We don’t get to choose our parents, or any of our family, really. We arrive on Earth with a predetermined family tree and story, and what happens from there is entirely variable. It’d be great if each one of us ended up in families where we’re loved unconditionally, accepted in our wholeness, have all our needs met, and can form healthy attachment styles with the people we share DNA with. But sadly, this isn’t a guarantee. Humans are imperfect, and as such they’re not all going to perform to the same levels.
Humans also have varying experiences that determine a lot of how they act, how they make sense of the world, and how they raise their offspring. Culture and religion play a part, too. There’s a lot that goes into what makes a family’s dynamic, and none of us has any control over it before we arrive here.
But what about after we get here? After we get settled in, figure our own individual identities out and how they relate to the world, what then? What if the family we were assigned to fails us? The narrative around family in society suggests that we’re supposed to stick with our family no matter how flawed they are. Some of our communities encourage us to disregard family dysfunction, almost suggesting that love is truer or more genuine the more you can excuse abuse, neglect, harmful attachment styles, manipulation, or other psychologically, physically, or emotionally degrading behaviors. Some older family members might see their mistreatment of younger members as justified for no reason other than because it was what they witnessed as they grew up in the same family and continuing traditions is important. Conversely, in some families, younger members exploit older members to the point of elder abuse, and bystanders often serve as enablers through their inaction.
Even if you do identify that your family is dysfunctional – that there are patterns you’re forced to accept that you cannot, that you want better – that’s not a short, bright, glittery path to walk. It often includes being cast out, trying to explain yourself to no avail; your family members who swore allegiance to you when your words and actions suited them could show zero empathy; or worse, you might even find that some of your relatives weaponize other family members against you (flying monkeys, anyone?), making it difficult to continue in the relationships you do want.
But there is a reality where you can be happy despite not having the best relationship with the people you share DNA with. For one, DNA shouldn’t be a fast pass to your life’s inner circle; you give people way too much agency over you if you organize your life based on absolutes like this. Family can and should be subject to the same test of loyalty and decency we put our prospective friends and romantic partners through. And when we locate people who tick the green flag boxes – we can trust them; they celebrate our wins and help us strategize away from our losses; they don’t try to hold us back because of their insecurities; they celebrate our growth, or at the very least, they don’t try to get in the way of our growth, happiness, or freedom – we should still allow those bonds to develop gradually and naturally. The relationships that are truly worthwhile and valuable do not form in a rush.
We all deserve to be able to belong to something. We deserve to have a group, of the size of our choosing, who we can turn to when we want to be vulnerable, when we have things to celebrate, or when we simply need to step “off” the stage and be who we are in private. I embrace that, especially if it’s something you’re longing for. As an only child who was raised far away from extended family, most of whom lacked the means or desire to visit, I didn’t have many people who shared my DNA who I was geographically close with as I grew up. This only got worse as scores of people in my family died off at young ages and relationships changed. Choosing my family was necessary for me as I wanted support through my endeavors from people who could appropriately understand the depth those endeavors held for me. I wanted to share my life with people who didn’t feel offended or intimidated by my achievements. I wanted to have people I could share social intimacy with like siblings, even though I have none. I needed elders I could ask questions to as I aged who wouldn’t bombard me with irrational judgment as a response.
Being the first in my family to graduate from a university puts me in an awkward spot with my parents. I don’t think they hate me for going to college, but we definitely don’t have as much in common because of it, and I am certain that my perspective on life after college baffles them because it strays from the church-based ideologies they are most comfortable with.
But I wasn’t willing to accept that just because I am an only child who grew up far away from most other relatives and happened to graduate from college a few times meant that I was forever damned to an eternity of celebrating holidays alone or with my spouse and/or children if I eventually had them. So, I started choosing my family. At first, I was terrible at it. Discernment is a skill that takes time and experience to cultivate. I didn’t always choose well at first, but I got better once I started choosing based on what my internal compass guided me towards instead of what external factors pushed me towards.
My discernment also got better the more progress I made at doing deep personal work to confront my insecurities, triggers, and biases with the help of a licensed mental health professional. I didn’t “cure” myself of these flaws, but I did get a better understanding of them so that I could find ways to not allow them to rule my life anymore. Through time, I started noticing that my discernment improved, and I also noticed that I had more in common with the people around me the longer I stayed committed to living my truth. Perhaps it’s that the people I was incompatible with fell away as they saw me change, or it could be that my focus on growth and healing meant I abandoned a lot of these relationships by refusing to allocate any of my time to them. Maybe it’s a little bit of both, but what is clear is that my circle of support – those friends and few relatives whom I can count on – is much better today than it was a decade ago, signaling that at some point my choices, in how to spend my time and who to spend it with, also improved. A win is a win.
So, I empower all those reading this who ended up in families with people who are incapable of, or perhaps simply disinterested in, providing healthy support to acknowledge and hang on to the ones who do support you. It’s okay if those people don’t have the same last name as you or if their skin tone isn’t the same as yours. The human experience isn’t meant to be an isolated one; if you find someone or a group of someones who like you for you, embrace it. #RelationshipGoals is having 100% of the relationships in your life be with people you don’t have to change yourself for.