Most of us show up in therapy because of complicated and painful family relationships. Sometimes it’s about our family of origin – the one where I was a child, and sometimes it’s about the families we have created where I’m the partner and/or parent. Family relationships are tough. Those of us that have grown up with dysfunction – addiction, violence, divorce, mental illness – have had to figure out how to tease apart what is healthy and what isn’t when it comes to relationships.
A common problem I often see is “wanting to help” – our alcoholic parent, our mentally ill child. We want to end their suffering. We want to stop feeling “held hostage” by their misery. We want things to just be normal. We want peace.
One of the fathers of Family Systems Theory, when describing dysfunctional family life, used the metaphor of a family swimming in a boiling cauldron of soup. It’s a great metaphor because it really challenges the notion of what “helping” might mean. So in this boiling cauldron .. we can do nothing but flail – all of us – because, well, we are being cooked in a boiling cauldron. There is no way to be available to help someone when you yourself are trying not to drown.
If fortunate, we have a moment of insight, see the edge of the pot and swim toward it. We manage to get ourself up on the lip of the pot. From there we see our loved ones struggling and flailing in the pot. We call out “Over here! Over here!” but of course no one can hear us because they are flailing and screaming in the hot soup. It seems like we are doomed to a life of bearing witness to their suffering. Sometimes it gets overwhelming and we are sure if we dive in this time we will be able to save them. So we jump… get burned, and get out again.
Eventually, some of us recognize that we can’t help. We decide to go about living in a way that puts our loved one’s suffering into context, in a way that lets us live our own life, value our own well being. It’s hard. It feels impossible most of the time. I would argue though that it’s necessary. We don’t have the power to bring someone to the edge of that pot. That has to happen from within each one of us. Once someone decides to get out, then we can “help”, then we can offer guidance, support, whatever it may take – but we all need to see the difference between the flailing in the middle, and the swimming to the edge.
Peace of mind is a precious thing. Healthy relationships are a precious thing. You, too, are a precious thing. If we do not value our own well-being, that is not “helping” …. anyone.
Peace to you.