Mind Matters — Systemic Dysfunction, Families and Otherwise

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” says the news announcer on the radio as I drive. Of course, this phrase these days almost exclusively refers to the U.S. Armed Services’ so-called “solution” of accepting gays in the military by denying that they are there. It’s akin to the denial found in many a dysfunctional family.

Alcoholic families, families where there is sexual abuse or physical abuse or both know this mantra “don’t ask, don’t tell” very well. Its corollary is “shoot the messenger if the truth be told.” Dysfunctional family systems and dysfunctional institutional systems operate similarly.

However, sometimes the avoidance of truth in a family is not a coverup of anything debilitating to the family. In fact, acceptance of the secret situation would indicate a highly differentiated and mentally healthy system, a system where individuals could have a sense of belonging while able to be self-actualized at the same time. When families can accept the coupling of their children to persons of a different faith, or same gender, or different culture or race (actually, genetically and scientifically speaking, “race” is an obsolete nomenclature signifying very superficial differences), then thse families have a tolerance for differentiation and flexibility. And this is healthy!

When families can face their problems and struggles, that is healthy too. Rather than denying that Dad is alcoholic, when family members can address the illness, they are all getting free of the burden of denials. Families, in their dysfunctional moments, can attempt to deny all sorts of stressors. “Let’s pretend Mother doesn’t have cancer.” “Let’s not tell grandma she’s dying, and we don’t believe it either.” Don’t let Dad know you had a fender bender.” “Let’s pretend that Auntie way up the family tree didn’t commit suicide—after all, it was so long ago.” Creating a family mythology around such lies embeds a subtle toxin into the fabric of life.

How ironic that we tell our little children not to lie and deny, meanwhile setting our own duplicitous example. Would that the military and other institutions recognize that denying the individuality of a person doesn’t serve the health of the system any more than it would serve the health of the family system.

Relationship and connection depend on acceptance and openness, not denial and avoidance. For health’s sake, do tell!