Published On: Thu, Nov 23rd, 2023

Ask Sahaj: Family time feels ‘performative’ and ‘oppressive’

Ask Sahaj: Family time feels ‘performative’ and ‘oppressive’
Ask Sahaj: Family time feels ‘performative’ and ‘oppressive’

Dear Sahaj: I am wondering if it’s normal for families to feel anxious about performing acts of togetherness. On both my husband’s and my own side of the family, it seems like we all feel some sort of desperation to perform acts of togetherness beyond our normal joy of actually being together.

On my husband’s side, it seems to be driven by their status as immigrants in this country — feeling pulled apart by the trauma of leaving the old world behind and desperate to pull the family together in the new world.

For my family, it seems to be a result of the loss of our parents — the trauma of losing the center of our family unit and the desperation to hold onto the memories and sense of self they gave us.

In both cases, while we honestly love each other and enjoy spending time together, this unity sometimes ends up feeling performative, oppressive and punitive. It’s frankly tiring. We have to continuously prove we are committed to the group or else become the black sheep. Is this normal?

— Family Unity or Family Oppression?

Family Unity or Family Oppression?: Is it normal? It’s normal in that it’s expected in your family. But what is “normal” is unique to each family. Instead of focusing on if your family functions normally, I encourage you to consider how the way your family functions impacts you.

I think what you actually want to know is whether this is healthy. You feel anxious and stifled by your family’s need to be together.

I also sense a bit of grief over significant changes and loss in your families — yet feeling like a level of real closeness isn’t quite there.

It’s possible some family members don’t have the emotional maturity to be in truly intimate relationships. Consider if there are other characteristics of the family that make spending that much time together feel wrong. If there’s a lack of boundaries or communication, or inflexibility, unbalanced power dynamics or you’re discouraged from having a life outside the family, know that these relationships are dysfunctional.

Just because some parts of a family feel less healthy, doesn’t mean the whole family is unhealthy. It’s important to dig deeper into what specifically doesn’t feel good to you.

Are there certain people in your family who have more control than others? Is communication encouraged? Are individual needs valued and respected by everyone?

By getting clarity on the particulars, you can build better ways to navigate these interactions with family members. This may also mean you start nurturing other relationships that fill your cup — with your husband and with your friends.

Of course, you love your family, but you clearly want to be able to make decisions based on your priorities and needs. There is a difference between feeling required to do things and actually wanting to do things.

Think about small ways to make changes that feel doable for you. You can’t change everyone in your family, but you can change how you and your husband manage your time.

Create structure around seeing your families — like proposing a biweekly or monthly dinner. That creates an expectation around seeing each other — so saying no to the things in-between feels less bad.

Finally, consider if a change of environment or activity can help you feel closer and more joy with your family, rather than doing the same thing together. Sometimes it helps to shake traditions up a little.

Have a question for Sahaj? Ask her here.

You and your husband should discuss this together and figure out if you feel similarly and how to safeguard one another with your respective families.

You both have been complicit in maintaining these frustrating family dynamics because of a real fear of what will happen if you say no. I am curious if a fear of being a “black sheep” has been established in your family? What happens if someone in your family acts in a way that is different, new or unfamiliar? I wonder if there’s precedent for your fear, or if you have a general fear of saying no and setting boundaries?

Your fear of letting your family members down is palpable. You have to learn how to build tolerance for disappointing others; it doesn’t mean you are unkind or a bad relative.

Right now your family interactions are draining you, not nurturing you. Rather than worrying about the quantity of time spent with them, focus on making it quality time instead.

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