Did you know it is possible to be psychologically more mature than your parents? A famous family systems theorist, Murray Bowen, described the psychological predicament that is faced by a child who becomes more grown-up than the parents.
A high level of psychological maturity means resilience and an ability to do your own thing. Mature people solve problems energetically, handle stress that would floor a lesser being, and create lives that are rewarding by any scale. They have a strong natural interest in life and are able to stand on their own two feet earlier than most. They are usually very psychologically aware and are often the most accomplished members of their family.
Unfortunately, when people like this come from an emotionally enmeshed family, their strengths paradoxically can mean they are given less attention. The most dysfunctional family members take up all the family energy while the more stable, mature children are left to fend on their own. These kids often have an empty spot inside, sensing a deep lack of their parents’ interest. Involvement from parents is the one accomplishment they cannot force into being.
For these people, it is as though their ability to be self-sufficient renders them emotionally invisible to the rest of the family. This often happens when their parents have strong co-dependent characteristics, meaning that they derive their worth and purpose from having weaker people need them. These kinds of parents are not especially excited by a successful child’s accomplishments, yet they get intensely focused on family members who are in some kind of trouble. Creating trouble is an asset in this sort of family system because it elicits such strong caretaking.
The disinterest these families can show in the face of the mature child’s success is dumbfounding. It is as though the emotionally mature child’s real capability is brushed off while a needy family member’s dysfunction takes first place. This can feel grossly unfair, since the mature child is often more loyal and helpful than the problem person.
More mature children can exhaust themselves in a fruitless search for parental recognition. Fruitless, that is, unless the capable child finally breaks down from the stres of over-giving and becomes symptomatic, emotionally or physically. Then the family may turn into Johnny-on-the-spot, showing concern and helpfulness. Actually, the reason they respond is because the overwhelmed mature child just shrank back to a size the family could relate to.
It can be a hurtful, confusing thing for psychologically mature people to understand that their parents can only relate to them if they stay small or dysfunctional in some way. You’d think the opposite would be true, that the parents would cherish the more mature child who was making it on his or her own. In many families, this is the case. Plenty of families can take care of challenging family members and still enjoy their healthy kids. But in the co-dependent family system, the problem-person is the only real attention-getter. Everything in this family circus revolves around someone’s dysfunction, even though the act has been going on for years.
With a family like this, it is easy to get the idea that staying small is the best way to stay safe in the world. Further enhancing one’s life starts to feel especially lonely, synonymous with abandonment. Sadly, children can discover that getting bigger in their lives—knowing who they are and what they want—will only lead to a weird kind of disinterest from their parents. They learn that although they can pile on success, they can’t force family attention.
These accomplished people can feel a special kind of emotional deprivation. They have a strong ego and a hurting heart. They are too mature to seek attention by becoming a problem themselves and probably couldn’t pull it off anyway (too responsible.) So they subconsciously opt for a lesser compromise, not growing too big nor being fully happy. They also let others have the center ring. Unfortunately, they can grow up to create the same scenario in their own families. They act as the stable, supportive adult while others get away with all kinds of bad behavior because doggone it, they are just so needy and special.
It may not look like these capable people are limiting themselves because their outer life is done so well. It is amazing what these people can handle. But the keeping-small urge can be seen at those moments when they pull back from bigger chances at happiness and success, whether in work or relationships. They live with a chronic sense of having missed out on their biggest happiness, as though a crucial part of themselves has not been allowed to express.
Often these valuable, psychologically mature children live their lives looking back over their shoulder, still wishing the family had a place for them. But they need to give up the chase for parental recognition and get back to being as big as they possibly can. There is usually not much for them at home and no recognition for what it has cost them to stay small for so long. Remaining small will never guarantee love in a dysfunctional family because the co-dependent parent will always ignore the stronger child and turn toward the weakest, squeakiest wheel. Anyway, it is hard for emotionally mature people to sub-perform; they can’t help but see what needs to be done and do it.
If you are one of these people, my advice is to develop yourself as fast as you can. Take those classes, write that book, start that business, and learn that language. Expand yourself just because you can and because you were born to. The family circus may not appreciate your worth, but you can. You weren’t put on this earth to fit into your family. You were put on this earth to grow into yourself.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Virginia Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.