Article By: Dr. Martha Durham
Contributing Writer

Personal responsibility, accountability, insight, and change are essential goals in therapy. Even if a client (child or adult) has been wronged, neglected, or abused, these concepts help clients build a stronger foundation to recover and avoid future situations that could lead to trauma. It can seem contradictory to a hurting client and family that changing something within themselves can help them heal and prevent what happened to them. If not explained with great care, it can seem that a therapist is saying they played or could play a part in their hurt. The truth is that they need to understand that they have the personal power to stand up, avoid, or fight the types of people and
situations that have led to their trauma.  

To help clients understand how they can wield power they did not know they had, I investigate family history, which includes family structure and belief system. If a client is very young, this history comes from parents unless the child is old enough to be an accurate historian. Commonly, in the telling of family history, it becomes clear that many of the immediate and extended family members are not equipped to pass on healthy coping mechanisms. Often, generational traumas are not addressed in these families. The mere act of coming in for help is usually an indicator that the parent may be the healthiest member of their family. When my client or their parents have grown up in such a system, they may be labeled the “odd one,” “black sheep,” or “the problem.” That pressure from a sick system can negatively affect a client. They come in talking about all their faults because that is what that system has told them repeatedly.  

Before I go on, some critical therapeutic processes help weed out clients who do have serious issues that they need to address so that they are not actually “the problem.” I will address that situation in a future article. Please do not assume that a seasoned therapist cannot discern if a client is the problem. Harsh as that may sound, sometimes we are the problem. Stay tuned for that topic.
When I encounter a sick system (a dysfunctional family), I use the example of Cousin Marilyn from the Munsters as an illustration that resonates with clients and hopefully is funny because laughter can be the best medicine. When I pull up this picture, usually right after hearing a long history of family dysfunction, I say, “Who are you in this picture?” Many clients point to Cousin Marilyn and say, “That’s me!” At that point, I asked, “How do you think Marilyn feels growing up with her family?” Clients understand the comparison and often say, “Like something was wrong with her!” Yes! That is how it feels to be the healthier member of a sick system. A client may be lonely and believe that something is wrong with you. You need to follow the Munster rules, or you will be cast out. My next question is usually, “So what do you think Marilyn realizes when she walks outside and interacts with people outside of her family?” Usually, clients
say some variation of, “Oh my gosh, it isn’t me, it’s them!”

This awakening process does not happen in the first few sessions because it takes time to gather history and observe a client through this process. When you realize you are sitting in front of a relatively healthy, stable, well-balanced person, a process of education and understanding must take place.  

First, therapy is often the only way a person can get constructive, honest, unbiased feedback about an issue. It is beneficial to have another person (someone who does not know you) discuss a problem and shed light on a problem. It is often surprising to folks when I say, “Your momma may love you, but she is biased and has an agenda for you.” It’s true; sometimes, you need someone other than your momma to help you navigate a problem, issue, idea, etc. Listen, Mom’s (I always capitalize Mom), I am you. I am a mom, and I support and respect you, so I am not saying that my mom (parents) is wrong. Kids and young adults often need a sounding board other than you. I don’t usually offend the Moms who grew up in sick systems because they are trying to ensure their child does not, so they collaborate with me to best help their child.
Second, we all have issues. That’s right, you have issues. How we deal with those issues makes us look, act, and feel “crazy.” By the way, I mean no disrespect when I use the word “crazy.” I am not a fan of the word, but I use it to make you smile. I take mental health issues very seriously. Learning about the sick family system and how it led to unhealthy coping mechanisms is the first step in changing.
The third step is making the change and sometimes, sadly, leaving the sick system to build a strong, healthy system or learning how to wear an emotional suit of armor when operating in the system (family get-togethers, holidays, etc). The key to understanding whether you must leave a sick system is if you will be poisoned if you stay. If the family still in a sick system can learn and honor your boundaries for you and your family, then staying is a real option. Leaving may be the only choice if those family members only attack when clients attempt to set boundaries.  Any well-trained therapist can help a client stay within boundaries or leave if the system is toxic and
Next month, “What if I AM the problem?”

By Published On: May 2, 2024Categories: Mommy & Me

About the Author: Dr. Martha Durham

Dr. Martha Durham is a licensed psychologist (SC#981) in Greenville, SC. Dr. Durham is a past President of The SC Psychological Association, a former member of the SC Board of Examiners in Psychology and The National Alliance on Mental Illness (Greenville). She is also a contributing expert on local news segments, in newspaper and journal articles and has a recurring appearance on WSPA-TV, Your Carolina, Kid’s Corner.

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