Shame Off You: Say “No” to Dysfunctional Family Rules

Every marriage and every home offers the opportunity to create meaningful relationships, to lay the groundwork for a secure and healthy self-identity and to incorporate scriptural principles that lead to a vibrant and active celebration of one’s relationship with God. In 1 Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul tells us that “love edifies” or builds up. Love helps build a marriage, a family, and almost any relationship. Love helps build well-balanced children and a legacy that moves from one generation to the next. Yet, what about the things that tear down? In my professional and ministry experience, almost nothing is potentially more destructive within our primary relationships then when a pervading sense of shame is present. In fact, research in this area indicates that for every critical, hurtful or abusive thing someone hears about him/herself or experiences on a personal level, the average individual needs 17 “positives” before they perceive balance again. If this is the case, imagine how consumed by negativity some people are before they ever leave the home environment.

Shame communicates to others they are somehow unworthy . . . that they are unlovable, unwanted and in one or more ways, flawed or defective. The result is often a debilitating fear of rejection. When compounded by the fear of failure, this two-edged sword can be a damaging force in any relationship. To effectively integrate biblical truth that can counter these beliefs, it is important to have a good frame of reference in how the dynamic evolves in the first place.

Murray Bowen was a major theorist who helped develop a family systems model of behavior. He and others advocate the notion that individual patterns of behavior, as well as one’s interpersonal relationships, need to be understood contextually by looking across generations. Both functional and dysfunctional relationship principles are imparted within the home environment and Bowen’s work particularly emphasizes the transfer of the “emotional” elements that impact behavior. This includes the ability to set appropriate boundaries or the lack thereof. The same could be said regarding the development of intimacy, positive attachments and feeling connected to others in a meaningful way. 

One of the most comprehensive studies ever undertaken to help evaluate the consistency of this intergenerational transmission of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, was the Dunedin study. Over one thousand children were identified at birth during a one-year period (1972-1973) in Dunedin, New Zealand, and then reevaluated at ages 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, and 21. This research is a unique resource for the investigation of behavioral and emotional development. Researchers used the Dunedin data to find support for the concept of generational legacy. Follow up reports showed as the children in the study aged, there was consistent evidence that parental role model behaviors were being emulated and the behaviors were becoming more established and entrenched with each successive period of evaluation from birth through early adulthood. The Dunedin project further supports the notion that family of origin dynamics, how spouses interact and parenting styles have a longitudinal effect on an individual and that this effect overlaps multiple adult environments.

The following are five dysfunctional family rules that many of us probably grew up with. This does not necessarily imply they were posted on the refrigerator with a magnet, but they may resonate with you on a deeper level. Perhaps the first word of each rule offers a clue as to why they can be problematic.

Rule #1 – Don’t Talk – Those who grew up with this rule were not allowed to talk about anything significant or personal, especially in a transparent way. Conflicts, differences of opinion, problem behaviors, etc., are all either completely ignored or quickly silenced. There are no “family” conferences or pow-wows whenever a crisis occurs and avoidance is the name of the game. Let’s take, for example, an alcoholic father. Everyone knows dad is drinking. Everyone knows that dad comes home drunk and sometimes gets physical with mom or the kids, but no one talks about the drinking. It’s like having the proverbial elephant in the living room. We all see it. We all smell it and we see what it’s doing to the carpet, but we are all supposed to tip-toe around as if it was not there. And a big “no-no” is . . . we never tell anyone outside of the family. That would be considered treasonous. What often develops is an unhealthy fear of transparency and the keeping of secrets, which can create enormous conflicts within a marriage.

Rule #2 – Don’t Feel – Those who grew up with this rule were not allowed to express their feelings in an authentic way. Whenever they tried, their efforts are usually met with resistance and disdain and the process would be shut down. Feelings were ignored, minimized, criticized or disallowed. Sooner or later, we come to believe that no one really cares how we are really doing, so we hide behind the hurt or the perceived threat of rejection and indifference. Their feelings don’t count in the long run and the thought of transparency becomes too large of a risk, especially when combined with Rule #1. This dynamic results in people who grow up more defensive, suspicious, and guarded in their relationships. When asked how they are doing in life, the answer is almost always, “Fine . . . everything is fine,” even when the world is falling apart all around them. Suffering in silence feels less disappointing or traumatic than rejection by someone who once again may be saying all the right words and using socially acceptable protocols, but isn’t truly interested in having an authentic relationship. Again, this is an extremely destructive pattern that negatively impacts the development of intimacy in marital or family relationships.

Rule #3 – Don’t Touch – I have spoken with some adults who will tell me that as children, they have no memory of being hugged or told they were loved by the significant role models in their lives. They may have assumed it at some level, but the questions still persisted. Another possibility is that the touch was unhealthy or abusive. National statistics indicate that as many as one out of every three girls and one out of every five boys will experience some form of abuse before they graduate from high school. When I grew up, there was a saying that went like this, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I disagree. Long after the words are spoken or the rejection has been experienced, the emotional bruises will linger, possibly creating an unhealthy perception of intimacy. Numerous clients have told me things like, “I can’t ever remember my Dad or my Mom hugging me or saying they loved me. We just didn’t do that in our home.” During Jesus’ ministry, whenever He dealt with the demonic, more often than not, He spoke a word. However, when He healed people, He usually touched them. Appropriate physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual touch are critical to healthy development.

Rule #4 – Don’t Resolve – Those who grew up with this rule came to believe that nothing was resolvable or even allowed to be brought to closure. This dynamic typically leaves individuals stuck in a crisis mode or with the hurtful aftermath of a confrontation that did not play out very well. Forgiveness over hurts, heartaches and misunderstandings are nonexistent or fleeting at best. The issues keep getting dragged back into the forefront, often used to shore up an accusation, defend a point of view or bludgeon someone into silence or submission. In other words, problems are not only avoided and left unaddressed in most cases, they are rarely if ever solved. Emotional wounds were “picked at” again and again much like a scab, until a long-lasting or permanent scar was the end result. This can also translate into how believers may approach forgiveness and letting go of past hurts. They may wrestle with either receiving or giving forgiveness. Some are convinced there is no reason in trying to address and solve problems because it cannot or will not change the outcome.

Rule #5 – Don’t Trust – This last rule is based, in part, on the first four. If there is no permission to talk openly, if there is no genuine expression of feelings, if there are no healthy forms of touch, and if there is no ability to bring something to successful resolution, then the hurtful conclusion is that no one can really be trusted either . . . even God! Being too afraid to trust leads to an independent spirit; being too hurt to love leads to pride; and being too angry to listen, leads to rebellion. Honesty and trust, especially within a Christlike environment, are like a glue that helps hold a relationship together. Without them, the trials and pressures of life, even everyday stress, may result in the relationship being torn asunder, leaving it ripped and shredded in small detached pieces. Ultimately, and when combined with the first four rules, a person’s journey through this kind of family system, weakens and compromises the formation of a well-adjusted self-identity.

Whether we are husbands or wives, fathers or mothers or provide coaching, care, and counsel to people, we must find ways to counteract the negative messages that are attached to these Rules. The good news of the Gospel is that we are loved, forgiven, offered the gift of grace and of such great value in the eyes of God that we were worth dying for. This does not mean we excuse sinful behavior and poor choices or never hold people accountable, but rather, to be proactive as we have the opportunity to affirm others in the eyes of God. So many people are buried in negativity, often by their own doing. Transformation can begin by telling them, “Shame off you!”

Eric Scalise, PhD, is the President of LIV Consulting, LLC. He currently serves as Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) with Hope for the Heart. He is also the former Senior Vice President for the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) and former Department Chair for Counseling Programs at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. Dr. Scalise is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with 40 years of clinical and professional experience in the mental health field, and he served six years on the Virginia Board of Counseling under two governors. Specialty areas include marriage and family issues, professional/pastoral stress and burnout, combat trauma and PTSD, grief and loss, addictions and recovery, leadership development, and lay counselor training. As the son of a diplomat, Dr. Scalise was born in Nicosia, Cyprus, and has also lived and traveled extensively around the world. He is a published author, adjunct professor at several Christian universities, conference speaker, and frequently works with organizations, clinicians, ministry leaders, and churches on a variety of issues. Dr. Scalise and his wife Donna have been married for 40 years, have twin sons – who are combat veterans serving in the U.S. Marine Corps – and four grandchildren.

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