When You Can’t Fix Your Family

Dare 2 Hope_sad kid

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sometimes the people in our life who should love us the most and treat us with the most care, actually treat us with the most indifference. Or worse… inflict the most harm on us. It’s awful and it’s not fair, because we don’t get to pick our family. The good news is that as we get older, we get to decide how close we will be, emotionally and physically, to those family members. (See my previous post about How You Can (Finally!) Disengage from a Toxic Parent.)

A lady I used to do therapy with has a very dysfunctional family she struggled to detach from, even though their toxic behavior and comments provoked disabling anxiety for her, as well as profound feelings of shame and isolation. At 61-years-old, this woman was still trying to earn their approval and acceptance, and blaming herself for their maltreatment, thinking on a subconscious level that if she could just do things ‘right’, they’d finally love her.

Once, she described a vivid dream that she had when she was just four years old: “I was on a battlefield in the middle of a war and there was shooting and bombs were going off. I was lost and terrified at all the chaos and violence, when my parents and brothers and sisters drove up in a Jeep. I thought I was being rescued, but they looked at me, and then just drove off, leaving me there. I remember I woke up bawling, I was so scared and hurt that they left me.”

I asked if her if that little four-year-old girl deserved to be rescued, if she deserved more love and protection from her family than she got—not just in the dream but in real life.

“Yes!” my client almost shouted, angry tears welling up in her eyes as she grieved for that little girl.

“You are that little girl still. You’re just older. But there wasn’t a point, a specific age, when you stopped deserving those things.”

Friends, it’s so tempting for us, especially when we’re children trying to make sense of a confusing world, to believe that our family’s chaos or the abuse or neglect we suffer at their hands is our fault. Because if it’s our fault, then we can fix it, right? If it’s not our fault, and it is actually theirs… well, then that means we have no control over their behavior and that is scary—again, especially when we’re vulnerable children dependent on those very people.

Now you are grown up. And you still can’t fix them. And you can’t change them by ‘fixing’ yourself. But you can put in boundaries to minimize the degree to which they continue to rob you of joy, peace, and self-esteem. You get to decide now what you will and will not accept. And I hope you’ll stop accepting anything that is wounding your heart and soul. Believe it yet or not, you do deserve better.

Much love,
Cherie Signature

About Cherie Miller @ Dare 2 Hope
Cherie Miller, MS, LPC opened Dare 2 Hope Counseling to help clients all over the country get free from their food, weight, and self-confidence struggles. Her specialty is eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, orthorexia and other unhealthy eating patterns. Contact her here.

How to Love a Porcupine

Dare2Hope_Hug a Porcupine

At an eating disorder support group I led recently, a mom said the one “gift” her daughter could give her was to try and recover from her anorexia. She was struggling with understanding how her daughter could see the damage her eating disorder was doing to their family and still refuse to even try recovery. Without saying these exact words, I believe her feelings were akin to, “If you loved me, you would stop.”

Anyone who has been in a relationship with someone with an eating disorder or substance addiction can probably relate to that. In your head, you might know it has nothing to do with you, but it feels like it does. And often, when you push people to get better before they are ready, they will act in pretty unloving ways to defend themselves. It can be be like trying to hug a porcupine…the more you try to help, the more you get hurt. This frustrating cycle usually leads to feelings of resentment and maybe even pretty strong anger—on both sides.  So how do you get out of the cycle without giving up on the other person? Here are some tips on how to love a porcupine (i.e. someone not ready to recover).

#1. Realize how difficult it is to even choose recovery, much less walk through it. Another girl in the group who has an eating disorder told that mom that her own mother had expressed similar things to her in the past before she started into recovery. “I love my mom so much. I felt like I would do anything for her… but she was literally asking me to do the one thing I couldn’t do at the time.” This brave young woman went on to explain that the fear was overwhelming, even to the point of overwhelming her love for others. “I was absolutely terrified at the thought of treatment and gaining weight.”

#2. Be a learner. Unless you have an eating disorder, you can never fully understand what it is like to have one, but you can educate yourself to become more sensitive and knowledgeable. There are a lot of books on the subject (see recommended reading at the end), online resources like NEDA and ANAD, and possibly some support groups local to you. If your loved one is willing to share about their experience, that is of course, an ideal place to learn. Eating disorders by nature tend to be surrounded by secrecy and shame, but there are things you can to make it more or less likely he or she will open up. Which leads to #3…

#3. Work on being a safe person. As you learn more about eating disorders, you’ll be more attune to things that could be detrimental for your loved one. Even with the best of intentions, people often say or suggest things that are triggering or insulting. Oversimplifying their struggles by telling them to just eat or to just stop throwing up, assuring them they look great, or suggesting diet plans are examples of common but counter-productive attempts to help.

In general, taking a non-judgmental approach that doesn’t shame, scold, or criticize the other person is more likely to foster open communication. Assure him or her that you want to understand better than you do now and that you’re ready to listen… and then really listen. At times, it will be appropriate to encourage them to get help, but if you jump to that too quickly, the other person is more often than not going to feel misunderstood. Check out this article from NEDA for more detailed tips on talking to a loved one about his or her eating disorder.

#4. Draw appropriate boundaries. This is a tricky one that could probably be its own blog post. Basically, you have to figure out where the line is between supporting someone and not trying to control them. Trying to control others doesn’t usually work and can even make them more resistant to change (thanks to that rebellious nature in all of us). For example, unless they’ve asked you to provide some accountability, comments about what they are or are not eating will likely backfire. Pushing someone to recover before they’re ready usually means recovery won’t be successful, even if they appear to be going through the motions. The person’s own motivation is key.

There are some exceptions to these principles. One is in cases where the eating disorder is so severe that medical care is necessary and then yes, intervention could mean life or death. If you’re not sure whether you’re in such a situation, talk to a medical doctor or therapist who is familiar with eating disorders.

The other exception is if you are the parent of a child or teenager. Naturally, your boundaries with that person are already different because they are under your care and you are responsible for their physical and emotional well-being. In that case, I believe forcing a child into treatment might make sense. But keep in mind the same caveat about personal motivation applies… recovery won’t happen until that person, regardless of age, decides for themselves to really try.

Following all these steps won’t guarantee you don’t get “poked” while trying to help. Believe it or not, people with eating disorders feel like they have a lot of reasons to stay sick and the thought of recovery can be, as that young woman said, absolutely terrifying. The fear and shame that accompany eating disorders make recovery hard to consider. Take care of yourself and resist the temptation to take on “fixing” them. Offer patience, support, and honesty, and by all means, seek out help and support for yourself! It’s not easy to love a porcupine.

Much love,
Cherie Signature

Recommended Reading:

Brave Girl Eating

Surviving an Eating Disorder: Strategies for Family and Friends

Life Without Ed

About Cherie Miller @ Dare 2 Hope
Cherie Miller, MS, LPC opened Dare 2 Hope Counseling to help clients all over the country get free from their food, weight, and self-confidence struggles. Her specialty is eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, orthorexia and other unhealthy eating patterns. Contact her here.