By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
Elephants will be dining at Thanksgiving dinners all over the country, won’t they? Our culture has used this concept of an elephant in the room when it comes to the things that are awkwardly not spoken about. Families are known to control what is spoken about and what are considered acceptable topics and are able to make it known what is off limits without ever putting it into words. And anyone who has experienced this type of thing, particularly in family situations, knows what that awkwardness feels like. If you’re the one whom some kind of wrong has been perpetrated against you feel strangled by the way your hurts have been invalidated and you just can’t acknowledge it. You are wounded again every time you are back with those people, as they continue to invalidate your hurts, communicating insensitivity, rejection, ostracism, betrayal, judgment, callousness and a lack of love. It could have been sexual or physical abuse or emotional abuse, it could have been that you were manipulated or controlled, it could have been that you were scapegoated, meaning blamed as the black sheep or the one with the problems in the family. Maybe your family is pretty dysfunctional? Maybe the heads of the family didn’t allow honest expression of emotion, but instead required only certain emotions to be displayed; only positive emotions, or crying or weakness were censored or punished? Maybe it was a performance based environment, in which love was doled out like a commodity such that you had to achieve to receive?
So, what have you done with the elephant? Have you passed it the sweet potato casserole and grinned, as you focused on getting through the day and checking it off? Have you in the past stood your ground and chosen not to go if that elephant is going to be there? Have you gotten there and ended up poking the elephant, as you tried to expose it and seek to change the culture in your family and see if there could be ownership of the wounds and restoration? Are you burned out from trying to accept it or ignore it? Are you deeply frustrated with your attempts to address it that have gone flat or badly? Let me give you some fresh ideas.
1. Get Real
Start with yourself and wrestle with what you have been hoping for. Do you go into it every time hoping it would be different – as if by magic or time? If so, you have been setting yourself up for disappointment. If your family is good at burying things or living by the “just move on” or “it is what it is” philosophy, then it is unlikely that they will suddenly “wake up” and see what you’ve been waiting for. I know this is hard and scary to face. But careful here – I am NOT saying you need to give up hope of there being change or progress. I am saying that the position of believing that change will just happen on its own isn’t very realistic and doesn’t really give you anything concrete to aim for and doesn’t engender hope. Because every time it doesn’t happen your hope is eroded, is it not?
2. Self First
This does not mean selfishness, so let me clarify. When we put our emotional needs in the hands of someone else, we are in trouble; we’re dependent and we’ve lost the power to address our own needs, meaning we have weakened our self efficacy. Self efficacy is the belief that I can handle what comes into my life. I don’t mean an arrogant believe that I can take on the world by myself. I mean a grounded sense that I am able to get through, find resources, lean on others and learn and grow. But when you find yourself resorting to anger, resentment, blaming, or stuffing and avoiding and numbing you steal your self efficacy, your energy and motivation and block spiritual growth. You see, even if someone has offended or wounded you, and even if they won’t acknowledge it or repent or apologize, dealing with what is in my heart is for my own good. This is about the process of grieving, that enables us to get to a place of forgiveness. I would encourage you to pursue good resources on these two related types of emotional work; that’s taking care of yourself. That’s what you do have control over and responsibility for.
3. Keep Your Eye on the Ball (meaning – set a goal and focus on that goal)
In baseball the way to get the results that you desire is to keep your eye on the ball. The same is true in relationships. If you have sorted out your desires and clarified that you want to rebuild the relationship, then you are going to need to talk about it with the offender. I guess that would be hitting the ball, if you have in the past avoided talking about it. But, if you want to do more than just hit it, but hit it to achieve your desired result, then you will need to go about it strategically.
- There are ways to bring something difficult to someone that is more likely to produce a favorable outcome. You will want to consider the time, the manner, and the place in which it is brought up.
- It would be best to prepare yourself. For emotionally tense situations, it can really help to practice ahead what you want to say, because we all can get drawn into emotional reactions, old patterns, or lose it and clam up or get tongue tied.
- Consider writing out your thoughts ahead of time.
- Ask yourself if you’ll need to have someone there for support as well. If you have tried to present the matter before and it did not go well, there is Biblical support for bringing along a second person (Matthew 18:16).
- Consider how you would want to be approached about some blind spot in your life. How likely are you to respond favorably to someone coming to you in an accusing tone, or dumping on you years of mistakes you’ve made?
- And with that in mind, try to stay on one issue at a time, and be aware of the tendency to start rolling off a litany of past wounds once you get started.
- Keep in mind that the goal is NOT to change another person, but rather to choose to stop living in secrecy, shame and fear. The goal is your emotional health and developing courage.
- Lastly, focus on presenting how such and such an event produced these feelings in you.
4. Run Away, Run Away!
There is a time for everything under heaven says Solomon in Ecclesiastes. There are situations in which it is warranted and even wise to put more distance between yourself and someone. If quality attempts have been made with little positive response, and some form of abuse or mistreatment continues, you may need to grieve and focus on protecting yourself. Facing a loss and going through the process of acceptance can open us up to new opportunities – such as building healthy relationships elsewhere. This is why I believe God calls us into his family; so we can all have a decent (and yes, still very flawed) one. We can make our own family!
So, what will you do with your elephant?
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Matt Sandford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been counseling for 8 years. Previously he worked in student ministry for 14 years, including two years in China. He has been married for 21 years and he and his wife are raising twins.