Helping Others Grow

Understanding and Managing the Impact from Circuit Breaker and our Families of Origin

We hear from Registered Counselor and founder of Healing Hearts Centre, Abigail Lee, and Pastor Chua Seng Lee of Bethesda (Bedok-Tampines) Church in July's edition of Cru’s “Tuesday Talks” series, as well as input from Registered Counselor and Cru staff, Pamela Koh.

Did you know that going through Circuit Breaker and Phase 1 meant that our families became our only source of physical contact for 73 days?

Being in one space with the same people over an extended period had to be a major adjustment for most of us. Perhaps you or someone in your family had a surprising emotional outburst, or you realise there were certain topics always avoided in conversation?

These patterns, maybe less noticeable before, have surfaced under prolonged interactions at home. Unique to each family, these make up the differences in how we understand emotions, expectations and even the roles (in family, society, etc.) that we’ve learnt to play. 

 

 

The layers that make up who we are

Abigail started off with a definition alignment of ‘family of origin’—that is, the family an individual was born or adopted into and grew up with. “It’s where everything begins and where a lot of ‘firsts’ take place. It’s also where you have the first impression of role modelling for some of the beliefs that shape your behaviour—what’s appropriate for how you should interact with others, the manners you should have.”

She breaks it down into three components of how our families shape us –

1)    Biological

“There is a definite biological component—your genetics, your DNA, your physical attributes; these are all determined by the biological aspect of our family. Even personality traits, medical and mental illness. But the term we use in this context is ‘predisposition’, where an individual might be more inclined towards experiencing that same condition if there has been a history of certain physical or mental illness,” Abigail described.

2)    Emotions and experiences

“We have many experiences with our family of origin—the impact of these experiences, especially in our first 2-3 years shapes the way we feel and express our emotions, the way we communicate with each other, and how we process the impact of life experiences,” Abigail explained.

3)    Beliefs, in terms of our thinking which results in our behaviours

“Our families influence the way we perceive God, others, ourselves, and events that take place. It shapes the way we conduct our lives, which results in certain habits or disciplines forming in our lives. If you’ve noticed, certain families have habits that are very unique to them,” Abigail mused. 

 

 

Do we realise how our internal world has been affected?

“We’ve seen how our families of origin are so powerful in shaping who we are, how we think, behave, and even learn how to deal with emotions and situation. What about this added challenge of being in a crisis?” Abigail asked.

Although we feel the undercurrents of difficulty at home, we may not be able to name or understand it. If we are unable to name or understand it, we probably can’t resolve it. Abigail unpacks just how much the crisis could have potentially affected us.

A) Limited social interaction and connection: Without regular social interaction, we find that bonding, talking, laughing, sharing of pleasant experiences have been minimised

B) Limited physical space navigation: As we move around in our homes limited by space constraints, you may feel like everyone is in everyone’s space and emotions tend to arise in that tension.

C) Impact on hormones: With imposed limitations, we could be experiencing a decrease in dopamine and endorphins (the ‘happy hormones’, which are released when we exercise or eat certain foods) and oxytocin (or the ‘bonding hormone’, released when we are with friends and feel connected).

D) Getting used to the ‘new norm’: Working from home, how do we differentiate the blurred boundary of personal time at home from work time? With online services, we’ve also got to get used to less interaction from our church mates and friends.”

 

 

What does this mean for us?

With all these going on inside, as we are dealing with the family around us, some of us may be asking—"why do I keep getting triggered by my family?”, “how do I manage conflicts with loved ones when it triggers these intense emotions in me?”

“Sitting with negative emotions is unpleasant and many of us may find it difficult. So we may prefer not to feel, to repress or numb these negative emotions so we can “move on”, Pamela explained. This was very doable prior to the Circuit Breaker, where the hustle and bustle of city life distracted us, and we could simply move from one thing to another.

Perhaps what has been revealed through this extended time of staying at home is that we never really “move on”. Pamela continued, “Because we continue to carry around these unhealed wounds. We could have unconsciously developed unhealthy ways of coping with negative emotions or used distractions to keep us from feeling those emotions. Yet these emotions are simply sending us a message, and if we can learn to “befriend” them, they can lead us to become more aware of the unhealed wounds in us that need to be attended to.”

This involves the tricky business of learning to face up to the impact—the conflict, our feelings, the behaviour or words that hurt us. So often we simply stick to the “Christian” way of thinking; maybe because it’s the rhetoric that we’ve been told over and over, or that we don’t even know where to start to process. But that is neither helpful nor enough. Truly learning to care for our souls is much more than just slapping on a convenient plaster of “God is good” or “Jesus is the answer”.

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While keeping biblical truths as our foundation, it is still necessary for us to face and deal with the hurts and pains that we have. Jesus, our perfect example, did not rush through His negative feelings—He often withdrew by Himself (Matthew 14:13), He lamented to God (Hebrews 5:7), and He prayed in anguish (Luke 22:44).

Sometimes, these hurts are not even on our consciousness but may have been brought out during this extended time with our families. Pamela shares that these unknown and unhealed wounds are one of the reasons we get triggered:

"These could be old wounds in our hearts caused by our loved ones that we never really healed from. That’s why I always say, you got to ‘feel it, to heal it’. Only when we are willing to remove the ‘quick fixes’ and intentionally attend to the wounds, that healing happens at the root.”

In a simple framework to help process these, Abigail suggests the following—

  • Identify the stressors: what was the event that caused you to feel this way?
  • Take personal responsibility: at an appropriate time, express and release the negative emotions
  • Learn to be kind to yourself and others: if you are expressing this to a family member, find a time when you have calmed down (i.e. not emotional) and communicate with them in a respectful and loving manner

Pamela added, “When wounds are healed, it opens up new possibilities in relationships with our loved ones—of forgiveness and conciliation, of letting go defenses, increased vulnerability, authenticity and acceptance of one another.”

 

 

What are some practical handles we can put in place for our families?

Abigail and Ps Chua Seng Lee provide us with some other tips to help ourselves manage better through difficult times*.

Coming from the perspective of safeguarding emotional wholeness, Ps Chua referenced 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “Caring for ourselves involves three things, your body, soul and spirit. Ignoring any area will limit the effectiveness of healing.”

Although basic, caring for our bodies and being mindful about getting enough rest, food, sleep and communication are critical in safeguarding our wellbeing. Abigail added, “Keeping a routine can help to mitigate uncertainty and anxiety. It’s also important to find time to do outdoor activities and connect with people in our support system.”

“For believers, caring for our spirit is making sure that we are connected with God,” Ps Chua shared. He brought up two main ways to build up our relationship with God: through repentance (Isaiah 30:15) and worship (Psalm 16:11).

Finally, being in a culture where emotions are perhaps not as easily accessible or communicated, some tips on working towards taking care of our souls as a family include:

  • Ensure each family member has their own ‘me-time’/’me-space’—e.g. each family member demarcates a specific place in the home where they are not to be interrupted when they’re there.
  • Promote emotionally responsive and supportive home environments—e.g. allow children to express their feelings (both positive and negative), have quality times of sharing and processing through feelings.
  • Understand each family members’ ‘emotional bank’ (i.e. what makes them feel loved/how well they’re doing that day/what can be done when they’re at a low point), and even set up a family ‘emotional bank’
  • Plan times of joint activities that the family can enjoy and have fun together (which also serves the purpose of increasing oxytocin!)
  • Put in family reminders to remember what your unique family stands for, especially during hard times.

 

*Please note that these handles are more suited for dealing with emotional wellbeing issues in the family. In the case of hostile/violent family situations where physical safety is a concern, or for debilitating mental conditions where daily life and functions are hindered, please seek professional help.

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