With Few Shared Values, I Feel Out of Place in My Family of Origin

I’m hoping you can shed some light on my situation. I’m 33, and I have one older brother and one older sister. I’m close to my dad, less so to my mom, who is in declining health. My situation is that I just don’t feel like I belong in my family anymore. Let me explain. Everyone but me in my family is highly conservative, whereas I’m fiercely liberal. They’re blue-collar folks who never went to college; I was fortunate enough to not only go but get my MBA and, eventually, build a business that employs more than 40 people. When we get together for family dinners and such, they talk about guns and their hunting ambitions; I’m an animal rights advocate and it sickens me to even think about harming an animal for sport. They like to make what I consider racist and inappropriate jokes; I find much of what they say offensive. As you can see, we just don’t have a lot in common. I feel more at home with my wife’s family than I do with my own, and I don’t even like exposing her to them. My family knows where I stand on all these things, that my values are different, yet they persist in their ways when they’re around me. It’s alienating, and it makes me not want to be around them. Yet, I don’t want to lose my roots, my family, my blood. I just don’t know how to handle this. Stop going to family gatherings? Stop calling them? Stop taking their calls? Insulate myself from them? I just don’t know. Any counsel you can provide would be very appreciated. —Misfit
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Dear Misfit,

You are not alone in feeling out of place in your family of origin. Just because we start in one place doesn’t mean that’s where we ultimately end up. As we get older, we often find ourselves spending more time with the family that we have chosen or created. Sometimes that includes the families we came from, but often it does not. It sounds as if your path has taken you in directions that your family members have not shared. It is only natural to feel out of place. It’s great that you feel so comfortable with your wife’s family. What a wonderful resource to have.

I wonder if some of the distress you are feeling comes from a sense of being responsible for the choices your family makes. You talk about not wanting to expose your wife to your family—is that from fear of what she will think of them, and by extension you? Do you believe they present a threat to you, your wife, or your relationship? You are not defined by your family, only by the choices you make. The fact you’ve chosen a path that differs so significantly from your family of origin makes a clear statement about who you are and what you believe. I wonder how much fear of judgment is contributing to the discomfort you are feeling when you are around your family.

Your intolerance for your family suggests that, whether you’re aware of it or not, you are likely grieving your emotional distance from them. I encourage you to identify the pain, fear, or vulnerability which colors the lens through which you view your family. If you can attend to the deeper vulnerability within you, this lens may become clearer, the distance you are feeling may diminish, and along with it—to some degree—your grief. (Of course, there may still be some grieving to do.)

You have many choices as to how you handle family situations. It sounds like it is important to you to retain a sense of your history, your roots, and where you came from. You also mention that your mother’s health is declining. Cutting off your family right now could cause you pretty significant distress. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You can insulate yourself from the discomfort you feel at the differences in your current life choices without cutting yourself off from them.

You seem to be focusing on the ways you differ. Are there things that you share? Even though you don’t share many of the values your family does (politics, animal rights, etc.), are there some things that make you feel connected? Was there something in the way that you were raised that allowed and encouraged you to forge your own path? Are there qualities about your family that you can appreciate?

You seem frustrated by your family’s unwillingness to change their ways when you are with them. Do they expect you to change your ways when you visit or do they accept you as you are? It is possible to love and accept others who don’t believe in what we do or act in ways we would. In fact, once we stop trying to change others and accept them as they are, it can bring significant relief. If we accept that we can love people by virtue of a shared history without necessarily liking them, that can make things easier as well.

If you focus on the qualities you appreciate about your family, on how your experiences in your family shaped the choices you’ve made, you can value your family connections for what they are—part of a shared history. You can also limit how much time you spend with them if being around them causes you distress. Ultimately the shift is not going to come from them—and may not even come from avoiding them. The most impactful shift will be an internal one. You may want to work through some of this with a therapist who can help you integrate your past and your present more peacefully.

Best wishes,
Erika

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
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  • Shay

    Shay

    February 1st, 2014 at 5:50 AM

    I totally understand where you are coming from because I know there have been times when I would have sworn that I was adopted because I am so different from my family! But I get how you ask would they reject me because I feel differently about some things than they do. If I answer that truthfully I know that they wouldn’t so I continue to love them too. It doesn’t mean that I have to agree with what they say but I guess they have as much of a right to feel the way that they do as I do with my own beliefs. It can be a challenge and it can be hard but ultimately I think that you continue to love them because they are your family.

  • Celia J

    Celia J

    February 3rd, 2014 at 4:07 AM

    What’s more important to you? Your vbeliefs or being close to your family? I think that there are ways to maintain both without making any sacrifices. Is there any way to get through the get togethers without having conversations about the things that none of you can seem to agree on? If the topic can just be avoided all together in conversation then maybe this would make all of the family gatherings a little more comfortable for everyone. If you can’t keep those topics at bay, then this could be a good time to simply excuse yourself. Don’t engage because you won’t win, but you could lose any closeness with your family that you are trying hard to maintain.

  • jack

    jack

    February 3rd, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    Haven’t we all felt this way at some point in our lives?
    But that doesn’t mean that it’s time to walk away, just maybe have a talk and tell them how their statements make you feel and if maybe they could just hold off on some of that talk until you aren’t around.

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn

    February 4th, 2014 at 4:04 AM

    So create a new family for yourself. They won’t be blood relatives of course, but surround yourself with friends who do share the same belief sets and values that you do, and make those your new family. They could be searching for the same thing, and it will make the times when you are with your own family more bearable, because you will then have like minded people to go home and share your thoughts with. We don’t have to let people devalue us just because they are related. It might just be time to create a new vision for yourself and with that should probably come some people in your life who will love you for who you are and what you believe. They won’t forever be trying to change your mind!

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