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You Don’t Have To Be Your Crazy Family’s Packmule (or anyone else’s)


Family dynamics can be rough and even rougher on into adulthood.  If your family is governed by judgement, blame or scapegoating it begs the question “Do I simply embrace and accept this because this is flesh and blood?” or “Do I walk from this because it doesn’t serve them or me?”  No family is perfect.  You know that.  A good enough amount of attuned relating and a felt sense of belonging are the magic glue that keep messy imperfect families thriving.  Some families just don’t have this glue.

If you came from the kind of family where basic kindness wasn’t on offer and it continues to break bad now that you are an adult you may need to unlearn some things in order to find a self that isn’t ruled by the bind of crazy family. And it can be hard.  The dynamics are exhausting at best, leave us unrecognizable to ourselves at worst. Malnourishment becomes habit that you seek out and recreate. 

Packmule syndrome: the shape shifting adults do in crazy families. You pack your family’s psychological turds around on your back.  Over time you believe the stink is yours. Sure you have your own stank (we all do)…but when you carry your family’s shit for as long as you have it is hard to grow a healthy sense of self because you can’t see your shit from their shit. You need some distance (and a shower) and likely a good therapist.  

You make your first wobbly attempts at setting limits with your family or those chosen as their stand ins in your life. Brace yourself.  Call in support.  No one wants their excrement back.  As you change your dynamic with your family you may be met with some unkind words.

“You are _______________.”  (insert name calling…too needy, too angry, a jerk.)
“Shame on you for setting limits.”
“Get over it!”
“What is wrong with you?”
“You owe it to me because we are flesh and blood.”

What will you do now?  Will you continue packing their turds around so you can feel noble and self righteous?  Will you buy into their thinking that you are the stinky problem and become a victimized martyr?  Or will you get enraged and scream“fuck you” at the top of your lungs?  Likely you will do a little bit of all of these.  Or maybe you have made it through the initiation and you are ready now to reclaim your humanity and stop being that damn pack mule.  If you are, read on.  Or you may need to spend more time doing all those other things first.  I get it.  Come back here when you are ready.

Step 1: You are good.

No, not perfect. But you are good.  And I am so sorry.  I am really sorry the love you want is not on offer from family. If they could have done better they would have. You are ready now. Let’s take the pack off.  Here let me help you slide it off your donkey back and soothe your pack sores.  Sadly, your family is likely never going to be different.  Our hope keeps us painfully walking on all fours.

Step 2: You deserve to be loved.

Get a piece of paper and fill up the page with “I deserve to be loved”.  Write in color.  Write large and small. Write neat.  Write messy. “You do you” as the kids say these days.  Ask people who know and love you if you need help. Ready?

I deserve to be loved. I deserve to be loved.  I DESERVE TO BE LOVED.

Step 3: How do you want to be loved?

Write down the answers to the following questions about loving you.  What are the attributes of a person who is good at loving you? How do they respond to you when you are emotionally messy, anxious, clingy, intellectual, self-critical, scared etc. ? Who in your life might already respond to you like this?  Where might you meet people that love like this?  How can you be on the lookout for them?

Step 4: Compassion far.

It is odd to think that your family deserves to be loved like this too.  It was probably the stuff they didn’t get along the way that led to their limitations with you.  But a great way to keep your pack off is to send a wish of goodwill to them.  Doing this last bit is one of the kindest ways to return psychological material to the rightful owner and one of the cleanest ways to create some emotional distance.  The Dalai Lama calls this compassion far: “I have compassion for you because you are human and you have suffered.  I don’t need to be close to be compassionate.”

Step 5: Fact check.

Be on the lookout for false stories your brain may tell from time to time.  You might imagine, without much evidence, that those around you are judging you or harming you the way your family did. When in doubt, check it out.  If your stories are confirmed, step away and revisit your “how I want to be loved list” and practice compassion far.

In the end, all families fail from time to time.  But if your family experience left you load-weary and you are tired of walking on all fours, take off the pack and stand up.  The pack isn’t yours.  Remember, you are good.  You deserve to be loved.  As you become conscious of how you pack turds for for way too many people and instead start handing them back or not carrying them at all you will be in the final liberation phase.  Sure.  The imprinting of a crazy family is deep, but it isn’t forever.  May you rise up onto your legs and stand tall with love and dignity.

Traci Ruble

Traci Ruble

Traci is a therapist and the CEO of PSYCHED & Managing Director of Sidewalk Talk. Her therapy work is centered around working with couples and individuals working on their relationships. Her many years in corporate life make her a good match for executives and leaders.

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