Episode 015 – Family Practice
“Endorsement from our tribe ultimately leaves us feeling empty and unfulfilled. In the end, we’re externally puffed up and internally hollow.”
In 2002, the selfie came to life and it’s been downhill ever since.
Does it seem like more people than ever are talking about strained relationships these days? Families and long-time friendships are under a lot of pressure or breaking apart because of the polarizing political and cultural events in our country and the world.
So what gives? It’s not like things are any more tumultuous than they were in the days leading up to WWII or Vietnam.
What’s different? Why have we as a community lost the ability to disagree in a civil manner? And why is everything so personal?
Listen in and find out.
- Now What?: How to Move Forward When We’re Divided (About Basically Everything) by Sarah Stewart Holland
- Humble: Free Yourself from the Traps of a Narcissistic World by Daryl Van Tongeren
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Until next time, be nice and do good stuff.
Welcome to Season 2. If you remember, Episode 14, the last of Season 1 aired on Wednesday, September 28. That Firday, the 30th, we loaded up the car and headed north – up the peninsula – beginning a road trip that would last almost a month.
What would compel someone to get into a 20-year-old Honda CR-V and drive 6,500 miles from the tip of Baja to the City of Brotherly Love and back?
That klan of madness you happen to be born into. A lottery whose winner was decided by the cosmos and… your job is to spend the rest of your life figuring out how your piece fits into the puzzle.
In this episode, Family Practice has nothing to do with medicine, rather, the practice of family-ing. And the process… is messy.
It’s only fitting that the journey to begin Season 2 starts with a road trip. 3,176 miles from our door in Baja to Little Rock, Arkansas; Annapolis, Maryland; and then to Philadelphia.
On this particular trip, we stopped first to remember and celebrate my wife’s sister who unexpectedly passed away in April. We rented a cabin on Arkansas’ Little Red River and gathered to scatter Michelle’s ashes where her Mom and Dad’s ashes were scattered a few years back.
Afterwards, we drove to Annapolis for the Sailboat Show where, every year, Mel sells her jewelry and we get a chance to reconnect with our sailing life.
Then up to Philly for a surprise party celebrating my mother’s 90th birthday. 32,851 days. That’s how long she’s had to figure out how her piece fits into the puzzle.
During that time, she raised 5 relatively well-adjusted children.
As the youngest, I’m gazing up the ladder. And I don’t know about your family, but as we’ve grown older, instead of getting closer, we’ve drifted apart.
Maybe it has as much to do with our physical location as it does with our ideologies and personalities.
Each of us lives in a different state.
When we do gather, things are civil but rarely warm and fuzzy. There’s some walking on eggshells, and changing of subjects but I think that’s normal these days. I could be wrong.
When we’re all together, I spend a lot of time trying to remember how it was when we were younger.
Were we all so immutable then? If not, when did it change? What caused it?
Like every family out there, we’ve got our quirks. Decades of pressure from life in all its forms; jobs changing, financial pressures, kids growing up and moving through their stages of life, social and political ideologies – all of that, compressing over the last decade.
Is there a family out there that doesn’t have some sort of dysfunction happening?
Personally, I never encountered that family that had the perfect parents who never argued and brothers and sisters who never fought.
My parents divorced when I was ten. My older brothers and sisters were already out of the house or close to it. What I do remember was something very close to constant chaos, stress, and arguments about money.
So as we were driving across the country and I was making notes about upcoming episodes and deciding on guests I’d like to speak to, the family get-together kept creeping in.
As the mileage gap closed, I noticed my stress levels rising. I stopped being able to sleep. Constant headaches and lack of focus.
I had a physical reaction and it’s still happening as I work on his episode a few days away from the party. It’s impacted further because I’m working in the only quiet space I can find – my mother’s dark, damp basement.
Now, you may be asking, why the hell do I need to hear about Chris’ dysfunctional family?
Well, because it’s not about me. I’ve been having this conversation with several people who are experiencing the same situation in their families or friend circle. Things have changed. And a lot of people are now estranged from a family member or close friend, have strained relations, or are close to cutting off relations with someone altogther.
It got me thinking – what gives? How do people who grew up in the same environment, with the same parents, turn out so differently?
Now, I understand that each one of us is a unique individual and we process things differently based on our upbringing and how we perceive the events around us. If you look at the clinical psychological breakdown of dysfunctional families you’ll get pretty specific categories.
5 to be exact:
- Substance Abuse Family: Pretty self-explanatory. When one or more parent is substant dependent, it results in unreliable and inconsistent parenting that can cause trust and anger issues that can linger for decades. I can say that we did not have to deal with this.
- Conflict Driven Family: Again, pretty straightforward. These families are filled with heated arguments, hurtful exchanges and long-running feuds.
- Violent Family: Physical, verbal, or sexual abuse: Causes changes in brain development.
- Authoritarian Family: “My way or the highway.”
- Emotionally Detached Family: Warmth and affection are missing. Emotionally unavailable.
At the same time and aside from those categories, we’ve got social, political, and cultural triggers making things worse.
In her new book, Now What: How to Move Forward When We’re Divided, co-author Sarah Stewart Holland says her studies have found that a lot of people are still “really hurt and suffering from some of the fallout in their relationships over Covid. As they start to come back together, that pain is right there on the surface – from the last argument or heated exchange.”
It’s a lot like having coffee with that friend you haven’t seen in a couple of years. Once you sit down across the table, you pick up exactly where you left off and it doesn’t feel like a day has passed since the last time you saw each other.
It’s the same with the bad stuff. In Episode 7, Rise and Shine, I talked about how our brains are wired to attach to negative events. If the last time you saw that sibling, you had a fight or argument, it will be the first thing that comes to mind when you see them again.
If you go back in time and move forward through historically polarizing events, we can attach the recent fallout to a series of events beginning with Trump’s election in 2016. Then the Pandemic in 2020, the events on January 6, and the Supreme Court decision reversing Roe vs. Wade.
If that’s not enough to spur division, toss in differing opinions on gun violence, inflation, global warming, and immigration, and it becomes a perfect storm of dvision.
At this point, it’s as if we’re no longer speaking to or about people, rather, we’re talking to caricatures, archetypes, or an ideology.
And everything feels really personal. But why? Why after all these decades are we unable to handle such divisions without coming to blows or severing relationships?
Author and professor of psychology Daryl Van Tongeren suggests in his new book, Humble; Free Yourself From the Traps of a Narcissitic World, that our cultural fascination with a narcissistic self-agrandizement is a big factor.
Let’s go back… 2002 the term selfie comes to life and over the past 20 years, the focus that’s been put on the idea of self has become unhealthy. The way it’s evolved may be doing more harm than good.
We’ve got endless variations on the concept of self; self-awareness, self-esteem, self-control, self-compassion and on and on. Pop culture is infatuated with its sense of self.
How does this contribute to the divide in family relationships? Van Tongeren points to three main factors:
- Seeking self-worth or validation from outside sources. Social media, social groups, whatever it is, we’re looking for approval from everyone but ourselves and it’s causing us great stress.
- The constant narrowing of the scope of attitudes, opinions, and beliefs we’re exposed to. We pick the social networks we want to interact with. We pick the news organization that fits our ideologies and because of that, we are no longer exposed to differing opinions or ideas. It’s all straight programing with little regard for compare and contrast.
- A strong desire for overly-positive self-regard. We view ourselves (whether privately or publicly) as better than average, smarter than the next guy or girl and more often right than wrong.
Our approach to the world has now become predicated on protecting our sense of self and our viewpoints.
The inclination is first to defend our position and beliefs rather than remain open to learn from evidence that might stand in opposition.
To quote Tongeren again, “…endorsement from our tribe (that looks like us, believes like us, and talks like us)… leaves us feeling puffed up – externally… yet, internally hollow. We’re sad, lonely, and hollow because none of those things actually meet any of our core needs as humans.”
So how do we reverse the trend? Van Tongeren suggests that a quiet restraint is the way to deal with such situations. Humility.
And not just humility but, Cultural Humility – What does that mean?
It’s the point at which we all realize that our cultural perspective is not superior and intern, learn to view the multitude of diverse approaches as a strength.
Throughout history, everyone from Socrates to Albert Einstein have written on the importance of humility. Socrates saying, “Pride divides the men. Humility joins them.” The late great Mary Oliver wrote; “Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vain-glory is the bain of us, the humans.”
Here we are, our progressive society, with the words of a 5th century Greek philosopher ringing in our ears and we’re still unable to figure it out.
As I see it, having repeated contentious discussions under the guise of hearing one another’s viewpoint is counter-productive when neither side has any desire or conscious ability to alter their position.
Oftentimes, we’re just thinking about our response to the other person’s talking point while they’re talking – without listening to or even considering what they’re saying.
I’ve yet to hear someone say, “Wow. what a clearly stated and well-supported argument. You’ve changed my mind.”
It seems like a war of attrition.
I’ll admit, I’m guilty of all of three of Van Tongeren’s points myself. The last seven years have caused me to reach personal low-points with patience, frustration, and name-calling.
I’ve labeled people and cut off relations with folks I never thought I would. I have to consciously remind myself that I’m speaking to a person and not a stereotype (no matter how much they align with said stereotype).
This road trip and gathering with my family has me hyper-focused on all of this division and strain and examining my own relationships within my family.
I’ve diminished relationships with a few of my family members. I’m not proud to admit that but in spending way too much time analyzing the reasons, I concluded that I’ve done so – not because of politics or because I don’t respect the fact that we disagree – I’ve done it because the act of disagreeing became toxic.
And… if we disagree so vehemently, maybe our values are misaligned.
And if we don’t align on defining issues that are the basis for a civilized and healthy community, than what do we have to talk about? Should we continue just because we feel some need to prove a point?
Am I wrong to say, just because we’re family doesn’t mean we have to like each other?
Maybe walking away is sometimes the better option. Leave that person where they are and stop fighting, for the sake of both of you.
But here’s the danger. By taking that approach, we fall into that self-isolated zone that Van Tongeren points to.
It’s a conundrum indeed. And I’m conflicted. Because the easy road is to withdraw and interact with those you align with. Those who make you feel love and support.
Maybe it’s the basement. Maybe the cold and damp Philly weather is affecting me. Either way, I don’t have any answers.
By the time this episode airs, my family gathering will be in the rearview, literally. Right now, we’re probably somewhere just beyond Amarillo. This is the perfect time to address why it is we chose drive 6,500 miles.
Why not fly? It’s quicker. Easier. Cheaper.
Well, in our case, the number of stops and the location of those stops made it more expensive. Factor in the cost of rental cars, airport aggravation and grossness, and it was a wash.
Here’s the other reason, and for me, the main one. Driving gave us a few days to process what was coming and then allows us to decompress afterwards.
It gives me and Mel the chance to talk about things outside the daily routine. Important things that may otherwise fall through the cracks of normal life.
Losing her younger sister. Relationships that have slipped. Our own relationship that may have been neglected in the midst of all the other stuff.
I’ll be honest with you, the entire time I’ve been driving I’ve been internally processing – grading myself on how I’ve handled the past three weeks.
Did I over-react?
Did I handle the situation like a rational adult?
Did I get triggered and revert back to old habits? Childlike emotions?
I would love to tell you that I gave myself an A+.
I’d be lying.
And… I’d slot into the #3 spot on Van Tongeren’s list of factors that are to blame for the problem; An overly-positive self regard…better than average.
As for the last three weeks, I give myself a C. Average. But… I guess that’s what practice is all about.
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