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Source: kovaleva_ka/depositphotos

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. - George Bernard Shaw

Sometimes we are the family skeleton, the black sheep, the shame of the clan.  Many times it's because the clan is as dysfunctional as the day is long. If you don't belong in a family like that, you might come to realize how lucky you are. But many times it's a rough road from being the family skeleton to being a happy and healthy individual. But you can do it. In fact, being the family skeleton, the black sheep, the shame of the clan, actually gives you a head start.

A dysfunctional family needs someone to focus on, someone to blame things on, someone to point to when things go wrong.  In clinical settings, we call that person the "identified patient" or IP.   It means that in a sick family system, the group has subconsciously elected one person to act out all the family sickness in a very overt way while the rest of the family acts it out in a covert way.  Even if the IP tries to act "not sick," the family will send messages to "get back where you belong" and set the IP up for failure. Rebellious teenagers will decide to buckle down and study and they get picked apart for the slightest transgression. Instead of positive reinforcement, they are met with endless criticism. They throw their hands up and go back to their rebellious ways. It's hard, as a teen, to realize you've been set up to be that way. 

Even when the IP tries to "mend their ways," the family sabotages them either covertly or overtly and before you know it, the identified patient is acting out again and the family is shocked (simply shocked) that the person they set up to be the IP is acting like an IP.  

I once went to conduct an emergency evaluation on a 17 year old girl who had not come home all night and was brought to the Emergency Room so that someone could figure out what was wrong with her. 

I was met by her parents, a father who had obviously been drinking and looked a lot older than he was due to alcoholism, and a co-alcoholic, codependent mother who was angry and upset.  During the evaluation I knew the teen was the IP in an alcoholic family and that the family was focused on her and her wayward ways and insolent mouth because they could not look at dad's alcohol problem and mom's complicity in it.  The father was teetering on needing medical detox and the mother was teetering on needing a stay on a psychiatric ward, but they were hyper-focused on the teenager who didn't want to stay home at night with them.  To me, her running away was more about what was right with her, than what was wrong with her.

I lived this scenario:  all eyes had been trained on my acting out when my acting out was a normal symptom of being exposed constantly to craziness in my alcoholic family system.

They didn't like it when I explained the problem was not her.   I took her aside and suggested she go to Alateen and try to survive the rest of the year with her family.  Her mother was furious at me that I was taking her daughter's side.  She looked as if she was going to deck me. I had several parents over the years screaming at me because I refused to saddle a teenager with a psychiatric diagnosis he or she would never get out from under. So many parents—very dysfunctional parents—paraded teenagers through the ER trying to get a "diagnosis" for a child who was elected to be the IP and who didn't deserve a "diagnosis."

And so it is with the dysfunctional family system.  Many times a teen will act out:  I want to get out of here and not explain a thing to these people.  But the family can't see that and can't see their own sickness which was much worse than any of the child's issues. When my adoptive brother announced he was gay at 16, my codependent mother took him to a psychiatrist because this would just kill my alcoholic father. It was she and my father who needed a psychiatrist. Not my brother. But away he went. 

The IP does the bidding of insanity for the whole family.  Or the IP tries to get away...is often a run-away...because running away is a sane response to insanity. 

Unfortunately running away doesn't always solve the problem. Many times the IP doesn't have tools to function in a healthy, sane universe so even though they are trying to escape the family of origin because they know, at a core level that something is really wrong, dysfunction is what they know so they gravitate toward new dysfunctional people.

For many IPs, they run from their primary family relationship but gravitate toward those who still treat them like the IP they were meant to be. They can find themselves in abusive relationships with narcissists, sociopaths, gaslighters...It can be a rough road for the IP on their way to the bottom...to finally getting the help they need.

The people I have met in over 25 years of being a therapist are usually the IP in their family of origin who have spent many adult years chasing withholding individuals looking for approval they wouldn't get in a million years.  But eventually the pain gets bad enough that they give up and get help. It is not unusual for the person presenting in therapy to be an IP who is sick and tired of being sick and tired.  They have known, all their lives, that something is wrong and it's not with them, but they have been blamed for so long by so many until they've had enough. 

IPs tend to gravitate toward other people outside the family system who blame them for everything and keep the focus on them.  But at some point the IP says, "I have had enough of this." and move away from that person who is all too familiar (i.e. like family). Even if you're not the IP, part of recovery is identifying who you were in the family and how you have carried that role into adulthood.  See how your role in the family plays itself out in your current relationship and ask yourself if it's time for a change.

It actually can be a blessing to be the IP in the family or in a relationship.  Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls it "exile as boon." Meaning that if you don't belong to or with certain people who have very big issues, it can be a very good thing.

It's time to realize you will never get their approval in a million years. It's time to give you your own approval.  Give yourself credit for surviving all these difficult people all these years. Give yourself credit for getting some insight.  Give yourself credit for getting this far with so many odds (and odd people) stacked against you.

Learn to embrace your outsiderness.  If you've never belonged, it's easy to take a step in another direction.  It's easy to throw off the need for approval from people who would never give it and do exactly what you want to do. Take refuge in exile.  It can be a good thing. Set your own course and stop trying to fit in with people who don't want you to fit in. Stop trying to please others and learn to please yourself. 

If you've been the IP in your family of origin and realize you've been chasing the same kind of person as an adult, stop and realize you're never going to win their approval, so stop trying. Stop gravitating toward others who withhold approval.  A withholding boyfriend or girlfriend.  A withholding boss. Withholding friends.  Give yourself approval and know that you matter and you count.  You've survived the dysfunctional family, the dysfunctional partner, the dysfunctional boss.  You're a survivor and you don't need anyone's approval. 

Throw off those old messages...get rid of the negative messages from the family...get rid of "get back where you belong" every time you try to save yourself.  It's okay.  As the saying goes, "Explain nothing to nobody."  You're entitled to be happy.  You really are.  No one has the right to take that away from you. 

You may be the family skeleton...the one they keep under wraps and try to explain away.

You may play a very specific role for them and they are going to be very upset when you step out of that role, but if you are the family skeleton:  DANCE.

About the Author

Susan J. Elliott, JD, M.Ed.

Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed., is the author of Getting Past Your Breakup and Getting Back Out There.

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