Apr 20

Enmeshed Family System Vs. Distant: How to Deal

Having recently binged Six Feet Under (2001-2005), one of the best TV dramas I’ve ever seen, I’m left with a myriad of thoughts about its depiction of mental health issues and therapy. One major theme, for example, involves being the adult children of therapists—but that’s a topic that’s already been covered on this blog. One topic I haven’t covered, though, is the concept of an enmeshed family versus a distant family.

Although this post is not specifically about Six Feet Under, series viewers may recognize that the therapist Chenowiths (Robert Foxworth, Joanna Cassidy), the parents of adult kids Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) and Billy (Jeremy Sisto), are said to represent an enmeshed family system.

On the other hand, the funeral directing Fisher parents (Frances Conroy, Richard Jenkins), with adult kids Nate, David, and Claire (Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Lauren Ambrose), represent a distant or disengaged or detached family system.

Enmeshed Family

Margaret R. Rutherford, PhD (Psychology Today) describes some aspects that can be representative of the poor boundaries of enmeshment:

One parent shares too much; another one lives through a child’s success. A child gets the message that it’s not OK to be independent. Instead, you’re expected to be a parent’s confidante. Your life isn’t your own. It might never occur to you not to include your parent in your daily comings and goings or even your decisions.

Dr. Pat Love‘s 1990 book The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life is cited by Rutherford. (Emotional incest is Love’s term for enmeshment.) From Love’s website:

…(T)hey rob their kids of the experience of learning and teach them to be helpless, dependent, incompetent, and entitled. If this doesn’t alarm you enough, over-functioning parents rob children of two of life’s most important skills: emotional regulation and mastery. When parents ease a child’s anxiety by taking away all stress, struggle, responsibility, delayed gratification, the child learns that other people have to alter their behaviors in order for the child to feel calm. They fail to learn emotional regulation—one of the most important skills in life.

Sharon Martin at Psych Central offers some suggestions for breaking free from the effects of enmeshment. (Go to the link for further details.)

  1. Set boundaries.
  2. Discover who you are.
  3. Stop feeling guilty.
  4. Get support.

Distant Family

One of the few experts online who describes the distant, detached, or disengaged family, Maryann Paleologopoulos, MSW, LICSW, says the following about this type:

…frequently characterized as having poor communication both in frequency and quality and has no established patterns or norms to provide effective support and guidance to one another. Family members tend to be isolated from their overall family system, or may form small and isolated pockets of connection within the larger system. Some members of a detached family system are ambivalent to engage or confront one another in order to offer or receive support for fear it will be considered intrusive or a burden, while others may see it is as easier to be avoidant and seek the path of least resistance when situations arise.

Possible effects from being raised in a distant family, per Paleologopoulis:

…long term ability to form healthy attachments and relationships into adulthood is compromised….paves the path for broken relationships, an inability to understand the world, and an overall sense of victimization and a stagnant development…become people pleasers in order to avoid conflict, discover alternative, unhealthy patterns of behavior in order to get their own needs met, and ultimately lose out on experiencing intimacy and trust with those closest to them.

Various forms of therapy can help. However, “It is difficult personal work and requires the fortitude and desire to make the changes necessary to successfully break the cycle of detachment.”

Apr 13

“Bittersweet” by Susan Cain: Underappreciated Feelings

Many readers who loved Susan Cain‘s Quiet (about being introverted) will no doubt also appreciate her new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. 

Her definition of bittersweetness: “a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. It’s also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired.”

Publishers Weekly expands on the thesis of the book:

Cain handily traverses fields as diverse as neuroscience, popular music, religion, and business management to find instances of the transformation of pain and longing into fulfillment: the music of Leonard Cohen, for example, is ‘a transcendence delivery system,’ and in Michigan, a hospital billing department’s culture of caring for distressed or bereaved employees resulted in collecting bills faster. Though Cain’s panoramic scope covers some familiar ground (U.S. culture’s ‘tyranny of positivity’ has been critiqued before), this ambitious work impresses in its dexterous integration of disparate thought traditions into a cohesive, moving, and insightful whole.

To what ends does appreciating bittersweet feelings bring us? Chris Schluep, Amazon Editor:

It turns out that sadness is the heart of compassion, and compassion is the heart of being human. Cain describes how sorrow and longing are adaptive traits with benefits that far outweigh the suffering they put us through. And they aren’t just human qualities. In fact, sorrow is on par with functions like digestion and breathing—it’s part of the mechanics of living.

Kirkus Reviews offers additional info:

Cain argues persuasively that these emotions can be channeled into artistic pursuits such as music, writing, dancing, or cooking, and by tapping into them, we can transform ‘the way we parent, the way we lead, the way we love, and the way we die.’ If we don’t transform our sorrows and longings of the past, she writes, we may inflict them on present relationships through abuse, domination, or neglect.

To what degree do you show a bittersweet orientation? Cain, along with research scientist Dr. David Yaden and cognitive scientist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, created a quiz you can take. It’s posted by the author as a Bittersweet excerpt at Mindbodygreen.com.

Apr 06

“Fragile Bully (…Narcissism in the Age of Trump)”

The archetypal narcissist is a crazymaker, at once needy and aggressive, desperate
for love and yet rejecting of it, fragile child and bully. Laurie Helgoe, Fragile Bully

Psychologist Laurie Helgoe, who previously wrote Introvert Power, also has some important things to say in her 2019 Fragile Bully: Understanding Our Destructive Affair With Narcissism in the Age of Trump. In this book she explains how to disengage from people in your lives who display Trump-like behavior.

First, more about the term “fragile bully” from Kenneth N. Levy, PhD: It’s about “…the paradoxical dynamic of narcissism—that the grandiosity and surrounding bravado belies an underlying fragility and brittleness.”

A key statement from Helgoe: “When I talk to clients, friends, and family members who are trying to exit a destructive dance [around a narcissist], two consistent themes emerge: feelings of failure for being unable to fix the fragile bully, and feelings of shame for staying in the dance.”

So, how does one reconcile this dance? Knowledge and advice can be found within the following quotes I’ve selected from a resource on Helgoe’s website:

With severe personality disorders such as borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, it is often the people in the lives of the affected person who suffer. So we can often sense we are dealing with a narcissist by the feelings he or she arouses in us.

Narcissistic characteristics such as grandiosity and a sense of entitlement tend to elicit aggressive feelings—a desire to put the narcissist in his or her place. The narcissist’s lack of empathy may elicit extreme frustration. And on the flip side, the narcissist’s focus on his or her fragility can leave others feeling trapped—trying to “fix” the narcissist so that he or she can be more available. People are also drawn in by the narcissist’s charisma or fragility, gaining a sense of importance by being in the shared spotlight or by the promise of being the fragile narcissist’s savior.

The fragile-bully dynamic leaves loved ones with nowhere to turn: defend yourself, and the partner feels victimized; distance yourself, and the partner feels abandoned; express an independent thought, and the narcissist feels threatened. The unwritten contract is to empty yourself and keep dancing in step with the narcissist’s needs, even when those needs hurt you.

Developing empathy for oneself is crucial to the process of healing and emancipation. It’s also important to make room for the grief of ending a relationship—even a destructive one. The grief may have more to do with disappointment that you were unable to “fix” the narcissist or that you invested so much in a relationship that turned on you.

Narcissism sets up a “you versus me” dynamic, so breaking that dynamic is key. “You are important to me” statements combined with what Craig Malkin calls “empathy prompts”—“I feel/need/want,” help empower the self-absorbed to be cognizant and supportive of the loved one. If such efforts—which may be better accomplished with the help of a therapist—do not work, this may be a sign that the capacity for empathy is just not there.

Mar 30

Introversion: A Summary of Helpful Resources

Although Susan Cain‘s Quiet (2012) may be the best known of the introversion resources/books, the following are some additional suggestions.

I. Books on Introversion

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) can only be administered by certified practitioners, but a book by David KeirseyPlease Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence (1998), offers a quick test, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, that gives results similar to the MBTI. Keirsey gives detailed descriptions of each of the 16 types. Introversion is one of the key traits analyzed.

Additional books:

II. Article on Introversion

Possibly my favorite resource is an article by Jonathan Rauch entitled “Caring For Your Introvert: The Habits and Needs of a Little-Understood Group” (The Atlantic), March 2003.

Although tongue-in-cheek, the many good points in this piece have resonated with tons of people since its publication. Some excerpts:

  • Introverts are not necessarily shy…Introverts are also not misanthropic, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say ‘Hell is other people at breakfast.’ Rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring.
  • For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: ‘I’m okay, you’re okay–in small doses.’
  • Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome.
  • The only thing a true introvert dislikes more than talking about himself is repeating himself.
  • We tend to think before talking, whereas extroverts tend to think by talking…
  • The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves.

Rauch’s concluding remarks offer a (naturally) cheeky response to the following question: How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice?

First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say, ‘What’s the matter?’ or ‘Are you all right?’

Third, don’t say anything else, either.

III. A Test to Measure Introversion and a Chart

Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American introduces a test that purports to measure four different aspects of introversion based on previous academic findings of Jennifer Odessa Grimes. Go to the above-linked article and scroll down to “What Kind of Introvert Are You?” to take the test.

When you score your results you’ll have a number for each type. It’s not about the highest score being your type—rather, each score indicates how much of that type is part of your introversion.

For a quick read, go to this popular Huffington Post article by Lindsay Holmes, who provides an illustrated chart, “Dr. Carmella’s Guide to Understanding the Introverted,” by artist Roman Jones.

Mar 23

“What My Bones Know”: Complex-PTSD Memoir

The widely acclaimed new book by Stephanie Foo, What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma, is bound to educate many about a type of PTSD we don’t often hear about—C-PTSD (complex PTSD). It can occur when trauma is repeated and prolonged.

Sarah McCammon, NPR, introduces Foo:

Stephanie Foo grew up in California, the only child of immigrants who abused her for years and then abandoned her as a teenager. As an adult, Foo seemed to thrive. She graduated from college, landed a job at ‘This American Life,’ became an award-winning radio producer, was dating a lovely man, but she was also struggling. Years of trauma and violent abuse as a child had left her with a diagnosis – complex PTSD, a little-studied condition that Foo was determined to understand.

C-PTSD, however, is not to be found in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This, despite its widespread recognition among trauma experts since psychiatrist Judith Herman coined the term back in 1988.

And unfortunately, many of Foo’s initial treatment experiences weren’t too helpful. As she wrote in Mental Health Journalism:

I began to try everything: acupuncture, yoga, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing or EMDR, meditation, tapping my face, hyperventilating, researching Buddhism, microdosing on acid, megadosing on psilocybin, tracking my brainwaves, joining a support group. I began researching groundbreaking possible treatments, like wearables that predict future emotions or epigenetic treatments. And throughout this process, I struggled with the loneliness of my experimentation.

Foo then heard a podcast that featured a therapist who compared complex PTSD to the Incredible Hulk (NPR interview):

Because the Incredible Hulk was actually abused as a kid. His father was an alcoholic, and now he had a hard time controlling his emotions when he was angry. He would sort of literally not be able to speak well, and he would just focus on surviving. And that is exactly what having complex PTSD is like. But the Hulk is not a villain. The Hulk is a hero.

She eventually chose him as her own shrink. Although this has certainly been helpful, her course of treatment is about management, not cure—as is the case with most chronic conditions. As Foo told NPR:

…I don’t think that you ever totally heal from complex PTSD. It’s sort of something that you carry with you all the time. But I feel like if the burden, the weight of complex PTSD, is like a pack on my back, then the process of healing has made me stronger. Does that mean, of course, that sometimes the pack gets really, really heavy and I need to sit down and take a break and cry a little bit and figure some new stuff out? Of course. Of course. That’s what life is. But now I feel like I can hold the sadness and the anger and the joy all together.

Selected Reviews of What My Bones Know

Publishers Weekly: “What takes this brilliant work from a personal story to a cultural touch point is the way Foo situates her experiences into a larger conversation about intergenerational trauma, immigration, and the mind-body connection…This is a work of immense beauty.”

Kirkus Reviews: “As Foo sheds necessary light on the little-discussed topic of C-PTSD, she holds out the hope that while ‘healing is never final…along with the losses are the triumphs’ that can positively transform a traumatized life.”

Kathleen Hanna: “This book is a major step forward in the study of trauma. It’s also a huge artistic genre-busting achievement. Stephanie Foo’s brilliant storytelling and strong, funny, relatable voice makes complex PTSD enjoyable to read about.”