- Dysfunctional family dynamics do not discriminate among socioeconomic status.
- The feeling of being less important than other family members is something many can relate to.
- The one who speaks out about dysfunction is usually met with resistance from outsiders and extended family.
"The princess is dead!" My elementary school teacher exclaimed to another teacher as we students filed in. In my young innocence, I remember thinking, "Which one?"
A fan of Disney movies, I emulated the Disney princesses Ariel and Jasmine for their inner strength and voices that shattered social and gender norms. (I never seemed to connect with princesses like Cinderella, ones who never rocked the boat. Clearly, there was some foreshadowing there.) I was devastated to think that one of them could have died—how? I thought as I sank onto the rug for the kindergarten morning meeting.
All day, I remember sitting and thinking, coloring and cutting, confused about how the princess could have died and which one. I remember coming home and telling my mom that one of the princesses died, causing her to chuckle through her tears. It was that day in 1997 that I learned about the Royal Family and how they were real people—not the Disney characters I sang along with on our staticky television.
I would learn much more in the coming years, as their stories would be on the cover of every news outlet and the front page of every newspaper and magazine.
I remember seeing the two princes, both similar to my own age, and wondering how it was that they were a prince and what did that mean for the animated images of princesses and princes that I had in my young mind. How amazing their life must be, I would think in my young naivete, to be able to live a life of royalty.
All that changed after learning about Harry's life this year in his published autobiographical memoir, Spare. As I read, I learned that he considered himself a fellow black sheep. A "spare," as he put it. I heard myself in his words, listening to someone who always felt disconnected from his family, much of this due to his feeling less important than his older sibling.
In a moment of flashback, while reading, I remembered being a young child opening presents on Christmas morning. My brother had received a gift with our family's last name etched beautifully into the hand-carved wood. Even though I had no use for this hand-carved wood, I immediately felt different somehow. After asking my dad why I did not receive the same gift, I was met with a response that would forever solidify my spot in the family as being less important: "Because he will carry on the family name," he said with annoyance as if it were obvious.
Immediately I knew I was somehow less important because I was a girl. Less powerful, unable to "carry on" our family's last name, which apparently was an important thing. I felt many feelings that I was unable to articulate. Not having the words, the understanding, to know yet what it means to be "second."
Now, of course, I am nothing like the royal family. My experience of gender bias is not the same as the stories that fill Harry's memoir. But that feeling of being second best, of being the "spare," resonates with so many of us who grew up in families where importance—and preference—was given to those who were considered more important.
Among my clients, many of whom are survivors of families that engaged in dysfunctional patterns, many can resonate with the patterns described in Spare.
Here are five common themes that this book shows us about family dynamics:
1. Dysfunctional family dynamics do not discriminate among socioeconomic status.
Whether or not someone is affluent or lower socioeconomic status does not matter. We have a stereotype in our society that only lower-income families are dysfunctional. In reality, I see just as many—if not more—unhealthy patterns coming from families with the money and power to hide them.
2. If you speak out, others will question your account of things.
The one who speaks out about the family dynamics is usually met with a lot of resistance from other family members who act in ways that deny the survivor's reality or even gaslight them into thinking they are overreacting.
3. The family will be given the benefit of the doubt.
There is power in numbers, but often that power comes from those who do not want to speak out against those who have control. When someone comes forward and shares their story, they are often met with resistance from people inside and outside of the family.
4. The one who speaks out is thought to be dishonoring the family.
The one who speaks out about their story is blamed because "How dare you speak out against them after all they did for you?" Instead of looking at the actions of those who did the damage, society blames survivors for speaking out and dishonoring the family.
5. The black sheep is usually the scapegoat.
Although not always, the black sheep is frequently seen as a scapegoat: the one blamed for the family's problems. "If only little Johnny didn't have a substance abuse problem." "Our problems started when Jamie started acting out in school." Although frequently the target of the family's dysfunction, the scapegoat is usually the most honest about the family's history.
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