Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Sheep in Nordstrand, Nordfriesland, Germany
I heard a truism a long time ago "Every family has a black sheep.  If you can't think of who the black sheep is your family, you're it."  There is no doubt in my mind that in my family, I am the black sheep. After many years of struggling with it, I now not only accept it, I embrace it.

A couple of weeks ago I went on vacation with Ty, the girls, my parents, my brothers, my sister and all the nieces and nephews.  This was  first for our family.  The first time since I was 16 years old that I've been on vacation with my parents and all my siblings (my sister was three at the time).  "Vacation" is a concept I really just don't get.  You leave your comfortable home to go sleep in a strange place and then proceed to do things you could do at home.  Unless you're going to the beach or to visit historical sites, I just don't get it.  I much prefer "staycation".   But, hey, everybody else likes vacation, so I go along.  We rented a cabin in the Smoky Mountains in Pigeon Forge, TN, the home of Dollywood.   This post isn't so much about the vacation as it is the experience of spending time again with my family.  I am the only person in my family to have left Columbus, OH. You can draw a circle with a radius of less than 10 miles around my parents', both my brothers' and my sister's houses.  I left Columbus, what I thought was temporarily, about 25 years ago and haven't lived there since.  I always thought I'd go back someday.  But, now I really don't think so.  The saying you can't go home again is true for me.

Being around my family is always a mixed-bag for me.  On the one hand, I really like seeing them because I don't see them that often. My sister was 3 and my brother 6 when I left for college.  I missed seeing them grow up.  My brother who is three years younger has children my children's age.  So, we see each other fairly often.  I always especially enjoy being around Brandon (my brother 11 years younger) and Bridget (my only sister) because it gives me the chance to get to know them better.   But, there's always something about being around family that irks me.  It took me years to figure it out.  I was in therapy around the age of 40 when it finally dawned on me.  

We are all a combination of what we bring into this world (nature) and what we encounter once we get here (nurture).  What I've realized is my nature and my nurture are at odds with each other .  And that  has caused me a great deal of distress during my life.  Families demand that people play certain roles. These demands are usually unspoken and often enforced in subconscious ways, but that doesn't make them any less real.  As I keep exploring my inner world and discover my "true" self, I  find that what I'm expected to present in the family is just not the real me.  The really odd thing is the constraints placed on us by our families, the "voices" as J. Keith Miller characterizes them in "The Secret Life of the Soul" (one of the best books ever) become internalized and soon we can't differentiate the outside influences from our own.  Even when I'm away from family, I struggle to be my true self. When I'm around my family, all the things I dislike about myself, all the things I want to change I see mirrored back to me and I have to admit I resent it.  Two things I need to interject here.  First, my family is made up of great people.  My parents have given us all a lot, materially and spiritually.  They taught us, nurtured us and did the best they possibly could.  My brothers and sister are caring people, devoted husbands, fathers and solid citizens.  None of us has ever given my parents the big disappointments (drug addiction, jail time, children out wedlock). Secondly, none of my resentment is personally directed toward anyone in my family.  It's more directed to the frustration I feel because of the split between who I am and who I'd really like to be.

OK, so what is this split?  Just how would I like to be different?  There are many ways.  But, I think the common denominator is fear.  I am a very fearful person and that fear manifests in a number of ways.  I fear failure.  I fear embarrassment.  I fear sickness.  I fear death. The fear of failure keeps me from trying many things.  The fear of embarrassment makes me timid around other people.  The fear of sickness and death led to panic attacks that nearly became crippling and still lurk just beneath the surface (and sometimes break through).  I cannot tell you how many times during the week with my family I heard the words "Be careful" or something to that effect.  Now, we were in a houseful of 7 children who often act with seems like no regard for consequences.  So, there was good reason to say that on more than one occasion.   And, caution has served us all well.  However, what I've realized is no one in my family is a risk taker.  We're all full of fear.  I now own my own business.  I voluntarily left two of the safest jobs around.  The first was working for the gas company- lifelong employment baby!  The second was IBM.  Each time I left one of these jobs, my parents wondered what in the world I was doing.  Almost 10 years after leaving the safety and comfort of IBM, when I told my mother I was going to start my own business not only was she not happy for me, she was frightened for me.   She asked me if it wasn't too late to go back to IBM.  I've always known I wanted to be an entrepreneur.  Well, I remember it from the time I was about 12 anyway.  But, it took me another 30 years to break the bonds of fear and strike out on my own. 

Another way my family of origin manifests in me in a way I don't like is my inability to just be myself around other people.  I have a very difficult time expressing my feelings which ironically many people take to be aloof or even arrogant and conceited.  I am really shy.  But, growing up I was accused of being "stuck up".  Deep down, I am a very sensitive person and really want to be close to people.  But, as a kid, expressions of emotion (positive or negative) were not expected or modeled in my family.  I don't recall my parents ever hugging or holding hands or (gross) kissing.  I don't ever remember even touching my father.   My mother stopped hugging me when I became a little man around the age of 5 and said I didn't want hugs anymore.  We never told each other that we loved each other.  Compliments in my family are pretty few and far between.  When someone is paid a compliment, there is always this air of suspicion.  "What did you really mean by that?"  "When is the other shoe gonna drop?"  We mask this by a cutting sense of humor.  You've got to keep your wits about you when you're in a gathering with us.  I tried to pay my sister a compliment while we were on vacation (granted I didn't word it very well) by telling her how she had been on such good behavior during the trip.  She lives alone, is a neat freak and was in a house full of other people's children, a lot of mess and a lot of noise.  I knew it was stressful for her.  Everyone assumed I was making a joke when I tried to pay her the compliment and even when I tried to explain "Yes, folks, this is a real compliment."  No one believed me.  I have worked hard to overcome this aspect of my background.  We still don't hug in my family.  Well, my mother said she wanted to start hugging because the daughters-in-laws families hug. So, we do hug her now.  I have made it a point to tell my girls that I love them every single day.  I make sure I hug and kiss them often.  I tell them how proud I am of them, frequently.  Starting with them, as a blank slate, that comes easily.  But, it doesn't with anyone else.  I struggle to really be who I want to be with anyone other than them.  For anyone outside my family who knows me, you probably think of me as being almost robotic.  But, in my family, I am known as the "sensitive one".  And, believe me, that is not a compliment.

Coincidentally (or not), Mike spoke about "rejecting rejection" this past weekend.  The story was Jesus's brothers and sisters coming to take Him away because they thought He had gone crazy.  Jesus had some pretty radical teachings on family.  He even used the word "hate" saying that if you did not hate your father and mother you could not be His disciple.  I don't "hate" my birth family (or my wife  or my children) and I never will.  But, I don't believe Jesus meant this any more literally than He did His command to cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes.  What I do hate is the way I allow others' expectations to hold me back from becoming my "true" self.  And, what I have to sort out is how I have internalized their expectations and work on freeing myself from those bonds and just be the black sheep I was born to be.

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okiedragon said...

Wow, reading your post was like hearing myself think out loud in some ways - but with different results. I know shyness because I grew up that way - it wasn't me who took on the role of black sheep though - that was my sister and unfortunately my family hasn't been the model of good family values but has grow wildly disconnected and yet it is the very act of being family that makes my skin crawl at times. I don't know how to enjoy being around my own mother because she still clings to the hell fire damnation God. For several years I could not speak to her because she had told me that my dad who passed away in July 2001 was in hell and yet he sat by her in church for years - they fought my entire life. And my dad was a ***hole - but he had reason of his childhood abuse which doesn't make it ok, but I truly believe that he sits by my husband's father just inside the gates of heaven waiting to beg our forgiveness because he now knows truth.

I really relate to this post - my daughter was raised different with lots of compliments and love and she being 35 now doesn't seem to have the hangups I have. I live in fear of rejection and believe myself to be hideously ugly deep inside - an old family tape that rears its ugly head with my husband. His family was and still is the unhuggibles - cold, Yankee, German/Polish, selfish in action and life types. Even after 36 years of marriage, had I known how his family would have treated me all these years, I would never have married him. It has been that bad.

Be grateful that you got out of the area. I lived in DC back in the early 70s and married the guy who's family I didn't meet before marriage - I love him dearly but there is great pain with that love. Continue changing patterns with your own kids - I forced hugging on David's family. I hope that made a difference in how they raised their own kids. I know my bro-in-law almost breaks me with hugs I beleive he never received as a kid.

I finally broke my role as mommy savior when I realized that my mom would call me to rescue her from Daddy only to go running back three days later. Dad was abusive but asking me if I would go with her if she left Daddy and never leaving was equally abusive.

Fear is one human condition that is bothersome and inconvenient, abuse from family members can become numbing and makes me very needy. Your post contains much of my own feelings of Why me lord? Why didn't my parents love all of us kids more, why did they not tell each one of us how precious we were? Then at times I wonder why or how I married into a family that I never met. They are so self-absorbed that even when you write a long letter telling your mother-in-law all the selfish ways she and her husband has mistreated me and my family, she doesn't change one bit. Trying to awaken her was like trying to cuddle up to a prickly pear cacti. I won't attend her funeral and when I get to heaven, maybe she can explain her childhood and her life to me so that I can understand her truth.

It is as if I know the problems, I am willing to bridge the gaps, but the few times I am around my mom and hear her gripe about food - rolls eyes - I get so sick of it. I did write a long letter, telling my mom-in-law how horrible and disgusting some of her words have been and it fell on a deaf heart. I knew then that I would be attending a funeral - and I am sure she never let her husband read the letter as he was a tyrant. His funeral didn't bring us a micrometer closer. So avoidance is my succor - I avoid my family - both sides.

Brian said...

Wow. Thanks for sharing that, Okiedragon. It breaks my heart to hear of things like this. I know what you mean about reaching out with no results. I had to learn to reach out but to detach from expectations of results. My relationship with my mother (much to my surprise) has improved tremendously over the years. My relationship with my father remains pretty much the same. I offered them John Eldredge's book "Wild At Heart" a few years back. Both told me they are not readers. Mind you, my father reads the Bible daily, reads the newspaper daily, works a Crossword puzzle daily and reads magazines. But, it's true he doesn't read books. I eventually gave the book to them on CD and my mother did listen to it.

I'm not where I'd like to be with my family. My mother is very defensive about the way they raised us. In fact, just Monday when we were talking about the vacation (which she LOVED), she said once again that it's not important what you say, it's what you do that counts. I disagree. Children need to be told, with words, that they are loved and cherished. Children need to be hugged. At least this child did. Therapy (at the age of 40) helped me realize that. My therapist gave me permission to be angry about what I missed and to nurture my inner-child myself. Processing through that anger helped me let go a lot of it. I don't feel anger towards them now.

I was lucky in that my in-laws are very much unlike my family, as is my wife. She has helped me tremendously and I've had a great relationship with both my mother-in-law and my father-in-law.

Just do what you can do with your mother-in-law and with your own mother. You can't take responsibility for anyone else'e behavior. I know how vulnerable writing those letters made you feel and it hurts when your efforts are not matched. But, take comfort in knowing you have done what you can do.


Don said...

Brian- Thanks for this post. Other than being an only child, Your family and mine are very similar. I identify with so much of what you said here. I am often thought of by others as being arrogant, distant, self-centered, when in reality I am shy and introverted. My Mom (she's all I have left of the family) wonders what has happened to my family, not in church any more, etc; not to mention that my oldest thinks I'm a full-blown heretic who's lost my way. I, too, seek to be the real me to myself and all others. Thanks for being honest and revealing.

Brian said...


Thank G-d for the Internet and the fellow "heretics" I've found here. You and others have been a lifesaver to me.

I'm still struggling with the whole church thing. I'd probably get away if I could. But, there are a couple of things keeping me trying to work that from the inside. I am a firm believer that we all need a "sangha", a group of like-minded people to walk the spiritual path with.

It makes it much easier to be a heretic when you're not out here all alone. Let 'em think we're crazy.