If you happen to be the one in your family who's different, please know that you are not alone. Many creative people throughout history have also found themselves alienated or scorned by some of their relatives. But what can you do to stay true to your unique way of living? Or, if you are concerned about someone else who is the black sheep or rebel in a family that simply cannot accept this person's way of life, what can be done to support this individual? How do you make sure he or she doesn't get crushed or excluded by the prevailing values and constant comparisons from judgmental relatives, especially when they gather for holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals, or other events where the advice-giving becomes intense?
"My Family Doesn't Know What to Do with Me"
Lauren's case is a good example of someone who has been stung by too many comparisons with her relatives on the issues of money and status. Lauren is a bright and creative 32-year-old woman who told me in her first counseling session, "My family doesn't know what to do with me. I'm a bundle of contradictions. On the one hand, I grew up with a love for Irish and Appalachian roots music, which I picked up from my maternal grandmother and which I studied in depth during college and graduate school. That kind of creative interest nourishes my soul, but it makes absolutely no sense to my father, who's a self-made business owner. He thinks I'm a complete fool for pursuing my passion for music history and ethnic folk cultures. My stressful financial situation is a big joke to my older brother, who's a very prominent doctor. I'm also having trouble with the constant judgments and advice from my younger sister, who has an affluent lifestyle and who's been divorced twice already from well-to-do guys."
Lauren explains, "You see, our family has a lot of emotional baggage about money and status. When I was a kid, my dad struggled to make ends meet. We lived in a very small house right on the edge of a much nicer neighborhood. My brother, my sister, and I knew quite clearly that we had a lot less money and a more restrictive life than the kids at our highly competitive high school. Even after my dad's business started to do well when I was in college, my folks were still extremely tight and insecure about money."
"I feel most at home when I'm wearing casual clothes and spending time with musicians, writers, and teachers. But there's also a part of me that wishes I could have some of the creature comforts I see my brother and sister have."
To help Lauren work through her ambivalent
feelings about money, security, and where she belongs
in her family and in the world, I asked her the
Asking Lauren to look beyond her family's particular quirks about money was the beginning of a breakthrough. Like most people, Lauren had limited herself to only two options: either share the family's unappealing money obsessions, or else rebel against her family entirely. A third option that most people forget to consider is this: What if she incorporated the best of her family (such as her most financially savvy parent's wisdom about money) with other nonfamily role models as well as her own traits for resilience and creativity?
For several counseling sessions, Lauren and I discussed how much she had learned from watching the financial strengths and weaknesses of a variety of individuals. During one of our conversations, Lauren told me, "If I could combine my family's savvy about money with my own creative passions about music and culture, that would be an outrageous mixture. My parents and my siblings are a little too obsessed about money, but at the same time I do admire their ability to plan for the future and stick with their financial goals. Still, there are creative people I've met over the years who were also persistent and resilient no matter what kinds of difficulties came their way. I guess there's an aspect of each of these mentors and role models inside me. My job is to make sure I get all these diverse parts of myself working together in harmony."
Lauren's realization that she could stop competing with her family was the beginning of a process of redefining her adult identity. She and I started to brainstorm about what specific things she could do to chart her own unique path separately from the skeptical and limited viewpoints of her relatives.
Lauren began taking steps to boost her yearly income from several sources that stemmed from her own creative passions for music and culture. First, she landed a steady job teaching music history as well as a part-time job at a nearby recording studio mixing and arranging songs. Over the next 12 months she also began writing books and articles about some of her favorite old-time musicians, and she fulfilled a longtime dream by working as a music producer for a few compilation CD's that did fairly well commercially. Finally, she began saving 10 percent of her income every month to make sure she would be able to reach her long-term financial goals.
As with many of my creative or spiritual clients who felt judged or constantly put down by their relatives, Lauren began to build an adult identity that was far beyond what her family could have imagined for her. It allowed her to keep her passions alive by working intelligently at several different ways of making money from her unconventional interests. Two-and-a-half years after she first came in for counseling, Lauren told me, "I may not be as rich as my brother the doctor or as classy as my money-obsessed sister, but I love where I'm living now and I'm building a future that is both fulfilling and somewhat secure. My family still isn't sure what to make of me, but I've very fortunate. I'm living an authentic life."