It should be understood by the reader that these observations are not necessarily about any one person nor any particular family or group that isn't specifically identified. The behaviors described herein have been exhibited by just about every member of the human race at one time or another for millennia. If one identifies with any unflattering descriptions contained in this essay, they are invited to remember that they are not alone and identifying a problematic behavior is the first step in changing it.
|© Al-Anon Family Groups, Inc.|
Al-Anon invites its participants to implement the same 12-steps in their own lives that recovering addicts can use. It’s not uncommon for a person to attend their first Al-Anon meeting hoping that they’ll learn how to cure the addict in their life, only to have those hopes dashed by the news that they can’t make an addict do anything that the addict doesn’t want to do.
Encouraging friends and family to embrace the same 12-steps is not about trying to set an example for their addicted loved-one, it’s about helping them to understand that despite not abusing drugs or alcohol or engaging in other obvious self-destructive behaviors, they’re just as addicted. However, instead of being hooked on a substance, they’re hooked on people; specifically, the addicts in their lives. They learn about concepts like “enabling” and “co-dependency” and they can discover—by working the Steps—that the tools of recovery can help them as well.
Recovery programs are very fond of aphorisms and acronyms.
“One day at a time.”
(CC BY-SA 2.0) andrey lunin
“‘No.’ is a complete sentence.”
“Keep coming back, it works…”
“F.E.A.R.—False Evidence Appearing Real.”
“G.O.D.—Good, Orderly Direction.”
“P.U.S.H.—Pray Until Something Happens.”
“T.E.A.M.—Together, Everyone Achieves More.”
“S.O.B.E.R.—Son Of a Bitch, Everything’s Real.”
One axiom that really stuck with me is, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.”(n.b., Gary Busey coined none of these.)
Within the context of addiction, it can relate to how alcoholics and other addicts do everything they can to hide their drinking or habits but I think it applies to everyone in terms of the harm that can come with trying to conceal truths about ourselves from other people, especially those we are closest to.
Within a family dynamic, being needlessly secretive—about anything—has the potential to cause a great deal of stress and anxiety; oftentimes more so for other members of the family than for the individual(s) keeping the secret(s).
Honesty is more than just being factual. Honesty goes beyond just telling the truth. Honesty incorporates trust, loyalty, objectivity and respect. Honesty can even be considered an expression of love.
I don’t like to be out of the loop. That doesn’t mean that I feel like I need to know everything about everybody at all times but if it’s a matter that even tangentially concerns me, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want to be aware of it—and awareness of a matter doesn’t even mean having every little detail.
I’ve been in relationships—professional, interpersonal and familial—where people confused being factual with being honest. This confusion almost always resulted in hurt feelings and strained—if not completely devastated—relationships.
We have all heard the phrase, “Everything that I said was true.” But a true statement—spoken in isolation and apart from other accounts or evidence that are equally “true”—can be perceived as deceptive within a broader, more objective context.
Honesty isn’t just about being truthful in what we say, it’s also about not withholding relevant and important truths.
Being honest does not mean volunteering information. Nor does it mean relinquishing one’s right to privacy. Every single day, most people have to navigate the world by deciding what truths we share based on whether or not they’re appropriate or pertinent to the current situation. We sometimes have to consider whether revealing one truth in the present will have repercussions in the future and—if so—ask ourselves if we are willing to accept them or not and hopefully understand why.
A reasonably innocuous example of choosing what to share and when (a TL;DR response to this section would be completely understandable):
When applying for or renewing a drivers license in the state of Utah, the application states: “Applicants who apply for or hold a license are responsible to report physical or mental health conditions…” Among several other health-related questions, the application asks, “Do you have a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, severe anxiety, or severe depression?”
Mental illness carries with it a stigma in society. In an effort to remove the stigma, many people choose to be honest about their mental health and the steps they take to maintain it. In the interest of trying to do their part to help society progress to a point where negative attitudes toward mental illness are a thing of the past, one might respond to the above question in the affirmative.
Also written on the application—in smaller, albeit bold type—but only after the “YES/NO” selection of responses to the “health conditions” query, is the following admonition:
“Answering yes to any of the above questions may result in your receiving a request for additional follow-up information.”
The application does not say that the follow-up information is in the form of a blank “FUNCTIONAL ABILITY EVALUATION MEDICAL REPORT” which has to be filled out by at least one state-licensed healthcare professional. It should also be noted that it is NOT a one-time request. A licensed driver that chooses to be candid about a health condition on their application can expect to receive a new copy of that blank form every year which they are required to have filled out by the aforementioned medical professional(s) within a specific period of time, otherwise their drivers license will be revoked.
One could say that the drivers license application is not written honestly. It does state that additional information may be requested because of a “yes” answer so there certainly was no concealment. However, while no one is required to read the application in its entirety prior filling it out, most people are going to read it as they fill it out so placing that caveat after the relevant questions—again, in smaller, albeit bold type—makes it more likely to be overlooked as applicants will simply want to get to the next portion of the form and be done with it. If the proviso was included with the instructions for that section ahead of the questions themselves, applicants might give the questions and their answers some more thought.
The application asks, “Do you have a mental health condition…?”
It does not ask if the applicant has been diagnosed with anything—to say nothing if the diagnosis was made by a licensed physician or just inferred from an article on the internet.
Even if the applicant does, in fact, have a clinical diagnosis for anxiety or depression—diagnoses with a plethora of variants and associated symptoms—they can determine for themselves whether or not it can be considered “severe” enough to impact their ability to drive warranting an affirmative or negative response to the query.
A person can be clinically depressed, take prescribed medication and/or participate in therapy to manage their illness while also being generally functional and able to do things like drive an automobile. When all such factors are considered, that person can honestly say, “I do have a mental health condition, colloquially understood to be ‘depression,’ but I would not call it ‘severe.’” They can then respond to the application’s mental health question truthfully in the negative. The fact that such an answer will also spare them the bureaucratic frustration that is taking time out of one’s day every year to get a form filled out by a specialist just so their license won’t be revoked is also very useful information to know beforehand.
At first, I didn’t want to answer her question but she insisted and I eventually relented and I just told her.
She looked at me—without judgement—and said, “Me too.” She then proceeded to share with me her experiences related to that same secret which suddenly didn’t feel so deep and dark as it did before I opened up about it. At that moment I felt a little less lonely, understanding that most people carry something intangible that weighs us down. By acknowledging it, I felt free of it and knew from that moment on that I needed to be more honest with myself and others. Especially as I continued my own journey, keeping my eyes peeled for the person that I would eventually share that journey with.
After I first met the woman that would become my wife, we got together at a coffee shop to talk and just get to know each other better. At one point in our conversation, I felt that I needed to share some things about myself that I normally kept very guarded. I took a risk and just laid all my proverbial cards on the table. I told her my secrets, my most painful mistakes and poorest decisions. It was one of the most vulnerable positions that I had ever put myself in and I waited for her to stand up and leave… but she didn’t.
She saw what I was doing and how it made me feel. Most importantly, she knew that I wouldn’t have told her all of those things if I didn’t trust her—even though this was only our second date. Instead of leaving, she smiled at me and said, “I’m still here.” She then told me some things about herself that she wasn’t so proud of, reciprocating the trust that I had shown her.
For the entirety of our relationship, one of our mottos has become, “No secrets, just surprises.”
Not every relationship starts this way but many—the healthy ones, I think—do get to a place of trust where nothing is hidden and there are no earth-shattering revelations years down the road because honesty is deeply intertwined with the love of family.
|Jesus "Jess" Puente|
He was rarely one to communicate his feelings verbally. When Dad got angry, something usually got broken. I recall my half-brother, Victor, joking about how whenever Dad visited their house—after his divorce from their mother—they knew that they would have to get a brand new set of dishes afterward.
I remember one of many times when my Dad was furious with me, kicking in the locked door to my bedroom—while I was inside, trying to hide from him… and watching him fix it later.
|Maria C. Alvarez|
After that conversation, Mom didn’t beat us anymore, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have other emotional and psychological tools of abuse at her disposal. Her communication skills were better than Dad’s but she wasn’t always honest. She was very good at withholding information, affection and anything else she had control over in order to get what she wanted. Before her passing, she admitted to playing me and my Dad against each other.
Withholding information was practically a hallmark of our family. Sometimes done in fear of violent reactions from our parents, other times it was just a byproduct of the selfishness and narcissism that we grew up to believe was “normal” behavior. The phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind,” seems to ring true for many in our family—myself included. When we lived in Los Angeles, my brother Bob joined the Army and was stationed in Germany. Then, my brother Mark enlisted and after his initial training, he was able to get orders to be stationed in Southern California, not far from home. One day, after settling into his new duty station, Mark went to the house he used to live in and knocked on the door—intending to surprise his family—but the door was opened by a complete stranger: the new owner of the house. At some point after Mark had left for boot camp, Mom and Dad had decided to move to Central California but no one thought to tell him.
Dad liked bragging to his friends about how his children were in four different corners of the continental U.S. At the time, my half-sister Adele was living in Alaska, my half-brothers Ed and Victor still lived in Los Angeles, Chris was living in Alabama and I was stationed in New England.
Mom, recognizing that most of her children lived nowhere near her, reasoned that it was because she had raised all of her children to be independent—though, in reality, if any competent social worker could witness her style of parenting, they would simply call it “neglect”—but that was the story she told herself and others.
When presented with only bits and pieces of information, we naturally tend to fill in the blanks in order to derive some meaning from it. Unfortunately, the details that we use to fill in the blank spaces are usually completely fabricated, usually just speculation and guesses derived from our own feelings and imaginations.
|The author and his wife|
Image by Red Bloom Photography
In a family dynamic with grown children that don’t have as much regular contact with their parents and siblings—for any reason—being able to check in takes more effort. Regardless of the difficulty, it’s worth trying to overcome any hesitation to reach out, especially when misunderstandings and hurt feelings are involved.
If one member of the family says or does something that unintentionally hurts the feelings of another, the person who feels hurt needs to let the one who hurt them know how they feel and why. Confronting someone about how their words or actions resulted in personal pain is one of those most difficult things anyone can do. It’s our natural instinct to avoid confrontation, to avoid allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in the presence of someone else, to risk being hurt again. But when it comes to close-knit families, where periodically spending time with parents, siblings, cousins and in-laws is part of one’s regular routine, it’s healthier for everyone involved to address interpersonal conflicts directly and as soon as possible.
When we avoid talking about a potentially misunderstood statement, an action or inaction that has resulted in hurt feelings, we prevent ourselves from understanding the reasons behind it and we postpone any chance to heal from the experience. If we cut ourselves off from those who have hurt us without even telling them that they have caused us pain—or worse, assuming that they already know—their ignorance of what happened can look like indifference to our feelings.
By not confronting the person(s) that have caused us pain and not asking why they said or did something we have no way of accurately processing what happened. Our minds will never be content with just not knowing. We will fill in the blanks with something that might make sense to us but is most likely completely wrong. We can't help it. This false narrative—the story that we make up—will usually serve only to reinforce the hurt feelings we are experiencing and breed resentment toward the person that hurt us. And no matter how intense the pain is, if we don’t talk about it, no one else will know. The pain that they may have caused us may not even have been intentional but without confronting them about it and asking, “Why did you say that?” Or “Why did you do that?” we’re more likely to assume that it was done on purpose. We’ll wonder why and not knowing the answer to that question, we’ll fill in the blank with another story element that—again—might make sense but is still wrong like: “They did it because they hate me.” Then we wonder, “Why do they hate me?” and having no real answer, we’ll make one up to fill in the blank, eliciting more hurt feelings for thoughts that we can’t even know are real because we refuse to acknowledge our pain to those who may have caused it.
My late mother taught me—as a child no less—“Don’t ever assume. It makes an ASS out of U and ME.” She even did me the courtesy of writing it out on a little chalkboard that I had in my room. She was also prone to making a lot of assumptions.
The introduction of a third party—even one in the same family—can be problematic when they’re only given knowledge of an incident limited to the perception of the wounded family member. There might also be social and/or geographical disconnects to consider. People grow, even within families, and yet, many get into a habit of looking right at a fully grown, mature and experienced sibling and still default to treating them or talking about them as we did when they were children or teenagers. We remember habits, personality traits and character flaws that they may have outgrown but we still assume that the siblings we know as adults are the same people they were as children when they are not.
The desire to avoid conflict, to maintain a peaceful atmosphere without directly addressing any action or event that has resulted in hurt feelings and misunderstandings, is impossible. Wounds cannot heal by pretending that they don’t exist. As I’ve written elsewhere:
“To deny the conflict, hurt feelings and tension that naturally arise between people...will only compound those feelings; and if someone is unwilling to acknowledge those issues openly they will manifest themselves in other ways like resentment, complaining, obstructionism, not expressing hostility or anger, i.e. passive-aggressive behavior.”If the family is the fundamental unit of society and if we are truly striving to establish a Zion society, where members of a Zion society are described as being “…of one heart and one mind…” it has to start by embracing and living the ideals of Zion in our homes and with our families.
Many have heard the caveat to “avoid the appearance of evil," but I think it's often misinterpreted to mean “avoid the appearance of conflict” in order to maintain an illusion of Zion. The problem is that these aren't just appearances. They are real conflicts, which in and of themselves are nothing to be ashamed of—it's human nature—but by trying to avoid their appearance, it’s the same as just denying that they exist. A major problem with attempting to control outward appearances is the fact that Zion is not defined by its appearance. It's defined by intangible concepts of heart and mind.
It's not unheard of for families to look like they're getting along despite the fact that they have disagreements, conflicts and hurt feelings that aren’t being addressed but this behavior is dishonest and stands in the way of establishing a Zion society.
It's easy to say, "I'm not doing anything" when we're exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior. But avoiding conflict does not make it go away. Bottling up our negative feelings (heart) and not being open about what we're thinking (mind) when there are problems between family members can still affect those around us, sometimes in more detrimental and enduring ways than an actual confrontation. Ignoring the efforts of others to communicate—especially in an attempt to resolve an issue—is not inaction. To quote a popular meme, “No response is a response. And it’s a powerful one.”
It is possible to overcome these deleterious feelings and mindsets. Left unchecked, they can, at worst, tear families apart and, at best, maintain only superficial and insincere familial connections out of a sense of obligation or societal/cultural pressure to maintain an outward appearance of harmony—which takes a great deal more effort and emotional strain than actually being part of an honest, loving family.
We can move beyond these issues by acknowledging our discomfort and our ways of thinking. By being open about our feelings—including our pain—and addressing misunderstandings between each other with love and empathy, we can be better able to let painful feelings go. But the most important thing that we must understand is that we need to be willing to forgive those who have wronged us and, in turn, be willing to seek forgiveness from those that we have wronged.
Joseph L. Puente
Salt Lake City, Utah
Additional images courtesy of Stuart Miles, Supertrooper and tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net