One of our critical needs as human beings is to feel a sense of belonging. In an ideal situation, we first experience belonging with our family. This is where we learn that we deserve love, can trust others, how to resolve conflict, participate in a healthy give-take relationship, and many other core beliefs about our self and our place in this big world.
When this goes well, we are likely to grow up emotionally healthy and able to establish healthy relationships outside of our family. However, the reality is this process rarely occurs without bumps in the road and, unfortunately, sometimes it goes terribly wrong and causes significant emotional trauma.
When the topic of family is brought up in a group, there will be a mix of positive and negative emotional reactions. Because family members are people we are closest to (or you would expect to be closest), they have the power to hurt each other deeply, whether intentional or not. If we didn’t care as much, it wouldn’t hurt as badly. So, when the family relationship goes well, it is great! But when it goes bad, it is really tough on us emotionally.
A couple of examples that are commonly known to cause challenges to feeling a sense of belonging with family include mental illness, abuse, addiction, divorce, blended families, and death. When these issues arise and are not dealt with in healthy ways, it can disrupt the family dynamic leaving all member’s affected. It’s also important to note that each family member can be affected in different ways depending on their role in the family, personality, and personal strengths and vulnerabilities.
If you currently have good healthy family relationships, I encourage you to embrace them and be grateful for them every day. If your family dynamic has left you feeling hurt or a sense of loss in any way, the good news is that we can heal and seek belonging with others.
Getting to an emotional state of mind where you are ready to participate in a relationship as the healthiest version of you may require time to gain insight into how your family has impacted you and heal emotionally from past traumas. Sometimes the thought of experiencing the pain associated with trauma feels so overwhelming that we use all our strength to keep it suppressed deep deep down in our soul.
The reality is that those unprocessed emotions impact many areas of our well-being. Shutting out emotions to prevent experiencing negative emotions consequently deprives us of fully experiencing positive emotions. It is crucial that we allow pain to surface and process it accordingly — just like we wouldn’t want to slap a Band-Aid on a wound without cleaning it first. Journaling and self-help books are good aids, but professional counseling services are a powerful tool to guide you in your journey to healing.
Once you have taken the time to reflect and have allowed wounds to heal, a next step is to define what family means to you. Your definition should include more than just a biological connection. What are important values that you believe a family should live by?
In my years of counseling, I have witnessed time and again that when someone in our life is unable to meet our needs in a way we wish they could, there is always someone in our life willing to provide those needs. For example, if you have lost your mother who provided you comfort and affection, notice who else in your life meets this need for you. Maybe you have a very affectionate father, aunt, or spouse. The key is to acknowledge that you are not deprived of affection and seek comfort in knowing there are people present in your world who do meet that need.
Although it adds another challenging layer, this exercise is also very powerful for coping with people who are alive and choose not to meet our needs. For example, maybe your mother is still living but because of her own issues, she is cold and deprives you of affection. The same concept noted above applies, but you must work toward accepting realistic expectations from her in order to open yourself up to others who offer you affection.
As you work through this process, you will find that you may have more family around you than you originally noticed. The people who fit your definition of family share common values and naturally connect with you.
In order to protect the many benefits you get from this healthy circle of people in your life, it may be necessary to put up boundaries with others who are toxic to your well-being. Boundaries can range from limited contact to no contact at all. No contact may seem extreme to those who value family deeply, but keep in mind that rules change when there is abuse.
No one, including family, has a right to be disrespectful to you physically or emotionally. If they continue to be neglectful to your emotional needs and are negatively impacting your well-being, it may be necessary to establish solid boundaries to protect yourself.
Once you have clarified who your family is and have surrounded yourself with loving people, I leave you with the reminder to make time to nurture these relationships. Those who have lost family know just how precious these relationships are. Make time for family. Show them love. Let them know how grateful you are for the gifts they offer you. Always keep them at the top of your priority list. These are the people who will help you grow and be there for you in your time of need.
Kristin Woodling, a licensed mental health counselor and certified marriage and family therapist, is the owner of Pamper Your Mind, LLC in Satellite Beach. She is devoted to providing a confidential and elite therapeutic experience to professional women seeking healing, clarity, and balanced lifestyle for optimal health. Woodling promotes strong mental health services in her community and teaches counseling at Webster University and Eastern Florida State College. She is a graduate of the 360 Ignite program offered through WeVenture at Florida Institute of Technology and enjoys volunteering as a mentor to help other professionals excel personally and professionally.
Check out this article in our DIGITAL MAGAZINE.