Have you ever thought of the ties that bind you to your family? As children, we receive love, attention and protection from our parents and caregivers and in return we offer them our loyalty for taken care of us. As small children, there is not much else we can offer in the asymmetrical parent-child relationship. We mimic our parents, “obey” them and follow what they want for us. These “invisible loyalties” as coined by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, one of the founding fathers of family therapy, are characteristics and behaviors that are unconsciously passed down through generations. They make family members help each other, follow traditions and have family values. They are unconscious and compulsory. “I have to do X for my family”, “what can I do, she is my mother/he is my father.” These are just some examples of sentences based on invisible loyalties.
These unconscious loyalties are detrimental to us often and are a tribute to those who came before us. A woman who was harshly criticized by her mother might grow up to harshly criticize her own children or a man who grew up with an alcoholic father might become a workaholic and spend a lot of time not connecting to their family, just like the father did in a different way.
My name is Miriam Fonsie. I am ten years old. My family has the title of Nyoh. I live in Madagascar(neighborhood in Yaounde, Cameroon). I look like a girl and I am black and tall in complexion. I have short hair.
I like everybody I don’t dislike anybody. I hope to be a doctor. I hope to help my family tomorrow and I hope to help everybody in my village. I hope to bring electricity and water taps in my village. I hope to work hard and pass my exams. I hope to read my notes at home and help my parent at home. I hope to respect my teachers in school.
I had strongly internalized my responsibilities as a 10-year old child despite the neglect and abuse I was facing at the time: I lived with my uncle, trekked four kilometers to school and the same back home. Served the meal I had cooked for him everyday at 7pm sharp, cleaned the house and washed his clothes and mine with my small hands. I managed myself and managed the house and had no time to play.
Often sitting with him in our small living room and could not speak unless I was spoken to, feeling constant fear of his random beatings about an object I moved, the foufou not well-cooked, a test I flunked, etc. He beat me too if I failed school even though he could not read or write.
Despite this chaotic life, I fiercely wanted to belong. I wanted to make my family and ancestors proud. Nagy, in his book “Invisible Loyalties”, also states that when a child is raised in a dysfunctional family (abuse, neglect, bad parenting, not giving a child love, trauma, war, marginalization, etc.), well they will still want to be loyal. Yet, they have this ambivalence in them: they want to give loyalty yet they don’t want to give loyalty. It is easier to give loyalty when our caregivers have treated us well, poured into us. These children feel proud to be associated to their parents and caregivers. No parent is perfect and I believe in cases where children receive good parenting, they still have to individuate and find their own path in life. It is infinitely harder when you feel feelings that don’t match what is expected of you, think thoughts that don’t match the mission your family wants for. Often we turn on ourselves as we try to live up to the expectations of our families.
Despite my uncle’s abuse, I still saw him as a father — he was the only father figure I had known. He wanted me to become a doctor and I wanted to be just that, unconsciously hoping he would love and accept me. For a long time, I felt it was because something was wrong with me that my uncle treated me badly in childhood. But if I became a doctor then he would be proud of me, I would honor my family village and my family, make them proud. I needed that validation.
I got in contact with my father in Cameroon one year before he died, I was 20 years old. The last time I had seen him or had any contact with him, I was 10. I wrote him a letter with a few photos of me visiting the United States and telling him of my plans to go to university. When my uncles told me he walked around the village with my photos in his breast pocket talking about his daughter smart daughter. This made me happy. At last. I would receive the approval and maybe love of this man I so loved and knew so little of — he was not in my life.
This love I was chasing came at a great cost: me, my person, my life, my whole being. I had to be an empty vessel who would succeed and make others proud. I contorted myself to fit my family’s wishes but I was not as agile as a professional contortionist and could not breathe in the box made for me. I was groomed to take care of everyone and put myself last.
As an immigrant myself and for many immigrants, the person who goes abroad carries the hope of a whole family at times. They are promoted — sometimes in childhood already — to the savior role and told repeatedly that they will be the ones to lift their families out of poverty. Some people go through tremendous stress trying to uphold this role. I am not saying that people should not help their families. No. I am saying that we should not accept to become the ones who carry the weight of a whole family without a plan of how people will empower and sustain themselves. For those who can afford it, I would reject the role altogether.
You might wonder why people would accept to carry this weight? Why would I want to be loyal to my uncle or father who did not take care of me? Despite it all, we want to be loved and validated by our parents and caregivers, some of us spend our lives chasing the love and approval we did not receive as children. So we reframe our painful childhood experiences, minimize them in order to fit in the mold of what is expected. Hoping the love and recognition will come flowing at last!
Wanting to please our parents, caregivers or families means we make choices that are not good for us, we might experience inner conflict and not really know who we are — as attuned as we were to the needs of others around us since childhood. I went through life disconnected from myself, angry, an anger that was soundless but was bursting through my veins like hot coal. I limited myself because I thought it was what was expected of me— we sabotage ourselves. Failure to be our true selves can lead to resentment, depression, animosity, and guilt.
But the truth is any loyalty that makes us feel small, bad, inadequate is not healthy — loyalty to dysfunction or hatred can be destructive. When being loyal to a group means we play small, we dim our light, because it might threaten the family or a group, it is unhealthy and does not serve us. If our ancestors suffered, I believe they want to see us thrive, I don’t believe they want us to carry all their sufferings and make it our own and continue passing it through generations.
What Can We Do?
Make the invisible ties visible! Drop the burdens that were/are not ours to carry.
By becoming aware of these compulsory hidden loyalties, we can break the cycle of carrying them. Accepting that the adults in my life did not take care of me and that the family I so want to belong to did not really exist gave me the space to drop this weight of toxic loyalties and obligations I was handed, to face the shame, disappointment, anger, loss, grief and acceptance of what was. The hardest part was accepting that nobody is going to come and save me, because like a small child I was waiting for my parents to return. It did not happen. Instead I am returning to myself, learning to reparent myself and hold myself in that warm embrace. We don’t have to do it alone, we can surround ourselves with compassionate people who can help us on our healing journey.
We can choose to have compassion and gratitude for our parents, caregivers and ancestors for what they have done for us but refuse to carry their burdens further AND choose our freedom today, choose to grow and discover who we are, what we like and the life we want to live. Is it easy? Of course not! But definitely worth it. It is the hardest thing to accept but accepting also means we can forgive ourselves for what happened to us and maybe one day forgive our family members. I am still working on my people pleasing and other tendencies and accepting that it was never my role to save everyone.
When we unearth these invisible loyalties and free ourselves from the toxic ones, we can then choose visible loyalties that are conscious and voluntary. We choose who or what we want to be loyal to!
No, I did not study medicine.
These are words you can write to yourself or read them out loud. (This ancient blessing was created in the Nahuatl language, spoken in Mexico. It deals with forgiveness, affection, detachment, and liberation).
“I release my parents from the feeling that they have failed me.
I release my children from the need to bring pride to me; that they may write their own ways according to their hearts, that whisper all the time in their ears.
I release my partner from the obligation to complete myself. I do not lack anything, I learn with all beings, all the time.
I thank my grandparents and ancestors who have gathered so that I can breathe life today. I release them from past failures and unfulfilled desires, aware that they have done their very best to resolve their situations within the consciousness they had at that moment. I honor you, I love you and I recognize you as innocent.
I am transparent before your eyes, so they know that I do not hide or owe anything other than being true to myself and to my very existence, that walking with the wisdom of the heart, I am aware that I fulfill my life purpose, free from invisible and visible family loyalties that might disturb my Peace and Happiness, which are my only responsibilities.
I renounce the role of savior, of being one who unites or fulfills the expectations of others.
Learning through, and only through, LOVE, I bless my essence, my way of expressing, even though somebody may not understand me.
I understand myself because I alone have lived and experienced my history; because I know myself, I know who I am, what I feel, what I do and why I do it.
I respect and approve of myself.
I honor the Divinity in me and in you.
We are free.”