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Families: You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

3 minute read

Back 30 or 40 years ago, when Hong Kong was still something of a backwater, there was a derogatory label attached to some expats who came here: FILTH — Failed In London, Try Hongkong.

Today, with Hong Kong as expensive and competitive as any global city, that acronym no longer applies. But it could well be modified to mean something very different: Family’s In London, Takeoff to Hongkong.

And indeed, for those of us with particularly difficult parents, getting out of London (or whatever part of the world we come from) and moving thousands of miles and many time zones away is a huge relief and does wonders for our mood. When our mother calls to express her disappointment in how we’re managing our life and holds up our golden-child sibling as an example of what we should be doing, we can simply decline to answer the phone. (What a great invention Caller-ID has proven to be!) When our father tries to drag us into his latest conflict with our mother, we can plead an urgent job-related task, hang up and return to our Netflix show. And whatever unpleasant patterns we’re locked into with parents, siblings and extended family….well, they’re pretty much in deep freeze except for the couple of weeks over summer or Christmas when we make the obligatory pilgrimage home. We steel ourselves for the assault, trying to contain our feelings of guilt, anger, shame, jealousy and loneliness until we can get on a plane back to Hong Kong and leave it all behind.

Except that we can never leave it behind. I see many clients in my practice who are in Hong Kong specifically because it’s a very long way from their family of origin, and yet whose lives still are buffeted by the pernicious influence of what happened to them in childhood. I tell them that no matter where they went, their families would still be with them.

Part of the reason our families continue to affect us is that we generally maintain some level of contact, and every interaction is fraught with meaning. “Please call your brother since he’s feeling depressed” makes us hear “Your brother continues to get our attention, care and affection, and your function in the family is to help us take care of him, while your own sorrows are unimportant to us.” Or a simple text asking “How are you?” reminds us that our mother thinks we’re incapable of handling our life, criticizes everything we do, and always jumps in to fix things. And we’re generally not over-reacting either: we all are experts on our family’s language and the subtle meanings that are the sub-text to ordinary-seeming remarks.

Yet even if we completely sever our relationship with our family, we do not escape. And that is because we learned at our parents’ knees what the world was like, and how we had to behave in order to survive. If our parents offered love only if we did certain things, we learned that we were loved for our actions, not for ourselves. If our parents belittled us, we learned we were incompetent and not valued. If punishment and even violence was meted out randomly, we learned that the world was unpredictable and that those closest to us were dangerous. If we were neglected, we learned we were unimportant.

What we learned as children drove us to adapt in order to survive and prosper. Perhaps we responded to neglect with anger and hostility in order to get some attention, even though it was negative. Or we reacted to conditional love by striving to excel and becoming terrified of failure. Random punishment and violence might have caused us to become meek and passive in the hopes of flying below the radar. Being belittled might have persuaded us that we really were worthless, and that we deserve the bad things that happen to us.

These behaviors and thoughts were useful and adaptive during our childhood. They enabled us to survive, to make sense of the world, and to find our place. But as we grew up, those coping mechanisms became a hinderance, not a help. For example, our anger and hostility generated conflict with others. Our eternal striving and terror of failure led us to feel hopeless. Our passivity led others to take advantage of us. And our feelings of worthlessness took away our sense of control and efficacy and made us feel helpless.

Thus, the way we were treated in our family of origin led us to understand the world and ourselves in a certain way, which in turn led us to view ourselves and behave in a certain way. We could move all the way to Mars and never leave our families behind.

So if moving thousands of miles away, or even cutting off our family entirely doesn’t help, does that mean we’re condemned by our upbringing to feel and behave this way for ever? Not at all. Understanding what has made us who we are is the first step; seeing the patterns that exist between us and our families and acknowledging the hurt, sadness and longing they cause. And then doing something about it: changing the way we behave with our families, changing the way we behave with others, and changing the way we think about our relationships and ourselves.

For some of us, this is too challenging, and can only be done with the help of a therapist. However, for many, talking with supportive friends and romantic partners, combined with reading, is enough to make a big difference. And if you’re in that category, I’d suggest you start with Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger or The Dance of Intimacy.


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