How do we survive dysfunction in our families-of-origin?
God graciously allows us to implement situation-specific coping strategies.
Early on we learn to: fly under the radar, be seen and not heard, pursue perfection, compulsively order (control) our sphere of influence, obey promptly, play quietly, deny feelings, suppress thoughts, keep secrets, and tell adults whatever they want to hear. In fact, as children of dysfunctional parents, we develop long emotional antenna.
We learn to adeptly anticipate what our parents want or need and meet those needs before we are asked to meet them. Family dysfunction transforms us into miniature cast members of the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. We adeptly live-out the lyrics … “I can do that,” to do and be whatever we need to.
A specific tool the Father allows us to use when we are overwhelmed as children is dissociation. When we dissociate, we “checkout” emotionally from our current situation because it is just too much to bear. A well-known traumatologist from Portland, OR, Byron Kehler says that, “dissociation is an adaptive childhood trait, which can easily become a maladaptive adult state.” This defense mechanism enables us to stay physically present while simultaneously disengaging emotionally.
As a survival tool, dissociation works quite well. However, a huge drawback is the numerous gaps in the person’s memory. Our memories resemble Swiss cheese because of the numerous omissions. If you have huge gaps in your memory, there is a good chance that you used dissociation to get through life as a child.
Have you every talked with a friend and they accurately remember and describe many details of their childhood? As they talked, did you think, “Oh, my goodness, I don’t remember all of my teacher’s names. I don’t remember any of our family vacations to Mexico. There are lots of things I don’t remember!”
In threatening and abusive situations, we learn to “X” ourselves out as people. We subjugate who we are, what we think, what we want, and what we feel to the more powerful people (our parents, caregivers, and/or our abusers.) We voluntarily quash our joy, spontaneity, hopes, dreams, opinions, and child-likeness. We know it is not safe to ask for what we want or need; we know it is not safe to be vulnerable. Instead of being real, authentic, spontaneous human beings, we are relegated to living as “scenery” people. We are just part of the scenery.
As scenery people we don’t allow ourselves to be real people. Scenery people are more like two-dimensional caricatures, whereas real people are thoughtful, fun-loving, creative, and multi-dimensional. Connecting with a scenery person is like trying to have a personal conversation with a cardboard cutout of a person. No one can do it.
You might be thinking, “What’s so bad about scenery people?” I’ll tell you. Scenery people, though they’re physically alive, are concurrently emotionally and spiritually dead. Yes, words and even sentences may proceed from their mouths, but their thoughts make as much sense as a 1960s Chatty Cathy Doll endlessly repeating the same sentences. Scenery people have about the same usefulness and depth of a watch-logged cell phone.
God never designed us to be cardboard caricatures or pieces of scenery. He created us to be perpetual bearers of His image. We are made from muscle, bone, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, and major organs. We have hearts, minds, personalities, and temperaments. God painstakingly fashioned every human being and He has unique plans and purposes for us.
We are designed to showcase God’s glory. When we are loving, accepting, creative, open, honest, real, and transparent, we fulfill our design. When we see with our eyes and hear with our ears, when we use our arms and hands to touch, hold, and comfort others we are manifesting the heart and mind of the Father.
Our hands and arms can touch, hold, and comfort. God gives us the ability and desire to love others and help others. We portray Him well when we fulfill His design.
Did you live as a “scenery person” growing up? If you did, you can ask God to help you become an authentic, loving, caring human-being.
It’s the start of a new year, ask God to help you begin now to be that authentic person He designed.