Definitive relationships, and boiling frogs
I am in a foggy antihistamine stupor today–sometimes my system reacts this way to a double dose of chlorpheniramine immediately after waking up!–so I will probably rely more heavily on quotes. (Yay, adult echolalia! ) But, I was thinking about this again, and wanted to go back to Cliff Pervocracy’s “Boiling Frog Family”–a very different kind of BFF, to be sure! And I’m going ahead and trying to cobble together a post, in part, because I got to thinking more about how this might tie in with some continuing problems with social isolation, which can be one of the most troublesome things to deal with sometimes. (Which I probably can’t write about specifically today, but feel like I need to sometime soon.)
From my original share on G+, with an expanded version of the second quoted bit:
And the “boiling family” experiment goes like this: visit a family where every mundane conversation is an emotionally charged battle of wills and passive-aggressive posturing is the only way to express emotions, and you’ll think “these people are fucked up!” Grow up in a family like that, and you’ll think “I’m fucked up!”…
When you’re immersed in an environment, especially when you’re immersed in it from childhood, it takes a lot of time and distance to realize it was an environment, and not “just life.”…
It’s work, and work I definitely have not finished, to shake the habits and ways of coping I learned growing up. (I still have way too much of the “conflict means violence so hide or cower at the first hint of conflict” stuck in my head, and a little bit of “people only tell you what they want via secret signals so constantly evaluate everything as a signal.”) It’s also a tremendous source of power and confidence when I get it right.
Long quote, but this is an excellent post. (And it’s not just families, but any sufficiently messed-up longterm environment.)
For a long time, I thought I would never have any social skills. I just wasn’t good at people. Couldn’t make friends, couldn’t figure out when or how to talk, kept creeping out or annoying people without understanding why. Then this weekend I had a little mini-revelation: I was bad at social skills because I never learned any at home. (I am naturally awkward, but nowhere near as much as I thought I was.) I had to learn things like…”how to say what you want instead of giving bizarre hints and then screaming when people don’t read your mind” starting at about age eighteen. No wonder I was in my twenties before I could have such a thing as a casual conversation.
I was ten years older, and pretty much had a nervous breakdown after a few months of living with someone who does not communicate that way at all, constantly trying to find these cryptic hints that weren’t even there, and waiting for the screaming fits over what I now know was often nothing but the other person’s mental weather. The gigantic hurricane of disrespectful behavior I was waiting for still hasn’t come, eight years later.
But, things do get better over time. Especially if you don’t leave relationships with respectful-acting people, because the unaccustomed patterns of interaction freak you out. (Almost happened. Sad but true.)
I still feel guilty sometimes over having gone low- or no-contact with some relatives, but sometimes it really is necessary. Especially when you realize part of the “guilt” there is concern about turning into the next Mega Scapegoat for not helping prop up the harmful behavior. Continuing to prop it up is not helping nor really respecting them at all, either, BTW.
I have already written some about that last part, including how that continues to be a particularly pressing concern for me given the culture I grew up in. Which is also something I have been having to think about more, trying to understand what the problems I keep running into even are and why certain themes keep cropping up–with the aim of figuring out more effective ways of dealing with these situations.
(And, yeah, the “of course I learned some pretty peculiar ways of interacting with people” thing got me musing on the autism or (C)PTSD? theme again. The conclusion? That kind of atmosphere is likely to be much harder to deal with when you have an autistic neurological setup–especially when people keep using your quirks and difficulties with realtime verbal communication against you. See also the high rates of abuse of disabled kids “across the range of impairments”. And you might be even more likely to come out of it with some troublesome PTSD effects, when you don’t have all the usual sensory/emotional filters in place and are already easily overwhelmed.)
Robert K. Thomas’s work has provided some useful quotes to launch off here already. I have found a good number of his observations–from the standpoint of a Cherokee anthropologist–useful in trying to make sense out of some dynamics, including within my own personal BFF setting. I’ll just throw in a few relevant quotes here.
This particular observation is from Robert Cooter’s commentary on Thomas’s account of growing up, in Individuals and Relatives (for more context on how terms are being used, you can read more of the paper):
A member of a close kin group like R.H. does not distinguish sharply between who he is and how he acts towards his kin. Kin relations are “definitive” in the sense that they express attributes of a person’s identity. To illustrate, one of R.H.’s mothers would have difficulty thinking of herself as a good person and a bad mother, because judging the goodness of a person who is a mother involves judging the quality of her relationship with her children. R.H. thought of himself as his mothers’ boy, his grandfather’s grandson, his uncle’s nephew, and so forth…
Being the same flesh and blood as the people who filled his life, R.H. could not
fashion a separate conception of himself that was different from their conception of him. The identity of a child raised among kin is fixed in the network of personal relations in which he is immersed. When kinship is definitive, a person is likely to feel good about who he is when relations are harmonious, and bad about who he is when relations are troubled. It is better for there to be harmony on every level, as when kinsmen love one another, but in lieu of that, most tribal Indians will settle for overt harmony…
Disharmony among kinsmen is psychologically destructive and tends to immobilize Indians. Kin relations can become so poisoned under some circumstances that a few people go over to the side of the devil, as it were, and seek the undoing of
those with whom their ties are closest. Such people are usually called witches by Indians. On some modern Indian reservations, so much damage has been done to the kin network that people now relate negatively to one another, but still personally and definitively. A tribal kin network gone awry is a tragedy for the people caught in it…
R.H.’s self-esteem, and the esteem in which he was held by the people whose opinions mattered to him, depended upon the quality of his kin relationships. His primary task of personal development, upon which a favorable conception of himself depended, was acquiring a sensibility towards kin that would enable him to live harmoniously with them…
R.H.’s material and emotional dependency encompassed many kin. He had other relatives besides his immediate family with whom he lived for weeks at a time as the spirit moved him. In extended families, responsibilities for tasks and feelings can be spread across many people. The dispersion of dependency increases the scope for personal autonomy. The Cherokee sensibility towards kin allows for much personal
autonomy, as illustrated by the reaction of R.H.’s family to the departure of his biological mother for a distant city.
Bolding added, because that statement also seems very relevant to too much of my own BFF situation. The last paragraph was included for balance, and also because breakdown in extended family networks can also increase the potential for things to turn nasty and decrease autonomy. Abusers can also more easily get away with acting abusively (including emotionally, oh my yes)–and convincing the victim(s) that this is just a normal response to the kind of person they are–when there aren’t as many other people around regularly to notice and counterbalance it. It’s less easy to make a situation where one or more people get set up as the ones solely responsible for keeping peaceful relations going by jumping through their asses not to piss someone else off–and get pointed to as impossible to get along with and the cause of any number of problems, when anything goes wrong. (A pattern that has kept repeating in my BFF: certain people get scapegoated.) What do abusers classically do? Try to isolate people, for just that set of reasons.
For this approach to relationships to work, everybody has to learn a firm idea of boundaries. (“They make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of others and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do.”) The individuation process may look very different across cultures (as is a decent bit of the point of the quoted paper), but yeah. Without that, you can have a mess pretty quickly. Duyukta, indeed.
From the piece on boundaries: “One characteristic of growing up in a dysfunctional household is that we may learn to feel guilty if we fail to ensure the success and happiness of other members of the household. We may feel responsible or be made to feel responsible for the failure or unhappiness of others.”
Erm, yeah. And that can include making people unhappy by “selfishly” refusing to let them walk all over you–or listen to them run down other people you care about, etc.–anymore.
Also, on a similar note, from Mental Health: American Indian Tribal Societies:
One of the features of a definitive relationship is that there is either a lot of love or hate or both involved in it. If there is a lot of love, then, a child in a tribal society has an unquestioned sense of self-worth. Most of the deftnition of who you are explicitly comes from that kin network. If you would ask me about socialization, for instance, in a tribal society I would be very hard put to hypothesize stages or even to say when it ends.
And things can be even more confusing and maddening when it’s both. (At least my mom’s behavior only went particularly screwy after I was old enough to be in school, and we moved back to her hometown, in daily contact with my abusive grandmother–and she got seriously destabilized. Otherwise, I’d have probably ended up with a lot more to disentangle, myself.) I would also add here that, at least in my case, this effect is only enhanced by my being on the spectrum and having spent most of my life relying more heavily than I might otherwise on family for support of various types. I went into this aspect some before. A bit from that:
When the “familism”/”horizontal collectivism” approach is working as it should, you just don’t get much in the way of social isolation. You’re born into a support network, which is embedded in a larger one. Remember the “try hard to get along and understand the other person, no matter how eccentric” and “everybody has something to contribute” themes? This works particularly well for elders, disabled people, and the just plain socially awkward and eccentric. People just aren’t left to fend for themselves–and are encouraged to develop their own skills–which is kinda the point…
Bearing in mind the observation from Family socialization predictors of autonomy among Appalachian adolescents: hey, surprise, “The strong familistic bonds of Appalachia fostered rather than hindered autonomy”.
That’s the way things should work. When they don’t, things can turn really ugly.
Of course, when this gets twisted by people’s personal problems, your core support network can be made up of people who don’t treat you well while insisting that you are the problem. You can form part of your sense of identity based in some pretty whacked-out examples of how to live your life and relate to other people. With the kind of crazymaking results you can imagine, and which I’ve been describing here. And, unless they are, say, obviously low-functioning alcoholics and/or are known to be beating on people, it’s harder to get away from them without being considered some kind of selfish, antisocial lunatic–short of moving completely away, which I ended up doing.1 When you are dealing with the equivalent of high-functioning alcoholics (which some of my relatives are too–again with the similarities with those who don’t drink)? You are likely to be assumed to be in the wrong for abandoning them.
And we’re back to the helical thinking, coming back around toward social isolation (one of the major topics of that post)–from a slightly different place this time. That will have to wait for another post, though.
But, another related point from Thomas’s Mental Health: American Indian Tribal Societies (from an anthropological rather than psych training perspective):
Now there appears to be a strong paranoid component in most North American Indian normal behavior. If you’re that cued into your relatives you are going to be a little paranoid. But I don’t see that “paranoia” usually reaching abnormal proportions among Indian tribals. Some psychiatrists have commented that there seems to be a schizophrenic component, too, in Indian behavior. I think that is a grave error, bad observation. If you have to keep alert and make sure that you’re getting along with your kin folks, you have to “lay back” and observe. You can’t be coming on like gangbusters all the time. So what appears to be catatonic behavior is misobservation. Tribal Indians may be low key and low cue people, but very much social beings, certainly not catatonic. The “paranoia,’ however, is normal in such a personality and culture.
With the obvious complications from growing up with Emotionally Volatile Bear, while extra-sensitive to and easily overwhelmed by other people’s emotions and with a hard time sorting them out from your own sometimes.
As for the bad interpretations of behavior in clinical settings–and people seeing what they expect to see based on that–I’ve written some about that too. It is a very real problem. And this is part of the reason I have not sought out any kind of professional counselling on my own to try to sort through some things–especially as an autistic person living somewhere with such different cultural expectations than the ones I grew up with. No more presumptions of serious mental illness because of “odd” behavior/descriptions/basic motivations, thank you very much.
EVB, from PSA links: Abuse, and taking care of yourself :
Nobody deserves to live with Emotionally Volatile Bear. (Who can have an ugly side, oh my yes–to the point that I wonder why so many people seem to think it’s cute.) This one can easily turn into “Person politely disagrees with something I say/do/enjoy, they hate me–Must attack”. And, indeed, you are not crazy if you more than occasionally become afraid that EVB is going to swipe your head off–even if they have never lifted their paw to do so. Especially if you have watched them do it to other people.
As seemed to be the case before, hopefully this will provide some food for thought for someone else dealing with a similar situation. Choppy and quote-heavy as it may be. Besides helping me sort things out from a slightly different angle.