be making use of this time, should be appreciating the little things, should be grateful, should be using this time to remember what really matters, to dive into your soul, become your best self, should be learning, growing, expanding, stretching, donating, stepping up, becoming, becoming and then becoming more… something. 

Your inner-critic, the voice in your head that says you’re not doing this right, that you should be doing this better, can indeed flourish in any environment. It can use any soil to grow its roots of self-criticism and not-enoughness.  

I myself recently wrote a piece for Psychology Today about the opportunities that avail themselves in adversity, and how we should not miss out on them when they’re here. But I’ve become aware of how the idea of making use of this moment is also at high risk for being kidnapped by our inner-critic: our inner-shoulder.

We live in a society that values acquisition—getting more, doing more, becoming more. We are supposed to go out and grab life, make use of every possibility. The more we do and accomplish, the more valid, likable, important, fabulous, and desirable we are. The more we have going on, the more we’re living life to the fullest, living the dream. The belief in the shadows of our psyche is that with enough things, experiences, and accomplishments, at last, we will be enough. At last, we will be who we should be.

But you might ask yourself (in between the online art gallery tours): if you were to finally arrive at that destination, were to finally become the person you should be, then what? Then you’ll never be criticized or blamed? Never be ashamed? Never feel inadequate? Never suffer? Then you’ll be valid, lovable, wanted? It’s worth investigating—what will this imaginary you, the you who’s done everything she should do, finally bring? What is the experience awaiting you at this elusive destination? article continues after advertisement

Your inner-critic tricks you into thinking that there is an “enough” point — a point at which you will have done everything you should do to be free from its criticism. In a voice barely audible, it whispers in the background of your mind … after that yoga class, meditation session, Met concert, class at Princeton, Peloton spin, and John Legend concert, then, you will be who you should be—then you will be someone you can like. 

This is a ruse. There is no real enough point for the inner critic. The inner-critic rejects who you are, no matter what you’ve been busy doing, acquiring, or learning. A Pelotoned, Ivy-educated, Broadway-streamed, meditated, five-language-fluent you is still you. That’s the problem—you—which doesn’t go away no matter what ingredients you add to it or fill it up with.

There’s no right way to do a pandemic. For some people, it’s exciting to be able to dip into the vast array of offerings that human ingenuity and generosity are now making possible. Other people feel as uninterested in these opportunities as they did when these events and classes cost money or were live in person. “Free opera? Let me know when they start paying you to watch,” was how one friend explained her level of interest in that particular opportunity. The point is, it doesn’t matter how many events and classes you partake in. You will not be receiving a pandemic grade, a score for how well you walked through this or took advantage of this time. How you do this pandemic need not be a commentary on your value as a person, another test of your worth. 

The real opportunity in this collective pause is not about what more you can do. It’s about whether you can walk through this experience on your own side. Don’t fall for your inner-shoulder’s premise and promise; namely, that there is a way to do, use, or experience this time that would be fabulous. There isn’t. article continues after advertisement

More than anything else, this is a moment to give yourself permission to do this pandemic however you can do it. You don’t have to get anything, learn anything, experience anything profound, change from it, become a new person from it—nothing. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, taking one breath and then another, making one lunch and then another, and then do it all over again. 

If you use this time for anything, use it to get off your own case, to turn away from the inner-critic that tells you that even the way you’re doing a damn pandemic is not good enough. Use this collective pause as a pause from your inner-shoulder, and an invitation to be in this however you want to and can be in it. The real opportunity here, now, is to let yourself be.

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Parenting in a Pandemic: Staying Calm Because We Have to

So, we’ve baked 1,002 brownies, made 76 LEGO castles, played 43 rounds of UNO, read seven chapters of a graphic novel, and it’s still only 10 a.m. This is not good news. After six days cooped up in the house with two children and no babysitters, I have taken to moving objects from one side of the room to the other and then back again, just because. 

It’s a strange time to be alive right now. We are all trying to manage a profound level of uncertainty and instability. Trying to keep hold of a state of peace and presence requires effort. But as parents, we don’t just have our own wellbeing to manage, we also have our children to take care of and their experience. 

We are tasked with keeping our children calm, busy, and okay at a time when our own wellbeing may not feel so steady or reliable. As parents, we don’t have the luxury of just being with ourselves and focusing on our own peace. We are trying to stay grounded while at the same time serving as our children’s parents, friends, entertainment committees, school teachers, physical trainers, and everything else. Without any of our usual structures, and any other people to help us, we are now responsible for keeping our children calm, engaged, and reasonably well. Parenting in a pandemic is not for the faint of heart. 

The most important thing to remember during this time is to put our own oxygen mask on first. We have to give ourselves and continually replenish ourselves with what we need to meet this current challenge. If we are okay, our kids will be okay. If we are shaky and unsteady, anxious and all the rest, then so they will be. Taking care of ourselves is different for each of us, but ideas to consider might be time away from our kids, even if just in the bathroom with the door shut, meditation, conversation with friends, music, playtime with our pets, silence, moving the body, and whatever else contributes to our feeling centered and well. We have to be okay—emotionally, spiritually, and mentally, so that we can be the caretakers we are now asked to become. Parenting ourselves right now is non-negotiable. 

The second thing to remember is that we don’t have to go through this alone. Even if we cannot do “in-person” playdates or go out to do things we would normally do, we can do virtual playdates, virtual parent dates, conduct groups through Zoom and other platforms, and reach out to everyone we know, through the wonder of technology. We can also make use of the countless free online activities that different organizations are offering including museum tours, courses for kids, performances, and other opportunities. As complicated as our relationship with technology is, now is a time to use it for all the possibilities it can offer, the ways it can connect us rather than disconnect us. 

Another critical guideline to follow as we go through this transition is that we must, without exception, suspend judgment of ourselves. This is the time to banish our inner critic, silence the voice in our head that tells us we should be a better parent. Now, and for the foreseeable future, when we have 16 hours a day to fill (or not fill), whatever we offer, even if it’s just the remote control or the Subway Surfer app, it has to be enough. Now is a time to remind ourselves, vigilantly, that we are doing our best, and whatever that is, it is enough. If we need to let our kid be terminally bored, watch TV for hours in a row, or just lay on the couch, because it’s all we can do to keep ourselves well, then that’s what we need to do. And here’s the thing, that’s fine. It is more important right now for us to focus on being kind and staying calm, rather than providing fantastic days of learning and fun. This is a time to let go of the idea of the perfect parent and focus on being the good enough parent. Good enough is good enough. 

Our kids are enormously resilient. We parents are too. As we move through this period of great uncertainty, we must refrain from jumping into the future, into what-if scenarios and catastrophizing. We must stay in the present moment, and forbid our mind from taking us into an imaginary future. We must practice getting okay without not knowing what’s going to happen, living one moment at a time, and finding the internal ground in the groundlessness. When we show our kids (and ourselves) that we can live with uncertainty, somewhat comfortably, we are teaching and modeling one of the most important skills our children need to be happy and well for a lifetime. We are teaching them, literally, to be resilient. 

The question we want to ask ourselves as we move through this time of change is this: Who do we want to be in this upheaval? How can we be of service and kind, even if it’s just to the little people for whom we are in charge? Being that person we want to be, for them, is as important a responsibility as we will ever meet. 

As I discuss the challenges of parenting at this time, I am also keenly aware of how blessed we are to get to be parents right now. To have another or more than one other being to take care of through this roller coaster ride is a gift. The fact that we are responsible for our children is grounding in and of itself. It requires us to stay strong and intact whether we feel that way or not, which is a good thing. As much as our children, at times, can feel disruptive to our wellbeing, they also help us stay centered and present. We are profoundly lucky to have people to wake up to and take care of, to be strong and present for. So too, our children keep us in touch with love—a force far more infinite than anything happening in our current situation. All that said, it is paramount that we stay connected with a sense of gratitude just now for getting to be responsible and strong for little ones during this time.  How lucky we really are. And so there is deep gratitude—but also, it’s incredibly hard.     

How we show up as parents through this time will impact our children for a lifetime. We are their models for how to be with difficulty. Our response now will be an important factor in how they will meet challenges like this when they’re older, which they will. Now is a time to provide our children with the seeds of grounding that later they will grow inside themselves. We keep this in mind and heart. And when we cannot be their models and have to hide in the bathroom stall and breathe deeply, then we do that, without judging ourselves, and with a lot of love for the profundity of what’s on our plate right now… just for now.

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Within Every Crisis, A Profound Opportunity Appears

In times of fear, we return to the simple joys, and to each other.

Yesterday, with all the craziness going on in the news, all the reasons we should avoid each other, not touch anything, not trust anything, not trust each other, I decided to take a walk in the park.  Why not?  It was a beautiful day as mother nature herself seemed to be conspiring (in my narrative) to encourage us back into her embrace. I headed to Central Park, not expecting to find anything particularly surprising, maybe just some fresh air and the normal healing that comes from being in nature.  But I was wrong.  Wow, was I wrong. 

What I found was a park with people.  It seems that everyone in New York City had the same idea.  Everyone was out—playing frisbee, playing catch, playing with their dogs, playing games, playing music, just playing … period.  People were talking, walking, running, singing, laughing, flying kites, conversing, biking, yoga-ing.  It was remarkable, a beautiful thing to behold.  Yesterday in the park reminded me of who we really are as human beings.

When life feels uncertain, in times of instability, we return to what is most basic—the simple pleasures: conversation, walking, nature, making music, being together.  When we are stripped of the ability and opportunity to acquire, avoid, distract, and entertain ourselves in the usual ways, we come back to what is most precious; we come back to each other and to nature.

Yes, there will be suffering that comes with this current health crisis. And, at the same time, perhaps there can also come some profound wisdom, a reminder of what really matters, and what’s always here.  Yesterday was a gift, a kind of shared Sabbath.  It was a day we all took a communal breath, a step back, a beat to assess what really matters.  When we are frightened, when our existence feels threatened, we return to each other.  When everything is in flux, changing from moment to moment, we remember what is unchanging, what cannot be taken away, no matter what is happening in our life situation.  We come home to people, to mother earth, and in a sense, to love.  We return to what truly nourishes us, calms and connects us, and reminds us that we are well—no matter what.

Under all the anxious thoughts, the choppy surface waves of our mind, there is a deep presence within us, an experience of being—a stillness, a silence.  You can feel this presence right now.  Just for a moment, unhook from the thoughts swirling in your mind, the fears and what-if scenarios (you can pick them up when you finish).  Bring your attention out of your head and down into your body.  Take a conscious slow breath.  Invite yourself to relax.  Sense your own presence, feel the experience of just being, the here-ness below the thoughts.  Within each of us, there is a peace, a calm that’s always here.  Now is a time to tap into this presence, this ground in the midst of the groundless. 

This time of uncertainty will pass and our lives will again become stable and reliable, as much as life is ever stable and reliable.  The time will come when we will again feel protected and sheltered by our external system—when the predictability of our world will again lull us into a sense of safety and immortality.  While this health crisis may be temporary, and also extremely challenging, let us not get caught up in just the fearful thoughts and thus lose sight of the profound opportunity that a time like this offers.  It is in times like these, which don’t come often, times when we can no longer rely on our system to ground us, that we have the opportunity to go within, to rethink and reclaim what really matters to us, to reacquaint ourselves with our deepest values. 

Now is a time to keep company with our friends, family, and animals, to convene with nature, be of service, walk, listen to and make music, listen too to silence, and find love where it lives.  This is also a time to cultivate the steady and well place within ourselves, the place that’s here with or without a system.  Now, when the guard rails have temporarily come off our lives, when the structure that provides safety and indeed a sense of who we are, is momentarily dismantled; this is a time to ground ourselves in the present moment, find the steady place inside, and remember what really matters, what cannot be taken away.  Ultimately, this is the moment to remember who we are—no matter what. 

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Have You Turned Your Partner Into the Villain in Your Inner Movie?

Married for 12 years, Lisa and Cliff were enjoying a fun date night out. Back at home, Cliff wanted to be physically intimate. Lisa, usually game, was exhausted and told Cliff that sex wasn’t in the cards that night as she could barely make it to the bedroom without collapsing. Cliff immediately became angry and sulky. He accused Lisa of being withholding. He then told her that she was emasculating him, making him feel undesirable and inadequate.

Isabel is a doctor of medieval history. Her partner, Lars, has a Ph.D. in mathematics. Over dinner the couple got into a discussion about a philosopher from the eighth century, Isabel’s area of expertise. At one point, Lars made an interpretation of something the philosopher had said. Believing his analysis to be a misread, she told him that it wasn’t what was meant by the quote. Lars became incensed and accused Isabel of being controlling. He insisted that his wife had called him an idiot and was (intentionally) humiliating him, treating him like he was uneducated.

Finally, let’s consider Kelly and Steven. Kelly was driving when, unexpectedly, she made a turn that took the couple out of their way. Since they were in a hurry, Steven suggested that it would be faster to go the other way. In a flash, Kelly became furious and accused Steven of always having to do things his way. She further complained that he treated her like she was stupid and that her judgment couldn’t be trusted.

These situations may seem extreme, but in truth, they happen all the time—literally, all the time. Small disagreements end up in gigantic, painful impasses. In each example, it starts because one partner experiences negative feelings of some sort. In reaction to these negative feelings, they criticize their partner (you’re controlling, withholding, have to have it your way). But then, more dangerously, they blame their partner for causing their negative feelings. They convince themselves that their partner made them feel this way, did this to them, and ultimately, was the perpetrator of their pain.

We all carry certain beliefs, often from childhood, wounds and memories that we use to define who we are—our sense of self. We carry these forward into our intimate relationships. In the examples above, Cliff had always been the last kid picked for sports teams; he had felt inadequate his whole life, long before he met Lisa. For Lars, having to repeat third grade had caused him to doubt his own intelligence. Even with two graduate degrees, the fear that he was dumb still haunted him. In Kelly’s case, the belief that her judgment couldn’t be trusted was something she’d learned from a dismissive and ridiculing father. 

Our negative self-perceptions are difficult enough on their own, but what makes them excruciating is the way we transform them, through our own narratives, into aggressions our partner is doing to us. We recreate the experience of being shamed or blamed, re-traumatize ourselves with the same pain we’ve lived, all the while believing it’s our partner doing it to us, and making us feel this way.  Worst of all, we believe our partner actually holds these negative perceptions about us. It’s not me who thinks (or fears) I’m dumb, it’s my partner who thinks it. And so I live, still, as the one who is perceived as dumb, even though it’s now me who’s doing it to myself. 

More than anything else, what alleviates this universal problem (which leads to endless other problems) is awareness. We have to develop the ability to observe what’s happening inside ourselves, to become conscious of the feelings arising in the moment, and particularly the most charged moments. But here’s the catch: We have to notice this before we react, before we start looking to our partner to blame, before we start constructing our causal narratives. While our partner’s behavior may have set off these negative feelings, we need to remember that the idea that our partner is the one doing this to us, thinking these negative thoughts about us, is an illusion, a made-up story. Right there, in the eye of the emotional tsunami, we have to be able to detach our experience from our partner’s actions, to stop creating causality and intention where they don’t exist. 

In Lisa and Cliff’s case, Lisa’s exhaustion and subsequent decision to go to sleep rather than have sex was not about Cliff; it was about her own needs. Cliff’s sense of inadequacy may have been awakened by her choice, but she didn’t cause his feelings. Furthermore, she didn’t believe him to be inadequate; that feeling belonged to him. This is the distinction we need to be able to make for ourselves, again and again and again.

We don’t want to have to feel our insecurities, our negative self-perceptions, the insults we hurl at ourselves when the lights are out. And so we make our partners the perpetrators; we tell ourselves that they are the ones making us feel this way, the ones doing this tus. It’s easier to hate our partner for thinking we’re dumb rather than to wrestle with our own fear of being dumb, to blame our partner for humiliating us rather than to feel our own experience of humiliation and its real source. We have to become aware of when we are assigning to our partner what are in fact our own fears and self-criticisms. 

In communicating with a partner, it’s critical that we express our experience as something separate from their actions. We can share what has arisen in us, but also acknowledge that our partner is not to blame for our experience. So too, we need to stay focused on what actually happened in the interaction, specifically what our partner did or said. We have to stay with the reality—not add anything to it, not tie it to everything else that’s ever happened, and not decide what it means about our partner’s perception of us or our self-worth. At the same time, we must separate our experience from our partner’s intentions and remind ourselves that they did not choose to make this happen. 

Presented to our partner as our own experience, separate from them, without blame, they may even be able to show new compassion and empathy for our hurt. We may find that they even stop doing or saying the things that awaken our pain, because they care for us and don’t want us to suffer.     

The next time you feel triggered by your partner, stop for a moment and take a deep breath.  Smile even though you don’t want to. Relax, just for a moment. Now ask yourself, What am I experiencing right now? What’s happening inside me? Before saying anything to your partner, become aware of the feelings and sensations inside you. Notice any negative self-perception arising. Name it. Ask yourself, Is this is a fear I have about myself or a feeling I’ve experienced in the past? Who or what was its original source?  Pause and offer yourself compassion; tell yourself that this matters. 

If you choose to share this process with your partner, simply let them know what happened for you. You can say what triggered you, but keep the conversation tight to your own experience.  Start your sentences with I: I feel, I experience, as opposed to you are, you think, you do, etc. Don’t turn your experience into something about your partner, something they did to you or feel about you. With this new approach, taking ownership for your own experience, I promise you three things:

  1. You will feel more understood. 
  2. You will be happier. 
  3. You will have a far more peaceful (and better) relationship.

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