If You Grew Up in a Dysfunctional Family, Your Needs Came After the Adult’s

That’s why you struggle to put yourself first now.

Photo courtesy of Pexels for Canva

Your Needs Came Last

If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, your needs always came after the needs of the adults in the family.  There may have been one parent that was struggling with addiction, a mental disorder, or had narcissistic tendencies.  It could even be that a sibling stole all the attention.  A sibling that had behavior issues, learning disabilities or an illness can distract the attention of everyone.  Either way, everything in the family revolved around that person, and their moods or health.  

When you needed something for school, there wasn’t time to get it.  Your clothes were getting too small, but no one had the time to buy new ones.  Forget getting the love and affection you needed, you barely got your physical needs met.  Or perhaps, all your physical needs were met.  You were well-fed, you had clothes that fit, your teeth and hair were brushed, but you otherwise got no attention.  

No one checked up to see which neighbor’s house you were visiting.  No one cared about a curfew.  You didn’t like the food that was being served for dinner?  Too bad, no one listened to your opinion.  You wanted to go on the school field trip?  Sorry, the permission slip wasn’t signed, and the fee was not paid in time.  No one checked on your grades to see if you were passing.  

You could have had the opposite experience as well.  Maybe, you had to wear what you were told to wear, hang out with the friends you were told to hang out with, and you were forced to eat the foods you didn’t like.  You played sports or instruments you didn’t like, because that was what was expected to get ahead.  Your parents wanted to present the perfect family life, even if it wasn’t so perfect behind the scenes.  You had no choice but to comply.

You learned, your wants and needs came secondary.

As an Adult, You Don’t Know What You Want or Like

Now, you’re an adult, and you have continued to let people ignore your wishes, including yourself.  It’s been a long time since anyone asked or cared what you want or like.  In fact, if someone were to ask you what you want or like, you wouldn’t even know how to answer.  

“What’s your favorite food?” “I don’t know.”  “Where do you like to travel to?” “Umm, let me think about that.” “What’s your dream job?” “Maybe a teacher, no wait, an entrepreneur, or a counselor?  I’m not sure.”

One of my clients, *Melissa, grew up in a home with an addicted parent.  She had a lot of freedom to roam the neighborhood as a kid, but her father was very strict about chores.  They had to be perfect, or she would have to redo them, and hear a long, raging lecture about doing your best.  When he was at work, she could relax, but when he got home, everyone in the family knew to be quiet, do what they were told, and not upset him.  They walked around on “eggshells”.  You didn’t dare complain about dinner, the ironed clothes your mother laid out for you, or how you didn’t like to vacuum the carpet.  

As an adult, Melissa married a man similar to her father.  It felt normal to her.  She thought that’s how men are.  When he got upset and raged about something that went wrong, she would tell the kids to be quiet, cook his favorite meal, and do things to appease him, so he would be in a better mood.  The cycle continued until Melissa was so miserable that she sought out education on emotional abuse and narcissism.  

Melissa now has a better understanding of how her childhood set her up for putting other people’s needs first.  Unfortunately, she’s taught her children some of the same coping skills she learned as a child, like prioritizing the needs of the narcissistic person, and that being “good” means stifling your emotions and being “nice”.  

Melissa doesn’t know if her marriage will last, but she’s seen some improvement.  She’s now modeling for her children that it is okay to put yourself first sometimes.  She takes time for self-care every day.  Melissa also makes time to allow her children to voice their opinions, and she makes sure to acknowledge their emotions.  She’s determined to break the dysfunctional cycle within her family.

Why Putting Yourself First Is a Necessity

Putting yourself first is not selfish.  It is a necessity for emotional, mental, and even physical health.  Think of yourself like a cell-phone.  When you first get your cell phone, the battery lasts for a really long time.  Then, as the storage fills up, and the battery ages, it drains faster and faster.  

You are like that cell phone.  As you grow, and you put other people’s needs before your own for so many years, your battery drains faster and faster.  You become emotionally and mentally exhausted.  Your body floods with cortisol, and inflammation increases.  Then, your physical health starts to decline.  You have IBS, migraines, joint pain, back pain, or some other chronic condition.  

When you plug your cell phone in to a power source, it charges back up and is ready to use again.  If you delete some of the old photos, messages, podcasts, and apps, it stays charged even longer.  

Similarly, when you get a good night of sleep, exercise, spend time outdoors, enjoy laughter with friends, quality time with your family, meditate, and eat a healthy diet, as a few examples, you re-charge.  

When you delete a few toxic people from your life, set some boundaries, and allow more things that bring you joy to take up your time, your energy and happiness increases.  

If you go to the settings on your cell phone, you can allow certain apps to run only when you’re on Wi-Fi.  In your own life, you can allow people that drain you only to have access to you when you say.  

You can see them only on holidays, or when you exchange kids at drop off, for example.  It’s not always possible to cut people out completely, but you can be in charge of how the relationship affects your energy.

When you were a kid, you didn’t have a choice of how and when you spent time with draining people.  You developed coping skills, good or bad.  Now, you do have a choice.  Seek out education and support on childhood trauma, dysfunctional family systems, and narcissism.  

How were your needs ignored as a child? Let me know in the comments.

*Name and some details changed to protect privacy.  See my free and paid resources here.

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