Saturday, October 2, 2010

Honesty and Truth-Telling in Families

Nobody said it would be easy, but most of us grew up assuming that our parents would never intentionally lie to us, or deliberately conceal information about important things.

As kids we expected straight answers. After all if we couldn't be told the truth by our mom and dad, how could we ever begin to trust the universe, including our own internal world of thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

Here is where the problems begin. Parents can be no more honest and direct with their children than they are with themselves. And as a parent, I recognize the natural drift to focus on what I perceive as being 'good for us' rather than what is true.

I am as guilty as anyone in routinely telling my children when they were young what I thought to be helpful rather than conveying my true regrets, struggles, doubts, and uncertainties. It was much easier to talk about "how it should have been" than "how it really is or was for them."

As Harriet Lerner describes it...."we rarely describe our reality to each other with candor, and this failure constitutes a tremendous loss, for it is through our stories, which create an authentic connection with significant others, that we begin to uncover our deepest truth."

Anxiety and a reactive emotional climate makes it difficult to push against silence and secrecy in a family system. "I just can't be real; I can't be myself", is often an unspoken symptom of underground anxiety reverberating through the life of children. They learn from a young age to recognize and tiptoe around invisible family mine fields.

From generation to generation reactivity accumulates over time. Intense and painful events that have never been processed remain embedded in the emotional landscape of families, only to be reenacted with each new generation.

And it is this level of underground anxiety (emotional reactivity) in a family that determines how much freedom the offspring have to discover, clarify and express their own realities (truth as they experience it), and how accurately they will see themselves and others.

Anxiety polarizes and herds family members often towards fusion or the opposite, cut-offs. Toward disclosing too much or too little. Toward completely avoiding a subject, or focusing on it incessantly.

By the time chronic anxiety (as opposed to acute situational anxiety) becomes the family norm, it tends to lock members into a rigid authoritarian rules bound system or the opposite fluid and chaotic family system that is out of control. Either way, kids suffer in both extremely anxious family polarities.

Someone eventually has to take the lead and openness and truth-telling can't begin until at least one person steps up, calms down, and really begins to think rather than to merely react. Any movement towards greater truth-telling in our families will requires us to:

1. define ourselves more clearly to one another
2. to see other family members more objectively
3. to talk straighter about family issues that matter
4. and to acknowledge in oneself and others the full, shifting range of competencies and vulnerabilities that make us human

Usually that someone in the family is a motivated adult who has the capacity to reshape the emotional climate of the family system by changing their behavior. (A child generally has limited capacity to problem solve and to take risks with the adults on whom their very survival often depends.)

Positive moves toward truth-telling require us to remain less anxious, and to arrive at a place where our wish to understand the other people in our family is as great as our desire to be better understood by them.

Honesty and simply "being ourselves" is not to be equated with uncensored raw expressions of thoughts and feelings that are merely dumped out into the family system. Instead, being strategic rather than spontaneous may include timing and tact on our part.

Truth-telling requires us to "be ourselves", but to also exercise restraint as it may take extended time and effort to clarify our positions on how we really think and feel, and where we stand on important family issues.

Asking questions and remaining calm (I call it sitting on your hands) helps promote a less anxious process, and each question and disclosure often times evokes more new questions, new feelings and new disclosures.

Laying the groundwork for becoming better truth-tellers is a life long challenge. It can begin at any age, and be done by each and every family member over time. Where lies, secrets and silence have prevailed in the past, families can begin to reverse the process with humble acknowledgment and declarations of forgiveness.

The good news is that it's never to late. We can begin today. The great news is that we have little to lose and lots to gain. Why bother going into emotion-laden issues with our families?

Why not bother? There is probably no better way to discovering our own truths than to unearth the stories and family events that have shaped our own stories. These stories are us, and it is in exchanging and refining our personal experiences that we can begin to know our own truths. Amen.

Enjoy the challenge!
PS Peter, John, Nick and Annie - I'm all ears......OK, I need hearing aids sometimes, thanks for the journey! Love DAD
Adopted from the materials of Harriet G. Lerner, Honesty and Truth-Telling

1 comment:

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