What do you tell people when they ask about your dysfunctional family?
Do you lie to them? Maybe make up an embellished story?
Do you overshare? Maybe giving the person who asked all the nitty gritty details of your dad’s love of alcohol or how your sister will be spending another Christmas in jail?
Or do you keep your fingers crossed and just hope the question never gets popped?
Personally speaking, I’ve done all of the above at different times in my life.
When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, dominated by addiction and abuse, answering simple questions about what your mom and dad do for a living or where they live or how many siblings you have can trigger both panic and shame.
And it can get even trickier if you’re estranged from them.
From experience, I can honestly tell you that there’s no right or wrong way to handle questions about your family. Your answers and how comfortable you feel will change overtime as you grow in your recovery.
I’m in a place today where I’m completely comfortable telling people the truth about my family when asked. But this didn’t happen overnight. It took a really long time for me to get here. And although I firmly believe that you can’t force or rush your recovery, it doesn’t have to take you as long as it took me.
Today, I’m breaking down 3 of the most common fears that pop up for ACOAs when we’re asked questions about our dysfunctional families. Understanding and acknowledging these fears can help you learn to feel confident with your responses, whatever they may be.
I’m also going to share the simplest response you can give to someone the next time you’re asked a question, about your family, that you don’t know how or want to answer.
A quick heads up here, even if you’re not an ACOA, understanding these fears can still help you. For example, if you have a sibling that’s an addict or alcoholic you’ll also benefit.
After you’re finished reading, I’d love to hear from you.
In the comment section, share what you tell people when they ask about your family. Do you feel shame around this question or are you at a point where you feel completely confident telling it like it is?
Remember your voice, experiences and insights are vital to this community. And what you have to share is not only unique but it may be exactly what someone else needs to read. And that someone could be you.
Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing.
Until Next Tuesday,
P.S. If you have a friend or other family member that feels insecure over answering questions about their dysfunctional family, share this post. It may give them a few new ideas to consider and even a bit more confidence knowing that they’re not alone.
Fear #1 – They Won’t Be Able To Understand What I’ve Been Through
The unfortunate truth here is that some people who ask you about your family probably won’t be able to understand or relate to what you’ve been through. And there will be some people that have a really hard time understanding why you’re estranged from your family, if you are.
This has nothing to do with you and has no reflection on your worth as a person. Although I personally believe that every family, no matter how perfect they appear, has a tinge of dysfunction lingering somewhere not every person will be familiar with, therefore they can’t possibly understand, the high level of dysfunction, stress and abuse that can exist in an alcoholic or drug addicted family.
I remember having lunch once with a co-worker who was stressing out because she wanted to quit her job but her parents wouldn’t let her because that would mean she’d lose her insurance.
When she asked me if my parents would do the same, I responded honestly by saying that I didn’t know. When she pressed further, I explained to her that I’d been estranged from my alcoholic parents for years. And she looked at me like I suddenly grew two extra heads. She just couldn’t understand how I could not have a relationship with either of my parents.
Back then, I allowed her reaction to led me to feel ashamed of my situation. But now I understand that I never had anything to be ashamed of and the fact that she couldn’t relate to what I’d been through wasn’t her fault either.
Now just because someone may not be able to relate to you doesn’t mean they won’t judge you. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that you can control and honestly, it isn’t something that you should even worry about. Let’s get real here, even if you came from the most perfect family on the planet people would still find a reason to judge you.
But at the same time, there will be people that pop up in your life that will be able to relate to your situation and will have empathy for what you’ve been through. And when you find them, these are the people that you can feel safe sharing honestly and openly with.
Fear #2 – If I Tell Them The Truth, They Might Think There’s Something Wrong With Me, Too
This is a fear that crops up for me whenever someone asks me about my brothers. And the conversation usually goes something like this.
Question – So do you have any siblings?
Me – Yes. I have two older brothers.
Question – Oh really, what do they do?
Me – Well, I haven’t had a relationship with them in years. They’re both addicts. But I’ve never done any drugs or had any problems like that.
Until I started paying attention to my response, I never realized how often I feel the need to clarify for people that I’m not like them – my brothers or parents or anyone else in my family that struggles with addiction.
I think this response is completely normal, especially for ACOAs or family of addicts or alcoholics who feel insecure about their family history or who are working hard to distance themselves from the dysfunction.
What’s not okay, in my opinion, is allowing someone’s negative judgment of your family or what that says about you make you feel inferior.
There are people that will decide – with little information and who have no experience with addiction – that you’re a bad seed just because your brother or whoever is in rehab.
But you have to know that their judgement has nothing to do with you. And it’s not your job, unless you want it to be, to school them on the truth.
There’s no rule that says you have to share sensitive details about your family with someone just because they asked a question.
A motto I’ve used that’s helped me practice discretion with people is this:
When in doubt, leave the details out.
Fear #3 – My Answer Will Anger Them
Just like you can’t control whether or not people judge you, you also can’t control how they will respond or react to what you choose to share with them.
And some people will have plenty to say about the choices you’ve made when it comes to your family, especially if you’re estranged from them.
When I was 18, I decided for my own health and safety to disconnect completely from my immediate family. In response to that choice, I heard everything from, “You can’t do that, family is everything” to “You shouldn’t do that to your parents, they wont’ be here forever.”
Some people thought I was crazy and other people would get flat out angry with me for my choices.
It was all very confusing at the time and it certainly filled my head with doubts but I ended up learning two important lessons.
#1 – You don’t need anyone else’s stamp of approval to do what’s best for you when it comes to your health and safety.
#2 – You can’t expect a fair and balanced response from someone who doesn’t have access to the entire story. Or to put it another way, you can’t expect someone to complete a puzzle when they don’t have all of the pieces.
Bottom line is this. You get to decide how much or how little about your family you share with someone. Use discretion. Remember that you can’t control whether or not people will judge you or how they will react to what you share.
And the next time someone pops a question about your family and you don’t know what to do or say just smile and tell them, “It’s complicated.” And leave it there.