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Diagnosis or Dynamics?

There is a meme going around that says “Before diagnosing yourself as depressed make sure you’re not simply surrounded by assholes”.

And while I don’t agree with calling people names or abusing those who abused us – this meme sort of says a lot about what we call “depression” and other so called “mental illness” today.

Family Roles and Societal Norms

We, in our natural habitat have developed some learned responses to stressful situations that feel bad. Very often in the drama, trauma, and dysfunction we have been assigned a role.

We’ve been taught that this is what works and what doesn’t work. Our family dynamics are based on power and control where the biggest, loudest, most vocal or violent person is the one with all of the control.

There is often a hierarchy of power in unhealthy families where spouses/parents and children/siblings learn what works and what doesn’t work to get their needs met.

Anyone who steps outside of their assigned role, complains or criticizes the family (or social) system is often identified as the “problem”.  The family (or social) system will do whatever is necessary to bring this person back into line to avoid disruption of the dysfunction pattern/system.

(Dys-functional…this pattern functions to serve the need of maintaining the family or social system status quo although it does not function in a way that everyones needs are met).

Acting Out and Acting In; Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn Responses

In this dynamic those who are in the weakest position are likely the ones to experiences what is called depression or some other defined diagnosis called “mental illness”.

As ones learned coping abilities are overwhelmed the individual may “act out” towards others or “acts in” towards themselves with behaviors, thoughts and feelings that are identified as “symptoms”.

Our first inclination is to react and react strongly; this is where we feel instinctively defensive and will put up our guard.

We feel super sensitive to what’s going on around us.

We are prepared to fight, flight, freeze and often will engage in what Peter Walker, M.A. describes as the fawn response.

The process sort of goes like this:

 The Fight Response

We’ve experienced some sort of confrontation and move to defend ourselves.

We may try to explain our viewpoint, we may attempt to say “no”. When our need for personal boundary and limits is not met we may resort to arguing, yelling and in general “fighting back” in some way to protect ourselves.

The fight response of our primal response system in the amygdala is a natural response to a situation that feels threatening.

Often we may hear ourselves say something like “I have to fight for everything”.

The Flight Response

When we realize that fighting back (speaking up for ourselves, saying no feels too scary, being punished in some way for going against the grain) isn’t going to work, as so often happens in families and social systems of dysfunction, we will them very often shift to avoidance or escape of the situation – the flight response.

When we are faced with a situation that feels bad or unsafe to address directly we will most often attempt to run away/get away/distance ourselves in some way.

This is where we find ourselves feeling squeamish with attending family events, for example, and finding any excuse/reason to not go. Or maybe we don’t want to deal with conflict so we don’t return a phone call or perhaps we  “forget” that we’d made plans with someone and so on.

The words we can find ourselves using are something like “I have to get out of here/away from this”.

The Freeze Response

Then once we realize that we are not allowed to fight back (speak up for ourselves, say no etc) and we believe there is no escape (as we often do in our dysfunctional/unhealthy families who will do whatever they have to to bring us back with the cycle of violence pattern of calm/tension/explosion) – we are likely to shut down, zone out, go away – the freeze response.

This is where we have given up; we feel hopeless that things will ever change.

We feel helpless to make things different for ourselves because we don’t know what to do differently to get different results.

And we feel powerless because we have learned that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try that we will never “be enough” and never “do things right enough” for the cycle to stop, to be loved and respected for who we are, what we value and what we want in our relationships.

We feel stuck as we attempt to get our physical, psychological and emotional needs met in relationships that are based on meeting the needs of those who seem to hold the power in our relationships.

We may find ourselves lost in depression, dissociation and/or addictions. Our internal and/or external conversations may revolve around “I have no choice” or “what’s the use?” and so on.

The Fawn Response

This is where the fawn response comes in – another term for what we have come to know as “co-dependency”.

This entire process is based on power and control; a sort of “survival of the fittest”. We’ve learned that the best way to survive is to be on guard and catering to everyone else while neglecting what is best for ourselves.

This pattern of personal-neglect takes on many variations as we learn that we are not in fact separate but rather enmeshed in those around us; as though we are an extension of others.

We learn not to speak for ourselves but to speak from a place of what will suffice to keep others happy and comfortable.

We will often spend our lives apologizing for everything and apologizing often; we will come to believe we are a bother to everyone and strive to analyze and figure out how to tip toe around everyone else while feeling as though we ourselves are lost or dying from the inside out.

We suffer greatly when others do or say things for themselves yet we interpret as having some meaning about us. We are extremely sensitive to and have a need to know what others are doing and to try to control in some way what others do or don’t do in order to avoid that feeling of lostness when we can’t “read” them.

We can find ourselves spending a lot of time thinking and talking about what others are doing or not doing and experiencing great emotional upheaval at the thought of what they might do or not do; we easily feel afraid and abandoned.

So what to do?

Creating distance from those who tend to tip us over/taking ownership of ourselves.

It’s difficult healing from the impact of family drama/trauma/dysfunction yet I’ve found it to be near impossible to make progress if I kept putting myself in situations where I had to deal with those who have not yet done their own healing work and were still needing to put me down so they could lift themselves up.

Choosing to reject my role in the family dysfunction was the first step to learning to recognize MY OWN patterns of dysfunction rather than focusing on others patterns in order to side-step or avoid them.

Learning to recognize these patterns of power and control helped me to choose NOT to objectify and abuse those who had hurt me but to be able to choose to be around those who understood healthy boundaries and respected my right to say “no”.

Separating, or creating distance, between myself, my family and my current social systems helped me to see that with awareness, time and practice I could indeed learn to live a healthy, independent life free of the chronic pain and struggle that my life had previously been.

Note: “Distance” may be temporary in order to do the healing work without being drawn back into the drama cycle. It can also be short term, long term or permanent. The point is that “cutting off” “forever” is not the only option. I’ve found this to be valuable because in my own dysfunction I could not imagine “cutting off” my siblings but as I healed and became stronger in my own sense of self I’ve chosen to extend my “time out” indefinitely.

Then I had to get them out of my head.

After listening to them for a lifetime tell me in so many ways how I was not “enough”  left me overwhelmed even after I’d distanced myself.

Reprogramming the lie that everything bad in my family was somehow my “fault” and I was somehow “wrong” simply for existing, that I needed to find a way to be “good enough” to get them to love and accept me as I am – is a work in progress.

This also applies to leaving behind “diagnosis” and the idea that this was who I was.

I had to separate myself from anyone and everyone who tried to identify me as the problem or that something was wrong with me for not liking being abused.

For me, this took place first in therapeutic relationships that required me to identify as having an “illness”.

But the next step included social settings and family who needed something to be “wrong” with me.

Learning to identify my needs

Oftentimes when we are seeking “help” we have not yet learned how to use our words to express what is going on that we don’t like or how to ask for what we want or need.

This in turn is used to tell us that we are “complaining” and “blaming”.

I had to resolve for myself that I had every right to not like the way I was being treated.

I had to do the work to not continue to “buy in” to the idea that something was “wrong” with me for attempting to get help to overcome this deeply ingrained sense of helplessness that consumed me and left me feeling completely powerless over my own life.

I had to learn how to identify how I was feeling so that I could identify what I wanted or needed in  a given situation.

I had to be willing to learn how to say “this is what I’m feeling and this is what I want/need from you” …

Instead of resorting to my learned coping mechanisms and childlike complaining.

Then I had to realize that if I didn’t get what I was asking for (attention, time, communication etc) – that I’d be ok.

That I didn’t have to fall apart or blow up to try to force others to give me what I was asking for.

After all – we’re all adults. We all have a responsibility to respect others wants and needs as well as asking them to respect ours.

Changing my focus

Learning to look for “what is healthy” instead of focusing on “what is abusive” behaviors in others.

When I was following the standard model of looking to identify the next asshole, recognize the next jerk, identify the next bitch….see where I’m going with this?

By embracing this EXTERNAL focus of recognizing everyone else’s bad behavior I wasn’t focused on recognizing and resolving MY OWN patterns of dysfunction and the ways MY actions and patterns of dysfunction were hurtful to others.

The first thing that happens when we change our focus from looking for “abusive behavior” to looking for “healthy behavior” in relationships is that we enter new relationships with an expectation that we have a choice to stay in it or leave it behind.

By learning to recognize abusive/unhealthy PATTERNS of behavior I could see how what I brought from my original dysfunction to my current life that kept me repeating the patterns in my adult relationships.

When I learned to recognize MY patterns I was  better prepared to recognize others patterns and feel empowered to keep distance from those whose patterns resembled the original dysfunction or engage in healthy, respectful relationships.

I was finally able to stop repeating the patterns of dysfunction in my relationships not because I finally found someone who wasn’t a jerk/user/abuser but because “I” had learned to see/recognize how I had been taught and learned to let others abuse me.

I finally was able to “recognize” that it was me who was putting myself in situations where the patterns were repeated because I was repeating MY patterns of tolerating being mistreated.

Looking for patterns of behavior helped me to learn to trust myself vs blindly trusting everyone – then feeling angry, hurt and let down because “I can’t trust anyone”.

Yet – this is what we are often taught.

We learn to recognize the “narcissist” yet never learn to see our own narcissistic tendencies.

We spend our lives in a perpetual “I hate you – don’t leave me” yo yo pattern of becoming totally enamored and enmeshed with others then feel completely abandoned and rejected when it doesn’t work out.

Recognizing patterns of healthy and unhealthy behaviors allows me to change my own patterns of dysfunction and thus my life whereas when I am simply looking to learn how to recognize the next jerk, invest my time in calling out assholes, talking about all the “toxic people” in my life….

I’m destined to repeat the past when I’m trying to change my life by changing others or finding others who will “complete me” instead of learning how to feel complete.

So – Diagnosis or Dynamics?

We can learn to use “diagnosis” to direct our path from feeling as though we are less than, not enough, broken, defective, disordered and otherwise hopeless, helpless and powerless to knowing that we are more than enough, were never broken and are not defective.

We can learn to see that our responses to the world around us are natural, normal and learned responses that while not healthy?

These learned ways of coping and surviving protected us in the original drama/trauma and dysfunction.

We can learn to see where we are and use this as a marker on a map to get to where we want to be.


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