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Does Your Family Focus on Problems?


I often come across clients whose family focus is squarely on their problems. Everyone has to have some or there’s nothing to talk about. This is an example of the victim mentality, with each family member trying to outdo the others in calamities, debacles and bad karma. If this describes your family, it’s time to look at how you’ve been socialized and the negative impact it has on your life, as adults, even now.

In families that overfocus on what’s going wrong in their lives, suffering is king (or queen). If your a/c went out, there’s a sister who’ll do you one better and describe not only how her a/c stopped working, but how the pool has some bacterial contamination that makes it impossible to take a dip. Then your mother will try to go you all one better and up the ante by describing how she had to be abulanced to the hospital because Dad thought she’d had a heart attack.

I’m not making fun of any of these situations. We all have things go awry in our lives and are unhappy when they do. I’m addressing the fact that some family identities are centered around pain and suffering and that connections are around problems not solutions. I’m sure you’ve had the experience (therapists face it all the time) of having someone describe something awful that happened to them and you try to come up with a solution. They ignore what you have to say, even if it’s a brilliant fix for what ails them, and so you try even harder. And this goes on until you are fed up or give up.

There’s nothing wrong with validating family members’ pain and suffering and listening to them vent. We all get by with a little help from our friends or, in this case, relatives. But if you belong to a tribe that thrives on complaining about problems rather than developing solutions, that’s a problem in itself: in order to be accepted into the group, you too need to have your share of crises. This means you need to turn everything that happens into high drama in order to get attention and feel as if you’re part of the pack.

If you dare to do something so outlandish as to solve some of your problems, reduce your suffering, and look on the bright side of life, you may feel better, but you no longer fit in with familial moaners and groaners. They think you’re standoffish or snooty and you think they’re a bunch of whiners who refuse to get their you-know-what together. One day you’re all commiserating nicely together and, just by you becoming a more upbeat, proactive, solution-oriented person, you become persona non-grata. 

Changing is a chance you need to take in order to have a better life. Who knows, maybe you’ll be a role model and family members will one day follow in your footsteps.