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This week’s episode of The Baggage Reclaim Sessions is on a subject I’ve been thinking about for a while: estrangement. 2020 has tested our relationships and routine, thanks to the pandemic. And now it’s that time of year when a lot of people experience anxiety, stress and loneliness about family, I felt it was a good time to get into this topic. Estrangement has affected me for my entire life. There’s a pattern of estrangement of both sides of my family, and my parents (individually) have cut me off at different times. Family’ was a great source of shame for me in the past. It directly impacted the types of romantic relationship I chose. Now, I don’t carry that shame and believe that it’s critical to talk about our relationship with the concept of family.

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Nuggets from the episode

  • Everybody has a picture of what family is or what we feel it ‘should’ be. It’s influenced by our own experiences, observing others, society, the media, our favourite TV shows, or even other families we were compared to.
  • Estrangement is caused by roles. It’s either because estrangement is part of playing the role, triggered by us or the other party not playing the role, or a way of punishing us or them for not playing the role.
  • We are in community. Much as we might feel that we’re a-ok because our family relationships are ‘great’, we have friends, partners, coworkers, etc., who might be struggling. Given that in adulthood, we choose our family, we might be someone’s chosen person. Even a bit of empathy and compassion about estrangement, especially given 1) the pandemic and 2) this time of year which triggers anxiety, shame and loneliness for a lot of people, could go a long way.
  • ‘Family’ say all sorts of things that contribute to what can be our confusing and painful associations and relationship with family. Examples: Do as I say, not as I do. What will the neighbours think? Family can do whatever the hell they like. Family should stick together even if it’s toxic. I don’t have any favourites, but yeah, I treat your sibling differently to you. I expect more of you. You won’t amount to anything. It hurts me [to beat you] more than it hurts you. After everything I’ve done for you and you can’t even do this little thing for me. What are you talking about feelings and needs for? When I was your age, I didn’t have shoes.
  • While sometimes estrangement occurs off the back of a fallout, hostility, a showdown or abusive or inappropriate behaviour, sometimes you’re just exhausted. You just can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing.
  • Sometimes a person distances because they don’t feel as if they ‘fit in’ when you’re in a healthier place.

A pattern of estrangement occurs in a family when there’s a pattern of not communicating and toxic habits around handling conflict and criticism.

  • A family that doesn’t know how to problem-solve and typically closes rank, gets loud or cuts off is guaranteed to have estranged family members.
  • It’s easy to go, Well, it’s two or however many family members versus me, so I must be the problem. No, the problem is the dynamic of the relationships, the patterns of dealing or not dealing with conflict. If you have two or however many people who don’t have boundaries, they will do what essentially boils down to similar things even if the packaging of the situation differs.
  • Family is a construct representing our emotional perception of a series of connections. It’s an ideological construct because it’s subjective. Our views on our families are all unique because they represent our met and unmet needs, as well as our expectations and desires. 
  • We each have our ideas about who we think people should be. We take things a lot less personally when we acknowledge that who people are is based on their personalty, characteristics, circumstances, resources, level of abundance and backstory.

Some of us have The Other Mother. You don’t see her in Google searches or Hallmark cards. The Other Mother isn’t into nurturing and might treat you like their competitor, enemy, sibling, parent or pal. They’ll cross the hell out of your boundaries and look at you like you’re crazy for being upset.

  • Playing roles or trying to enforce them is the source of tension, friction and resentment in all relationships. We have to engage with people where they’re at, not based on our fantasy version of them. Continuing to try to get them to meet our unmet needs in covert ways leads to perpetual disappointment.
  • Estrangement is not a way of saying ‘I don’t believe that you can change’; it says ‘I believe there’s a possibility for change here, but how things are and have been isn’t working’.
  • Is there room for me to be more of who I really am and also continue to engage with this family member as we have been?If the answer’s no, we are well within our rights to create the boundaries we need to make us possible.

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