Here's a lesson I wish I'd known, growing up and venturing out into the world: separating my worldview from my parents' worldview was an important developmental process, not a forbidden act of betrayal.
When we're dependent on our family of origin for the roof over our head and the food on our plate, it's really really difficult to fully take this in.
And when we're trying to make our way in the wider world, it's really really helpful to understand it.
Most of us learn to code-switch to some degree, and that's a helpful first step. This is how to behave at home, this is how to behave at school, this is how to behave at my best friend's house. But what I'm talking about goes beyond this.
Every system has its own equilibrium, based on the wants, needs, desires, and power of the individuals in that system. One of the most important elements of power is the ability to leave the system—which we don't have as kids. So no matter how much we may be able to impact the system of our family of origin (and we're not powerless in that—even the cry of a baby has plenty of impact), ultimately as kids our survival skills are developed in relation to this system. And it's not a perfect system—it represents the imperfect learning of imperfect people about how best to survive and thrive in the world. Hurt people (which is all of us) hurt people, and hurt people create dysfunctional systems.
As kids we do our best to get by in systems where we're ultimately pretty powerless, but how we behave when we're feeling good is different than how we behave when we're under pressure or when we get triggered. When push comes to shove, our loyalties are clear and our patterns are deeply ingrained. Reliant on our families, we absorb their worldviews and their dysfunctions in ways we are often unaware of, and our survival skills are mapped accordingly. We may struggle in school or with our peers because of it, but the consequences skyrocket later in life when our adult relationships and our livelihood are at stake.
Hurt people create dysfunctional systems. And the survival skills we learn in our first dysfunctional system (our family) may actually hurt us in other dysfunctional systems we encounter.
When you go out into the world, you're still wired to survive in your family's worldview. Whether that means throwing the first punch, or people-pleasing, or keeping a stiff upper lip, or any number of survival strategies that have undesired consequences in other settings.
Hurt people create dysfunctional systems. A founding CEO's dysfunction becomes part of the fabric of the organization, and people with compatible dysfunctions support its growth. Ancestral trauma informs cultural patterns. Families pass on what they know about how to survive and thrive, no matter how relevant those methods are for the current environment. Sometimes as kids we can see this dysfunction, but our survival depends on not seeing it. As adults, our survival depends on navigating multiple systems with multiple worldviews. Some adults manage to find environments with familiar systems or develop a code switching mastery. Many adults go from one system to another to another, getting fired, breaking off relationships, leaving a job that "doesn't fit" for another one that won't fit either. But we can also make a choice to evolve.
Part of the developmental process of becoming an adult and separating from your parents is to not only be able to code switch between dysfunctional systems for your own adult survival, but also be able to help evolve new, less dysfunctional, systems.
This takes something more than basic code-switching. Often, it takes a deep level of understanding and some serious rewiring of your nervous system.
Any system tries to keep its members and parts inside the system, for its own survival. So this isn't easy work. Even an exiled member is expected to uphold the system's worldview. And yet, the individual needs to be able to separate from the system enough to see the system, in order to have optimum chance of survival beyond the system.
It is our birthright to be allowed to do the hard work of separating from our parents, look at these systems from the outside, get clear about our own worldview, and then figure out how and where to re-engage.
And ultimately, although everyone has a right to make their own choices about their own growth, we all have to choose the growth path long enough to get out of the systems we were raised with, in order to fully thrive as adults and be fully responsible to the children we raise. And this work will do wonders for all our relationships, though there may be loss and grief and anger and pain along the way.
ABS :: draft date 10/20/2016
If this piece moved you or sparked thought, I'd love to hear it... by mail. Send me a postcard or a letter. I'll read it. (Though I may not respond promptly.) You can write me at Audrey Beth Stein P.O. Box 380426 Cambridge MA 02238.