Uniting in Negativity

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Remember how I said, “If we grew up in a world where it was always raining, is it any wonder that we can’t leave the house without an umbrella?” (I said it here.) Let’s talk about all that rain your family was predicting.

In dysfunctional families someone is usually running from some rain and expecting their children to run, too. Either they want to keep the children small to keep them safe or they want to keep them small so they can continue to feel powerful. There are lots of ways parents keep kids small and one of them is badmouthing everything and everyone outside the family.

These families team up via trash talk. Everyone else is stupid. Everyone else is shallow. Everyone else is immoral. WE — the chosen few sitting around this kitchen table — know better. We are smarter. We are more genuine. We are better than everyone else. Which is why nobody else likes us. Or why we can’t like anyone else. There is usually some form of isolation in families like this, either truly (the family does not connect to the broader community) or the connections are superficial (people stay involved in the community but talk poorly about everyone behind their backs).

The trash talk gets specific — your so-called friend? He’s out to get you and let me tell you how I know. Your teacher? Wouldn’t know her ass from her elbow so don’t believe it when she talks about how smart you are. Our neighbor down the road is out to get us, the neighbor up the road thinks they’re better than us, the neighbor across the way is a heretic.

You think you know better? You don’t know better. I’m older and wiser and I will always know more than you know. You cannot trust your instincts therefore you should only trust me; I’ll tell you what to think and who to know and what to believe.

This is all bad enough but it gets worse when the negativity gets used against the kids because ultimately the children are outside the circle (a circle of one containing the parent) and they’ll get trash talked, too, particularly if they do anything that threatens to challenge the patterns of enmeshment in the family. The dysfunctional adults will bond with individual children by trashing the other kids and sibling relationships suffer.

“I can’t trust your sister like I can trust you.”

“Your brother always thinks he’s better than us because he’s a snob.”

It feels good to get that individualized attention, to get the approval that’s often in short supply so siblings learn to turn against each other. Meanwhile the parent is often lamenting how the kids won’t get along but that’s someone else’s fault, too. And the sibling trash talking has an added bonus of keeping each child on their toes because they know that when their back is turned the parent is likely talking about them, too.

If you had a family like this then setting limits might create obvious aggression against you. You say, “I can’t come by this afternoon” and you know your parent is on the phone with another family member complaining about you. You get a text a few minutes later from another family member asking what’s wrong with you, why are you hurting said parent? Relationships are always entwined and codependent. Everyone is jostling for insider position and using information against each other or to try to control behavior. Other people’s failure is open to gleeful interpretation, a cautionary tale.

It keeps the central parent in control because everyone is trying to figure out how to stay in their good graces. The adult children carry tales to them as a way to curry favor because gossip is a commodity.

So how do you get out of it? Recognize the pattern and refuse to play. Do not pull other people into the conflict, as tempting as it might be. Accept that other people will be talking about you and adopt RuPaul’s motto: What other people think of me is not my business. Resist the urge to try to control the family narrative and focus only on what you know to be true. They will call you selfish, they will decry your betrayal but it is not selfish to refuse to participate and it is not a betrayal to put your own life and your own family ahead of your family of origin. You’re supposed to.

It is literally the adult child’s job to go out and build their own lovely life and in healthy families there might be some gossip, there might be some codependent discussion about holidays and parenting choices but it’s generally passive, it generally can withstand differences. Your parent may wring their hands that you won’t put a hat on that baby. They may even call your sibling to talk about it. But they will not punish you. They will not demand that everyone agree with them or get kicked out of the circle. They won’t ridicule you or turn it into a betrayal. They won’t demand that your sibling unite against you.

In healthy families they will recognize that the function of your being is to outgrow the family and that will be celebrated instead of denigrated.

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