As a counselor, I am usually the one who asks the questions. I often joke that I get paid for each question I ask. That’s why I ask so many good questions.
Recently a client asked me a perplexingly simple question I didn’t have an answer for.
My client previously discussed how she believes her family is “dysfunctional.” We then talked about the word, it felt like a psycho babble cuss-word. That is, when you are mad at someone, you call them dysfunctional. The word has taken on many meanings in our culture, including someone who is:
- Unable to handle life
- Poor at relationships and intimacy
- Being an emotional mess
- Not normal
- Not like the rest of us
As a therapist I confront this concept every time it comes up in conversation. It is a word that creates a wasteland of comparison, judgment, shame, and the conclusion that we are a messed up, abnormal person.
My client is only 15, but she is wise beyond her years. So here is the question she asked:
“What is a functioning member of society, anyway?”
I told her it was a good question.
We explored how no one is normal and how that is normal. I encouraged her to think about her life, her substance use, her family relationships and what she can do to become more of the person that she wants to be.
Our conversation got me thinking about a crucial aspect of what therapy is. It also made me ruminate on how we use this idea of “dysfunction” to avoid responsibility for our happiness.
Responsibility Will Set You Free
Therapy should help us become better functioning in our relationships and our work lives. It is about learning to be a better human being.
One of Freud’s accomplishments was to simplify what it means to be a functioning human. He boiled it down to the core: Love and work are the cornerstone of our humanness.
You are responsible for yourself, for how you love, and for your work. That’s pretty simple.
Being functional should be about learning to be free to be who you are. Taking time to identify what you are responsible for can set you free. That may sound counter intuitive in our commitment-averse culture. Sometimes we get the message that freedom is cutting loose and having few responsibilities.
In my practice as an addiction therapist, I often see the wreckage that results from disregarding responsibilities, throwing off all of our limits, and following our impulses. Happiness is not found in a bottle, a pill bottle or at the end of a needle. We find our way back to happiness when we reach the point where we admit that doing whatever we want is not enough.
Take a moment and consider two questions:
What are each one of us responsible for?
Is it for things that lead to our happiness, our ability to love, and find our way through the world?
You may have your own ideas, you might make it simple like Freud, or you may have a few more items to add to the list. Here are a few aspects of our humanness that I find useful:
1. I alone am responsible to breathe.
No one else can breathe for me. Breathing is how I slow my heart rate and my thinking. Breathing is one way I slow my mind and connect with my spirit.
2. I alone am responsible for my recovery.
My well-being is my responsibility. My mental health, physical health, relationships, and my emotions are my responsibility.
3. I alone am responsible for my own happiness.
Not my family, not my spouse or my partner, not my work, and not my dreams. Being “Liked” on Facebook and Twitter won’t make me happy. If I can’t be happy right here and right now, I will not be happy. And only I can decide to be happy.
4. I alone am responsible for understanding myself.
In understanding and being intimate with myself, only then can I be intimate with those I care about. I am not perfect. Accepting myself means I accept I have both weaknesses AND strengths.
5. I alone am responsible for my attitude during both successful times and more importantly when life is hard and everything feels like it is a challenge. I am responsible for how I respond to my circumstances.
6. I alone am responsible for learning from the past, but I should not let it dominate my thinking.
I cannot change the past, but I can use the past to change me.
7. I alone am responsible to love.
In loving, I find happiness. It’s that simple. I am also responsible to be loved. Opening up to be loved can change me.
8. I am responsible for my possessions.
I may share my home, my vehicles, and the contents of my home: my finances and my future investments. But I am responsible for earning money, spending it wisely, and taking care of what I own. I am responsible for ensuring that what I own does not own me.
Knowing what you alone are responsible for can set you free.
Dysfunction and Our Addiction to Avoidance
Dysfunctional may be a label, but it is ultimately a way to avoid. When you settle for the idea that you or someone that you care about is dysfunctional, it will limit your maturity and happiness. Deciding you are dysfunctional is safe. It makes other people, circumstances, or our past responsible for our happiness. Owning your responsibility is difficult, but it will lead to lasting happiness and show you the way to living the life you want to live.
Recovery and being a healthy human being is not about fitting in or being like everyone else. It is more about accepting yourself for who you are and striving to love yourself and other people. It is about working and making a contribution whether or not your work is fulfilling or your “calling.”
One of the things your therapist will do with you is help you to become more healthy and more connected. You will learn to live, to love, and to work. One of the keys to growth is to identify the things you alone are responsible for. Take time to think about it and talk to your therapist about your answers.
If you enjoyed my piece, you will want to see some of my other writing:
- Recovery and the Four Lies of Shame
- Do You Have an Addictive Personality?
- For the Men Who Hate Therapy But Desperately Need It
Sean is a provisionally certified Clinical Addiction Therapist with the Canadian Addiction Counseling Certification Federation. You can find him on Facebook, here.