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Dysfunctional Family Characteristics


Uncertainty about normality: Being in a dysfunctional family makes you unsure of what is right, normal or functionally healthy.

Denial: The truth--your own perceptions and experience--is denied and not talked about. You pretend everything is OK.

Inconsistency and unpredictability: Rules are unclear and broken. Behavior is chaotic and can fluctuate unpredictably or undependability.

Lack of empathy: There is little validating supportive understanding--instead there are unreasonable expectations.

Lack of clear boundaries: Your innate rights are not respected. your space and rights are violated or abused.

Avoiding feelings: Your real feelings are feared, repressed, controlled or minimized--so the information they contain can be ignored. You believe that should feel differently than you really do.

Lack of trust: You don't trust yourself or others and so don't express yourself openly for fear of being hurt, rejected or abandoned.

Low self-esteem: Inwardly you feel negatively about yourself, although this may be covered by an image that you present to the world.

A sense of helplessness: There is a sense of being a victim and of having little control over your life--this creates subconscious anger.

Incongruent communication: There is a pattern of giving mixed messages or double signals--words and actions are often different.

A closed family system: You feel isolated in your private world--and guarded or defensive about what really goes on there.

Role reversal: Parents attempt to satisfy their own needs through their children rather than responding to the children's needs. You feel responsible for meeting your parent's needs.

Extremes in conflict: Problems are not cleanly discussed so things are either hidden or there are raging fights and imminent explosions.

Crisis addiction: You get used to the emotional roller coaster and don't feel alive when everything is peaceful and easy--so you create crises.

Absolute thinking: Rigid thinking means it's got to be all or nothing, all right or all wrong. You believe you have to be a great success--this unrealistic assumption makes feelings of failure inevitable when you can't attain it.

Blaming self for other's actions: You often feel guilty and responsible for other's feelings and behavior. You take on their expectations.

Feeling out of control: This is frightening--so you attempt to control yourself and your environment at the cost of spontaneity, joy and free expression.

Difficulties with relationships: Feeling isolated, socially inadequate and unlovable you crave intimacy but are afraid of it. You have poor communication skills. There can be a clinging dependence which forces rejection or unrealistic demands and idealized expectations which similarly create disappointment. From your childhood experience you conclude that abuse is a sign of love and therefore you recreate this familiar relationship.



Don't speak: Don't let other people know your real feelings. Don't communicate directly to resolve issues. Pretend everything is OK. (For recovery, the repressed or dissociated feelings of anger, pain, shame, etc. need to be acknowledged and expressed.)

Don't trust: Don't trust the adults around you. Don't trust outsiders. Don't trust yourself or your own perceptions.

Don't feel: Don't allow yourself to feel your real feelings and the pain in your family. This leads to the numbing of addictions.

Don't be selfish: Don't acknowledge that you have legitimate needs and rights. (Recovery entails recognizing that it is OK to take care of yourself.)

Don't ask: Don't ask to have your needs met or your rights respected because the people around you will not do it and may even abuse you for trying to stand up for yourself.

Don't be you: Be who 'they' want you to be. Your self-esteem is based on what you do, and how you look -- not who you are. You end up feeling like a failure because you can never be good enough -- and you have lost yourself in the process.



A dysfunctional family is a shame based family. Underneath this shame is the family secret. (This needs to be made conscious.)

A dysfunctional family usually has a special needs person. Others must accommodate this person and thus not have their needs met.

The basis of codependency is the victim triangle with dynamics among:

The victim: Behaves powerless, vulnerable, weak, put upon and out of control.

The persecutor: Behaves abusively, manipulative, blaming, controlling.

The rescuer: Behaves in a compulsively helpful way, but needs to be needed and feels "one up" by having people dependent on him.

The positions of victim, persecutor and rescuer shift as each individual internalizes all three roles and expresses all three at different times. Underneath the rescuer is a victim consciousness -- rescuers resent having to ignore their own needs to always help the victim. The persecutor is also, at times, a victim. Persecutors never get what they really want -- but if they give up the role they are afraid they will be victimized. This triangle is characterized by unclear boundaries, guilt and distorted responsibility. Growing up in such a codependent enmeshed system predisposes an individual to recreate this pattern in future relationships unless the underlying dynamics are made conscious and resolved -- and a healthy sense of personal empowerment is established. Once we realize the power we have to co-create our reality, we will not be drawn into patterns of victimization or create dysfunctional dynamics in our life.