What role did you play?

What role did you play in your imperfect family?

Remember: all families are dysfunctional – it’s a matter of degree. So, you got to be in here somewhere. I flaunt some combination of hero and scapegoat – the ambitious outsider from a southern conservative family. Let’s see from whence you came. As you wander through this time-honored family tree, keep in mind that birth order is not dictatorial. And that one can take on behaviors of more than one role.

The Hero Child. Think perfection. Good grades, athletic star, friendly. Top of the heap. Best at everything. This child often develops an ego based on external esteem via achievement. In other words, if attention and validation are lacking at home, I need to have my bucket filled somewhere. So, the child brilliantly and creatively looks outside the family sphere to get his or her emotional needs met. Furthermore, this child does the family a great “service.” Not only does this child carry a successful persona, but the child makes the family look good too. I mean, really, only a healthy loving family could produce such a champion, right? Thus, the child covers the family shame. No one would even guess that this family is dysfunctional or that this child is hurting underneath all the bravado. The up side? This child is inbred with ambition and drive for societally-defined success. The down side? This child grows into a production machine at the expense of his/her heart, feelings and relationships.

The Scapegoat. This role is often filled by the next in line but doesn’t have to be. He or she takes one look at Super-Power older brother or sister and says, “Hell, I can’t top that. I’ll go the other direction!” Thus, this child gets attended to for how awful he or she can be because negative attention is better than no attention at all. Think black sheep. Fuck up. Trouble maker. Whereas the hero child can do no wrong, the scapegoat can do no right. Why does this child revert to such atrocity? Two reasons. First, because he or she accepts the role of “stabilizing” the dysfunctional family. Someone must eat the shit and this child volunteers. Thus, he or she absorbs all the negative projection and blame as the “bad kid” who is causing this family to be dysfunctional. “If only Johnny would behave, we’d all be happy.” Or, “If only Suzie would stop her drug use, then we’d all get along swimmingly.” Secondly, whereas the hero child compensates for the pain, the troubled child tries to cast light onto the family dysfunction in hopes for healing. A smart school guidance counselor or an informed police officer will at least question and investigate what is going on at home to cause the child to act out. Thus, the scapegoat can lead the way toward growth and change. The down side? The scapegoat child often ruins his or her own life in the process of trying to save the family.

The Lost Child. Again, not always in a classical order, but certainly makes sense in the now crowded lot where emotional resources are limited. The next child takes one look at Super Power and one at the Screw-Up. The phone is ringing non-stop with yet another college scholarship or the detention office with yet another violation. “Shit. I think the best I can do for this family is get out of the way,” says the lost child. And that is what this child offers the family – relief. He or she needs nothing. They often hole up in their room and seek emotional comfort outside of human interaction. Think computers, TV, books, food or the child that got left behind in the movie, “Home Alone.” He or she raises themselves as a means to ease the familial discord. I personally think this is the saddest of the childhood roles. Emotional deficit embeds deep in this invisible child. Scars that can last a lifetime.

The Mascot Child. This child is often the youngest but again, not necessarily. There is already a cramped house but this circus needs a clown. Someone to ease the tension by bringing comic-relief. He or she is cute, likable, gregarious. A human doll. Everyone wants to be around him or her and baby them with full-blown coddle. Again, helpful to the dysfunctional family but not so helpful to the child. Often this person never grows up. He or she needs a parent, an audience, someone to hold him or her accountable for the boring adult responsibilities that were always being done for them.

Get the picture? Which one can you identify with?

Let’s grow them up with no therapy, no self-reflection. Emotionally-stunted without having worked on themselves.

Hero. CEO of a company. Soccer coach to his/her three kids. Big earner. Big personality. Drops dead of a heart attack. Or spouse leaves for someone more emotionally attentive and available.

Scapegoat. Jail, drugs, multiple marriages with multiple children. Financial debt. Never reached potential. Angry, self-loathing and shame-filled.
Lost Child. Writer, artist. Hermit. Never married or had kids. (Why would I want to do that?) Lives in cramped studio apartment in NYC filled with books and empty food containers from the deli around the corner. Pornography. Anxious. Depressed.

Mascot. Drug addict. Fun to be around. Life of the party. Peter Pan. Unable to sustain a long-term relationship. Disney Dad. Financial ruin.

Ugh. That was wrenching, if not hopeless.

Where is the hope? – I hear you asking. With whatever your chosen path toward growth and healing, you don’t have to forever stay stuck in your cast role. You can emotionally develop and mature beyond the given script from your family of origin.

That being said, we do still carry ripples of our early life, but those patterns can turn into something constructive. The hero child can be productive, ambitious, successful and often a leader. The scapegoat can be a change-maker, a questioner, a bold trailblazer. The lost child often has a rich inner life by which to create art or intelligent thought. The mascot brings joy.

So, know your start. Thank the opportunity you had to survive. Now, get moving as to not be stifled forever as the know-it-all, the loser, the hermit or the clown. For, you are so much more than what you once needed to be.

Becoming Gritty

My parents did many things wrong. (Sorry, mom!) They were the product of their culture and time. I am confident that if they had been of a different era and age, they would have embraced self-reflection, gone to therapy and actually grown-up themselves before having kids and passing along the only thing they knew – that which was given to them. Parenting would have been more mindful and intentional than a factory conveyor belt.

That being said, the best gift my parents instilled in me was grit. (Don’t you love that word? Just saying it aloud makes me happy.) The dictionary defines it as “firmness of character, an indomitable spirit.” Whether my parents intended to or not, this characteristic of sheer staunch doggedness has been both my source of survival and growth.

I know it’s not the sexiest image. It conjures hard work, sweat, tears and backbone. And yet, it’s my most treasured internal resource. It has been my friend through childhood angst, long-distance running, loss, the risk of self-employment, a custody trial from hell and the challenge of raising a teenager with special needs.

But grit is not the whole story. When assaulted by life, I fall. I fall hard. I fucking lie flat in hopelessness, wondering if this time, I won’t get up. But then, with a little time to lick my wounds, say a few choice words, survey the damage, reach out to my tribe of support, find respite in sleep and probably drink more glasses of Cabernet than I care to admit, something clicks in me. My old crony, grit, shows up and yells, “Now what? Get up, girl. You got work to do.” Like snow in a Montana winter, I’ve come to depend on her arrival at the scene of my ordeal-of-the-day. She blows in, my toughness emerges and conquering, I go.

Shortly before my father died suddenly, disappearing from life at the prime age of forty-nine, he scrawled me a note – as he often did. In this particular card, he referenced a current joke between the two of us. “Dear Wimp …” he penned in his distinct handwriting. He jokingly knew that I was not a wimp. That such was not possible in the daughter he raised. Like him, I would be a paragon of perseverance.

Angela Duckworth in her book, “Grit,” researches and documents the value of character tenacity. Through her studies of cadets at West Point, teachers of inner city children, young finalists in the National Spelling Bee and several high achievers in work and sport, she concludes that success is not driven by genius but rather a unique combination of passion and long-term determination. Furthermore, she posits that grit can be grown and instilled in our children.

How gritty are you? Are you engendering its value in the children you’ve been charged to raise?

Talent be damned … it’s what you do with it that matters. I think of that poor, pathetic turtle who was doomed to lose the race to the snappy, braggadocios rabbit. We all know how that story ends.

If the turtle can do it, we can too. One tenacious step at a time. Whether we are climbing out of despair’s pit or rising above mediocrity, the path is the same. The way can only be paved with fortitude, persistence and a whole lot of grit.

Healing from the Top-Down and Bottom-Up

How do we create and sustain change?

Top-down and Bottom-Up. That’s how.

Let’s say you want to start an exercise program to get fit.

You need to join a gym. Hire a trainer. Maybe get a journal or download an app to track your progress. You need to get the right shoes and of course, the latest Lululemon workout tights. You need to learn the proper techniques of your exercise of choice which includes warming-up and cooling-down. In other words, you need the “how do I change?” You need to get educated on the specific techniques and tools to bring change into your life. We call that the “Top Down.” It’s conscious, cognitive and skill-focused.

But without the “Bottom Up,” you are wasting your time and your money. That fancy boutique workout gear will either sit in your closet or adorn the not-yet-paid-for-and-never-used treadmill.

Skills are not enough. We need our friend “Bottom-Up.”

The “Bottom-Up” is the unconscious emotional terrain of your being. It is the “why should I?” It consists of all the unearthed reasons why you are the way you are, the unconscious story of how you ended up unfit and out-of-shape in the first place. Maybe you don’t love yourself enough to be healthy. Maybe you want to remain unattractive and unavailable. Maybe you fear success. Maybe lying on the couch and devouring chocolate doughnuts is a desired slow suicide. Or at least lives up to Mom or Dad’s version of “you will never amount to anything.” Whatever the multitude of options, without your unconscious’s agreement, you cannot maintain change. You will find a way to sabotage success so that your way of living matches your internal landscape. (Hint: this is where therapy can be helpful.)

However, if you only focus on the “Bottom Up,” you will become emotionally in tune but you will be stuck. Because, insight and two dollars only can buy you a cup of coffee. Once your internal world is on board and ready, you will then need the knowledge and know-how – and of course the right outfit – for real change to occur.

Thus, growth happens when we work both ends – the top and the bottom. Like two matching bookends, both are necessary for behavior to shift. One without the other will not only fail, but perhaps discourage from ever trying again. And that would be a sad ending to a potentially good story … yours.

Say Doc, How Do I Know When I Am Done?

“So, Doc. How will I know when I am done here?” the frequently asked million-dollar question goes.

I feel my body tighten, wondering if this patient is going to be one of “those.” One that wants to fire me before hiring me. One that wants some short-cut, clear path of checking-the-boxes-toward-his-or-her-mental-health stamp.

I get it. It is not always clear what we are striving for day after day, particularly when life is the journey and “arrival” is not only impossible, but also not the goal. Without clear-cut standards, growth seems hopelessly vague and even mystifying. After all, the development of a person can be subjective, invisible and very complex. For, we are always more than meets the eye.

That being said, it is helpful to ask the question as to begin the dialogue.

What are we aiming for in our emotional well-being and how are we faring? As a self-reflective check-up, I share with you the core capacities of mental health:

  1. Internal Peace and Harmony. You know, accept and have come to like who you are. You are rooted in a deep sense of security within yourself. You are also congruent – your insides match your outsides. Your masks are no longer useful to you. You are okay being and doing you, even when others disapprove. Your character is consistent and genuine. Authentic you has a place in the world.
  2. Emotional Literacy. You embrace your feelings as a natural and normal part of life. You realize that happiness is not the only feeling, nor life’s goal. You are able to savor pleasure and joy when they come your way while acknowledging and handling difficult emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them or denying their exist. Emotional health comes from being able to label, acknowledge and accept tough emotions, but also move forward from them without getting stuck.
  3. Commitment to Truth. You have a fundamental orientation toward discovering and living with what is real rather than false or ideal.
  4. Tolerance, Patience and Flexibility. Life is indeed complicated. It is inconsistent and unpredictable. Thus, if you have a limited number of tools in your toolbox, then you will live life ineffectively. You won’t have the internal resources to cope well emotionally. Emotionally-well people have an ability to adapt to all kinds of situations that life may throw at us. They are more like a grass reed than a tall oak. One rolls with it, the other snaps and breaks during a storm. You approach life with curiosity, openness and flexibility. You know when and how to have tough conversations and set boundaries, but you also know when to change a course of action or just let things go. Such tolerance gives you the capacity to embrace conflicting aspects of self, others and life all around.
  5. Self-Control. In other words, you have an established boundary practice. You know where you start and stop and you are aware of the same in others. You have the capacity to know and take responsibility for yourself.
  6. Love and Gratitude. Your outflow of kindness, compassion and empathy allows you to treat others well. You are rooted in gratitude from a place of abundance rather than deficit. You appreciate what you have rather than focusing on what you don’t have.
  7. Peopled. Humans are natured in connection. Thus, emotionally-well folks exist in a nurturing, loving environment by which they can thrive. This means you have people in reciprocity. You give and you receive. You can depend on them and they you. You have a community of friends and family who have your best interest at heart. One where you feel safe to express how you feel and you feel respected and validated by those closest to you. You exchange warmth, appreciation and attention freely and you share in your pains and triumphs together.
  8. Meaning in Life. Leading a purposeful life is about having a passion, a mission or larger meaning to your life. This happens when you know your values and use your strengths to help something you believe in. Being part of something you connect with and care about is associated with fulfillment. Additionally, people with high levels of well-being tend to spend their money on experiences rather than possessions. Experiences can lead to shared experiences and bonding with people, which help you enjoy the beauty in the world and cultivate the positive emotions that come with new experiences.
  9. Moderation. Emotionally well-off people keep themselves in check. They regularly attend to and tweak the wholistic and essential pillars of their lives as to ensure attention, maintenance and growth. Not too much, not too little. Not too big, not too small. But balanced just right.
  10. Vitality. Mentally healthy people are alive. They are less afraid of the many parts of themselves. They are engaged, free of inhibition. They are ripe, full, present and contagious like an heirloom tomato screaming “pick me” from the summer fruit stand.

Okay, so, how’d you do? And more importantly, what are you gonna do about it?

Remember, no shame.

Just stay the course as to keep trending toward living a life with these core emotional capacities. You will feel better and do better in life. More satisfied, more content and more grounded in that healthy essence of you. The one that was there from the start and still exists – at the core of beautiful you.