Unspoken Family Rules. What are they?
Every family has them, but no one ever talks about them. They remain, by definition, unsaid.
Sometimes they’re positive and healthy. Other times, they are toxic.
Either way, these powerful messages from your childhood home plant themselves into the base of your brain and become an unconscious part of how you live in the adult world; perhaps even embedded in your very sense of who you are: your identity.
Read through the list below, and see if any of these unspoken family rules speak to you. Did your family adhere to one, two or even more?
As you read through the list, write down any messages that feel familiar. These are the messages that run through your head, affecting your choices, emotions, and life to this very day.
Becoming aware of these powerful unconscious rules can free you up to override them. You can take control of them and counter them instead of letting them run your life.
Examples of Unspoken Family Rules
The family comes first.
Wanting something is selfish.
Needing something is selfish.
Emotions are a sign of weakness.
Needs are a sign of weakness.
Don’t ask questions.
Don’t have needs.
Negative emotion is harmful to those around you.
Don’t bring any pain to this house.
Always act like everything is OK, even when it’s not.
Don’t talk about anything meaningful.
Don’t refer to anything negative.
Don’t rock the boat.
No fighting (conflict) is allowed.
Don’t make noise.
Don’t rock the boat.
Keep your problems to yourself.
Handle it yourself.
Don’t talk about uncomfortable things.
Silence is bad. Always fill it.
Don’t do better than your parents.
Don’t outshine others in the family.
Whoever yells the loudest wins.
Don’t upset your father (or mother).
Don’t trust anyone outside the family.
Certain things must be kept a secret from everyone outside of the family.
Act like you don’t see ______.
Your friends will betray you. You can only rely on your family.
It doesn’t hurt to twist the truth now and then.
White lies are okay.
All lies are okay.
If we don’t acknowledge it, it’s not real.
Each of these powerful messages does a particular type of damage. Each sets you up to do the wrong thing in your adult life.
The messages above the line are the distinct messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. They all set you up to sacrifice yourself for what feels like the greater good…the good of the family. Keep your needs and feelings to yourself, don’t cause problems, don’t share, show or (perhaps) even feel emotions, especially when they’re negative.
These messages, in adulthood, make you feel deeply and personally invalid; like you don’t stand on equal ground with everyone else. As an adult, you will struggle with the 10 Characteristics of the CEN Adult outlined in the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, like a lack of emotional awareness, self-awareness, self-knowledge, and a deep feeling of being different and flawed and on your own.
The messages below the line all set you up to pretend, deny, or twist reality, tiptoeing around people instead of challenging them. Keep the family secrets at all costs, or don’t trust anyone who is not family.
These messages will drive you to make decisions you’re not proud of, put your family before yourself even when it’s harmful, and have problems with excessive emotional expression.
All of the messages have the power to make you feel confused, unhappy, and bad about yourself. All of them will cause you to have problems with social and emotional skills.
All of them can be overridden by you.
4 Steps to Override Your Unspoken Family Rules
1. Become aware of the rules that are in your head. Keep your list easily accessible, and review it often.
2. Pay attention: Notice when one of these rules speaks to you. Awareness is half the battle.
3. Make up an opposing, healthy rule to counteract each unhealthy one. For example,
Don’t talk about _________
Talk about __________.
Negative emotion is harmful to those around you
Negative emotion is not harmful to those around you, if you express it in a healthy way.
4. Make an effort to learn the skills you missed in childhood: the purpose, value, and validity of your emotions. Your feelings will guide you if you only start to listen to them, use them and manage them. It’s never too late to learn those skills.
For help in learning emotional skills, and overriding powerful messages from childhood, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn much more about how CEN affects your family relationships now, your marriage and your own parenting and how to heal it, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.
Did you grow up with an unspoken family rule that’s not listed here? If so, please share it with us by posting it in a comment below.
A version of this article first appeared on psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.