This particular column didn’t make it to print in lieu of another one, but I saw so much in this very short and very loaded question that I couldn’t not address it.
Outtake #1 | Winter 2019
Dear Jenny Bruso,
Do you have any advice on how to interact with family when you are not sure if they are being abusive or just making the normal human types of mistakes?
-Love and/or Leave
Being an emotionally healthy human in American culture, where capitalism, which depends on oppression, has many of us fucked up about what’s actually important and “healthy,” being a “good person” is often not enough.
I might be going in a little hard… but 2018 has got me DOWN about humankind.
If something feels like abuse, it usually is. That said, it can be complicated. There are generational and cultural factors dictating what is considered abuse. Many parents still think slapping their kids for acting up is fine, or calling their kid a shithead is better than hitting them. With some parents, it’s more psychological; withholding tenderness (love) or financial support, etc. when their kids (of any age) don’t do the things they want them to do.
I don’t know what kinds of mistakes your family has made or is making, but I do know the kinds my own have made. When I contrast what my parents went through in their own childhoods with what I went through in mine, it’s clear they tried to do better, but I did experience regular physical and emotional abuse. They, like most of their generation, married and started their families young. They were raised to be boot-strapping, nose-to-the-grindstone workaholics who think therapy and self-care is weak and stepping out of the box means you’re just trying to make life harder on yourself. I’m in my mid-thirties now, but in my late teens and much of my twenties, I couldn’t be around my parents because the pain of growing up in their house was too fresh and undealt with. Thankfully, I was queer and the internet was becoming a thing (shout out to Friendster and Myspace!). I had access to examples I didn’t have in my growing up experience, different ideas about health, happiness and success. I wish my parents had had better examples.
It sounds like you are asking because you want a relationship with your family, but are also possibly confused about how much harm is too much harm. I don’t want to make excuses for your family. You don’t deserve harm. You deserve nothing but gentleness and acceptance and love, always. But sometimes, our families are fucked up. It’s likely your family is making the “normal human types of mistakes” but maybe those mistakes are also abusive. I do feel it’s possible to identify abusive behavior without sidelining a person as abusive. I don’t want to make assumptions about your home life (past or present), but if your family members are performing abuse, what would happen if you said the words, “this feels abusive,” when experiencing those behaviors? If they care about your experience, they’ll want to do the right things to remedy the situation. Do they deserve the chance to heal these situations?
As I got older and got to see my parents more clearly as human beings in the world, it became easier for me to have compassion for their mistakes, even the abusive ones, without excusing them. I developed boundaries. Put your psychic teflon on. Decide what kind of relationship you want to have with your family. Decide which parts of yourself you share and which parts you don’t. Truthfully, there are many parts of myself I don’t share with my family and I think that’s true even for people who are really close to their families. However, if the “mistakes” are about who you fundamentally are in the world, like your sexual orientation, gender identity or behaviors informed by trauma, it’s not ok for them to deny your experience.
You can’t make other people own things they don’t want to own, or even acknowledge their shit, but you do have that power over yourself. Protect yourself at all costs. Remember their poor treatment of you is not indicative of your worth and if you’re able to have compassion for your family members’ shortcomings, try. That pain is corrosive. It can actually turn into physical illness.
If you do need to walk away from your family, don’t do so without explaining why, even if it’s in a letter. You owe it to yourself to know you did all you could, even if your family didn’t.
Love, Jenny Bruso
Ask me a question! I’ve lived a lot of lives and while I’m no expert on anything, I do know a little bit about a lot of things when it comes to the mess and magic of being a human who wants to do better. I’d love to help you climb out of whatever hole you’ve found yourself in and let go of the impossible standards we’re supposed to live and die by.
All questions will remain anonymous. I won’t be able to respond to everyone who submits. By hitting “submit” you are consenting to your question being lightly edited and printed.