Case study: Family dysfunction recovery action plan

I am not a therapist.

But I seem to get a number of clients who have worked (successfully) with good therapists to identify and work through their feelings about things, but are still tangled up in logistics of action to get out of harmful situations. So they come to me to pull apart the logistics and give them a path of action that allows them to honor the things they’ve identified with their therapists and the feelings they’ve uncovered.

This client was one of them. Her family of origin had huge, bad issues that had caused her to leave and to have no contact with her parents and extremely limited contact with her siblings (some of whom are adults, but several of whom are older teens living with her parents). She had worked intensely with good therapists on what had happened to her and how she could process and heal from that, how to mother her own children without being under the weight of how she was (not) parented, etc. But she was still tangled up in how she could help her siblings get free from this family legacy, both the ones that were living away from the parents but still hurt by them and the ones who were still living with the parents. There was also a part of her that thought she should be attempting to make her parents stop the harmful interactions, or at least admit that they had unhealthy ways of interacting with the family.

This one was tough, obviously, because it was all about hurt and secrets and guilt and shame. The first thing I did was let the client know that I understood that she carried this weight around with her, but that by handing her problem to me to solve she was acknowledging that she didn’t have to feel guilt or shame anymore. Giving it to me was shining a light on it, and when I accepted the task of being a witness to what happened, that took away anything she had to feel bad about. Then I set to work, and diagrammed it out. (I’ve realized that for me a lot of the diagramming process is to give ideas holding pens to sit in while I’m dealing with other ideas, and then I can circle back.) I sorted through what she could control, what isn’t under her control, what she could expect from other people, and what she had to let go (knowing that even if something is true, other people may never acknowledge it).

I sent her the threads I’d pulled apart. She took the things I said she couldn’t change and let them go. (We both expected this, and that’s why she hired me.) And then she took the plan I made for what she could do for her siblings and added on to it, with a strength and grace and trust in connection that felt like a gift to me.

I am always amazed at my clients. At how clever and astute and resilient they are. And how honored I am that they trust me with their problems.


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