Some say your soul chooses your family well before you are born. Others say that where you end up is the luck of the draw. Either way, one thing is for sure: conflict is an intrinsic part of family life. And, if you choose to look at conflict as an opportunity for growth, regardless of whether you think that you have won/lost the lottery, or are on a purpose driven soul mission, your family will always give you an opportunity to evolve and thrive.
Understanding your family dynamics, as well as your role and how it might fuel current issues you are experiencing, will help you to deal with adversity in a more mature and evolved way. It does not mean that you have to condone and tolerate dysfunctional behaviours if they exist, but understanding the family system as a whole will allow you to have more compassion for yourself and the other people involved. And then, you can ask yourself a very deliberate question: How do I want to show up? Who do I want to be in this situation?
First, I invite you to look at your family as an ecosystem of its own. Like all ecosystems it relies on its members to maintain balance or homeostasis. There are many ways in which this occurs, but for now, let's look at family loyalties, how they might be regulating your ecosystem and how it can affect you.
Family loyalties can be defined as the feeling of mutually shared obligations, responsibilities, commitment and closeness that exist among family members. Being loyal to your families involves honouring family traditions, obligations and ascribing to a shared identity. It allows us to be emotionally present during both family highs and lows, like for example supporting a relative during illness, a financial crisis, the break up of a marriage or death. Biologically, family loyalties protect the family system by keeping it tight knit and healthy loyalty is a good thing as it builds trust and solidarity.
However, blind loyalty can lead to family dysfunction. In a nutshell blind loyalties are a more complex form of people pleasing and typically prevent certain family members from completing their individuation process. The term individuation was coined by Carl Jung and refers to the stages that we go through to gradually separate from the family unconscious, and become our individual selves. Adolescence is a crucial stage in that process. That's when a child gets to cultivate their own interests, often rebelling against their parents, seeing them as the fallible human beings that they are. It's their ticket to start their journey into the world. However, in dysfunctional families, an individual may be so blindly loyal that the family’s needs become greater than his/hers. Therefore, blind loyalty is an unconscious mechanism that keeps individuals from fully moving away from their family and building their own life and sense of self.
Similarly to people pleasing, loyalty usually begins in early childhood to win parental love, approval, and acceptance. In those cases, a child can remain trapped into fulfilling an unconscious role at the expense of their own life purpose. For example, a child growing up in a household with parents who, for whatever circumstances, are struggling emotionally, might adopt a caregiver role by tending to their emotions in whatever ways they can. This, in psychology, is referred to as parentification. The parent role that the child unconsciously takes on can bind them to the family, helping maintain homeostasis and peace within the family ecosystem. Therefore, as an adult you might continue to put your caregivers' needs first. In your personal life, this can show up in a number of ways. For example: you might lack a clear sense of direction and be prone to self sabotaging, you might find it difficult to maintain a committed relationship, you might struggle to become financially independent and rely on family help, you might be living with your parents well into adulthood etc. These are all unconscious ways of remaining emotionally available for your caregivers and their needs. You might have heard stories of people who after having been forever single, suddenly found love later in life, shortly after both parents had passed away. This is likely a case of blind family loyalty, where there was an unwritten rule that building their own family unit was a threat to the system's homeostasis.
It’s important to understand that we are referring to emotional dependence, therefore physical distance is irrelevant. You might live in a different country, but still be emotionally dependent, relying on your parents to help you make most of your decisions for example, or listening to them repeatedly offload their issues onto you. Some people will refer to their mother as their “best friend”, and that is usually a sign of role reversal. I hate to break it to you, but the “Gilmore girls” mother daughter relationship is the typical example of what I am referring to here. A mother is not meant to be your best friend. She is meant to be the grown up in the relationship and seek emotional support in her partner, her own friends or a therapist.
Now, this is not about judging you parents or yourself, but about understanding what might be going on so you can start acting in a different way. Emotional dependence is a two-way thing. Both parties are relying on each other and trying to meet their own emotional needs the best they can, with the tools they have. For example, a mother might project her own childhood needs onto her child, by giving her daughter the time and attention she didn't get from her own mum, becoming overbearing as a result. And, the child might learn that being emotionally available for mum and listening to her problems, is a way of getting her love and approval. If you don't know any better, you might resort to those coping mechanisms. However, there is a much healthier way to go about this. It is a call to start looking within, instead of projecting your needs outwards.
Sure, there is an unconscious, and in some cases a blatantly conscious, refusal on the parent’s side to let the child grow up, but this is only made possible because there is a part of the adult child who prefers to stay in their comfort zone rather than to rock the boat. Unconsciously these patterns can be understood as dysfunctional coping mechanisms. But once made conscious, it is your responsibility as an adult to change the status quo by choosing to tend to your own needs, setting some boundaries and/or learning to trust yourself and your decisions, for example. Ironically, in those cases, being disloyal to the system is the best way to honour it, because by choosing you first, you give others permission to do the same, putting an end to a, very often, multigenerational dysfunctional pattern. The Disney movies Coco and Encanto, are beautiful accounts of that.
Since awareness is key, let's recap. Signs of unhealthy family loyalties may include:
If you resonate with one or various of the above examples, a good question to start asking yourself is: What do I gain when I behave that way? What am I hoping to achieve for myself by putting other people’s needs, ideas and wants first? It may be that you are trying to gain approval, love, validation etc. And, it is an invitation to start thinking about how you can honour yourself and give yourself that very thing that you are looking for in others.
Another good question to ponder is: Who would disapprove if I started behaving differently? Breaking away from dysfunctional family loyalties and reclaiming your true self, is going to rock the boat and it is very likely that some people will disapprove of your behaviour. However, rocking the foundation of a dysfunctional ecosystem, allows for a new, healthier one to start to emerge. And you are the master of your own life. No one else but you is responsible for staying true to yourself, and creating the one you want. Our time on earth is limited, do you really want to spend it living someone else's life? And, are you ready to start leading by example?
PS: If you are feeling stuck and need some extra help to see what is driving you to repeat the same conflicts or behavioural patterns, like the ones mentioned in this article, and gain tools to start acting differently and get different results for yourself, a BNE session might be just what you need. You can find out more about how I can help you achieve that here.
PPS: If you want to delve into this topic further, stay tuned for my upcoming podcast episode on blind family loyalties. The episode will be released on Wednesday 21st of December 2022.
Hi, I´m Dannie
A fellow soul seeker, blogger & certified BioNeuroEmotion® (BNE) practitioner who is passionate about growing, self actualising & learning in order to lead a more coherent/conscious life and help others do the same.