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Social Change Activists, Self-Care, & Psychotherapy

How Healing Your Dysfunctional Family's Legacy Creates a Better World

photo courtesy of Vlad Tchompalov, Unsplash

Being a political activist, a social change-maker, can be discouraging, disturbing, and discombobulating. For so many reasons. The work is often thankless, exhausting, and endless. 

You’ve likely heard of the need for self-care. That you should take time to rest your weary bones and nourish your aching heart. That if you’re depleted and despairing, you will not be the most effective or influential. 

Perhaps you understand this and are able to take breaks and find ways to stay energized and hopeful. Good. But even self-care may not be enough. 

If you find that you’re constantly angry, frustrated, and fearful, or if your fellow activists are often seeming like your dysfunctional family, I have a suggestion for you. 

Try psychotherapy.

Now I know what you’re thinking: I don’t have the time or the money for years of analysis. Or: I know that my family was full of crazies. Why do I need to rehash old stories? What good will it do? Or: The past is over. Live in the now. Think positive thoughts. People in therapy are self-absorbed losers.

I get it. And I know that I’m biased. I’m a psychotherapist, after all. But let me tell you what I’ve seen. In myself and my clients. Over many years.

Our families shape our perceptions of ourselves. If our parents are fearful, shame-based, angry, or abusive, our vulnerable young selves can’t help but absorb variations of that same fear, shame, and rage. We can’t help but interpret the dysfunction to mean that there’s something wrong with us or that we’re at fault because we are being abused or neglected or misunderstood. The effects can be deep and lasting because our parents are all-powerful to us, we’re in these families for years, and our sense of identity is heavily influenced by the behaviors, beliefs, and emotions of our caretakers. 

What often happens when we become adults, is that we relive and re-enact these patterns and beliefs, even when we swear we’ll never be like our parents and we move miles away from them. We may unconsciously pick abusive partners, passive-aggressive friends, or angry bosses. We may live in fear of disappointing our parents, have recurring panic attacks, abuse substances, hate our jobs, or live depressed and desperate lives always seeking but never finding the parental acceptance and love that we were denied. 

What can you do? Not only for yourself but for the world that you’re out to change?

Unravel this misunderstanding of who you are. Undo the damage. Heal your broken heart. 

And, in my humble opinion, that requires good psychotherapy. Or Diving into the Wreck as poet Adrienne Rich describes it. 

This can be a scary proposition.  Diving into your wreck. It can take time. Even if you’re a fast learner. The process is often slow and complicated. You may get impatient and think you’re doing it wrong. You may have times when you’re feeling overwhelming sadness. You may wonder why the hell you thought that hanging out in a wreck was such a good idea.

But, eventually, you’ll find that it’s worth the time, money, and tears. You’ll notice changes in your inner and outer worlds. Healthy relationships. Less anxiety. Good boundaries. Moments of gratitude and joy. Well-adjusted kids. Expanded creativity, intuition, and spirituality.

You’ll discover who you really are. Your authentic, smart, creative self. You will have stopped the legacy of dysfunction that was handed down to you from your parents and their parents before them. You will have interrupted a deep-seated unhealthy pattern in your family line. 

And trust me. This is a big accomplishment. 

And that’s not all.

As, as a social change-maker, your energy and enthusiasm will improve. You will act from this healed place rather than from a place of need, rage, fear, or guilt. Your fellow activists will stop looking like your dysfunctional family. 

And even if your cohorts still do look a little like your needy mother or your angry father, it’ll be OK. You’ll be OK. Because, while swimming around in your wreck, you will have found the jewels. 

And they are magnificent.




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