Our daughter Olivia was five and our son Petros was a newborn when we saw the now legendary movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, starring Nia Vardalos for the first time in 2002. Though many regard it as a comedy, we perceive it more of a documentary—a movie that was plenty hilarious, a bit haunting and something we as Greek Americans can be proud of and at the same time—humbled.
My wife, Kim, and I find it ironic and timely that the main character’s (Toula) baby girl in the stroller in the closing scene of the first movie is now setting off to college in the sequel— much the same way our little girl is headed to university this fall. Both movies give an entertaining view of familiar ethnic (Greek-American) cultural norms that hit home for the two of us and make us laugh every time we watch it.
It’s not surprising that Hollywood tends to depict “culture” in terms of ethnicity, like the movies mentioned above reflect. And while this may be the customary view, I’d like to offer an alternate perspective: Every family has an emotional culture which helps to shape family dynamics. A family’s emotional culture also plays a big role on what is passed down from one generation to the next and can determine how the family functions or dysfunctions—and whether family members are aware or not. Here are some ways in which emotional culture shows up in families today.
In a family made up of “all or nothing” individuals, someone is always right, which means someone has to be wrong.
In a family with a supportive culture, emotional connection is primary and empathy is present in all familial relationships.
A controlling emotional culture is reflected when a family ‘walks on eggshells’ around the most dominant personality in the group.
A family that appreciates the joy of the present moment, cultivates creative opportunities for familial connections, and recognizes the unique contribution of every family member is emblematic of a playful culture.
A family that is quick to express displeasure and constantly points out what’s wrong in general and in others exhibits a critical culture. This type of family is insecure at its core. This is reminiscent of the scripture verse, Mathew 7: 3-5 when Christ admonishes: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye.” This kind of emotional dynamic keeps individuals and family systems in denial of the personal insecurities and directs their personal angst onto the lives of others.
A family that fears conflict (and glosses over differences), suppresses deep feelings, and believes that all negative emotions lead to bad outcomes, reflects an avoidance culture.
Similar to the avoidant family, the happy-only family is one that is delighted with positive emotions, but makes no room for negative emotions. Consequently, family members are ill-equipped when the negative emotions arise. Members of this family are more vulnerable to crippling depression and anxiety.
With family members gaining self esteem primarily through high performance, this group reflects a performance culture. While many families encourage success and setting goals, this brood withdraws love and affection when family members struggle or fail. Members of this family will secretly struggle with shame issues and feelings and fears of inadequacy.
A problem-solving family doesn’t get stuck on how things should be. Instead, it reflects a flexible culture, adjusting to the realities that the family is currently facing.
This family, whose family members tend to be jealous, is emotionally stunted. Family members have deep self-hatred, manifesting in self-centeredness and desperate to feel good by putting down others.
This family ignores the dominant dysfunction, either by minimizing the issues, or scapegoating and blaming others.
The Role of Emotional Culture in our Lives
As a marriage and family therapist, I see emotional culture at play in every family I work with. The dominant emotional culture of a family plays a vital role in the self esteem development children, the relationship patterns that are modeled in that family (and usually repeated). It also determines which tools go into the emotional toolbox. Hence, it’s worth noting:“If all we have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.”
A big fan of self reflection, I believe it leads to mental wellness. And I’m reminded of a quote by Viktor Frankl, a world-renown neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor: “When we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves.”
To be sure, self reflection can lead to a healthy, powerful and more peaceful spiritual life. “To see yourself as you really are is a miracle greater than raising the dead,” said the saint, Isaac the Syrian, who lived in the sixth century.
“If we desire an emotionally and spiritually healthy family—we are called to courageously and humbly self reflect. Self reflection is the mirror that we look into to see what changes are necessary. It is also foundational for the Orthodox Christian life and foundation for the Orthodox Christian family, not to mention necessary for the emotionally healthy family.
The Christ Culture
As emotional culture varies from family to family and person to person, how might we find clear direction to nurture an emotionally healthy family?
Fortunately, we can embrace the “Christ Culture” as I call it. It refers to the life and lifestyle that emerges from those who earnestly seek Him. Jesus said: “I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Step by step, let’s enthusiastically aim to embrace the culture that Christ and His Church handed down to us as described in Galatians 5:22-23:“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control.”
As a member of the Family Wellness Ministry Team, I look forward to working together to help cultivate the will of God in our families, our parishes and in our personal lives. Our motto: “Connecting individuals, couples, families, and clergy through the heart toward healthy Christ centered relationships.”