Whatever our age, not getting on well with family (relatives) can be a great source of pain. For some of us, it may even be a source of shame or a sense of failure. Even if we understand the dynamics and why we prefer to have/keep the distance, it is stressful and makes us unhappy. It can even make us feel vulnerable. It may be the case that to have our mental health in good order, we need the estrangement. Yet, it can feel like a cold war at times. There may be anger and resentment in the air, and if we are sensitive, we will feel it and know it.
The famous British psychiatrist John Bowlby (famous for his work on attachment) wrote the book, ‘A Secure Base.’ It is a fascinating book. I remember when I first read it I thought to myself, ‘Finally! Someone gets what I’ve been through.’ The attachment styles that we develop are formed early on. (For attachment styles please look at the work of Mary Ainsworth). If we don’t have the secure attachment style we may be more prone to suffering from anxiety. We need to give ourselves self-compassion. It is not our fault. It is very difficult for many of us to have this style. We only ever truly acquire it after a lot of work on ourselves and mainly in healthy relationships.
Being estranged from our relatives and even having the occasional (or frequent) arguments is in many ways not good for us. We feel different to the happy families around us and often grieve for what we can’t have.
We need a lot of courage on this path. If we’ve done something to hurt someone in our family then we can apologise and accept that we don’t always get it right either. If we’re expecting an apology for something that was done to us (and it was deeply serious) it may not come. I say that we need courage because ultimately we need to be on our own side. Family members may feel resentful towards us for the estrangement and we may feel like the black sheep. But when we know our truth we need to stand by that. They may never get it or get ‘us.’
It is not easy and we will need to be civil and diplomatic. Arguments often just create more pain and can be exhausting. Sometimes our families cause us more harm than good and make our lives very difficult. Where we are on this spectrum of family estrangement will be different for each one of us.
If we feel a lot of shame for things we never did, I also recommend the book ‘Compassion Focused Therapy’ by Paul Gilbert.
But in the meantime, what can soothe this pain and bind up this wound in our hearts? It may help to know that we are not alone. Many people are in the same boat as us. Being estranged from family, while deeply painful, doesn’t exclude the possibility of true belonging in the web of life with help/support from the right person, group God or other beliefs. It may take time, but it is worth the journey. I’ll leave you with the wise counsel of one of my favourite doctors who treated me for depression and anxiety when I was a teenager: ‘stick your courage to the sticking pole.’ But we do need to make sure that we get help, we don’t need to struggle alone. It’s going to be okay.
By Mary Jones
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