Being Family versus Playing Family

By Paul Dunion | January 14, 2017

It’s that time of the year when many of us will be Playing Family. The following characteristics reflect the difference between the two. However, many families are doing some of both. The key is to be mindful of how much Being Family vs. Playing Family is taking place, and deciding what you want and how to support what you want.

  • Known or Not Known. It is natural to expect being known and understood when we are Being Family. We also anticipate knowing and understanding others.  What we know includes current challenges, achievements, values, beliefs and hopes. When Playing Family, there is no expectation of mutual understanding. Conversations sound like reports of the 6:00 o’clock news highlighting current political and economic events.
  • Strengths and Buffoonery. When Being Family, tales told by family members include accomplishments of others and accounts of strengths of character as well as foolish undertakings. Playing Family is characterized by recounting the buffoonery of others, walking a thin line between fun and mockery.
  • Clarity vs. Innuendo. Being Family reflects a clarity spoken by members regarding what they want when they are together. Folks Playing Family either speak through innuendo or deference to the wishes to others.
  • Boundaries tend to be more fluid when we are Being Family. Family members welcome friends and relatives of other family members. When Playing Family, boundaries get more rigid with less flexibility to include non-family members.
  • Substance Abuse. Substance abuse is more prevalent when Playing Family since members are attempting to cope with pretense, alienation, inclusion and anxiety.
  • Encouragement, compliments and reassurance are woven into the conversation of folks Being Family. Conversations are typically more self-centered when Playing Family. The connective tissue is not there in order to support gestures of warmth and compassion.
  • Being Family normally reflects a level of attention affording members the opportunity to feel heard and listened to. When Playing Family, members can be regularly interrupted or ignored.
  • When Being Family, members anticipate the fun and joy that gathering brings. When Playing Family, folks feel the weight of an obligation to show-up and adhere to family protocol.

There are several choices we can make to gradually shift a family from Playing Family to Being Family: Is there a family member I can make a one-on-one connection with before the gathering? Is there a family member I can offer some uninterrupted attention during the gathering? Am I willing to tell a story of a family member’s accomplishments during the gathering? Am I willing to sit near someone who tends to feel marginalized?  Am I willing to abstain from drug abuse or drinking alcohol to access?  Is there someone I could thank during the gathering for the help or assistance they offered me during the year?

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