Chosen Family – 10 pitfalls to be aware of when creating one of your own

Autumn leaves arranged on a windowsillAn increasing number of people refer to their  ‘Chosen Family’. These are the close people we’ve gathered around us who we are not related to by blood or by law.

While anyone might create such a group while having a perfectly OK relationship with their Family of Origin, Chosen Family is often about putting distance between yourself and your Family of Origin as the only way to stay sane or safe. For this reason, it is often used in a queer context. 

Whether you are escaping violence, prejudice, sexual abuse, bullying or neglect, you may put a lot of time and energy into gathering specific people around you.

Essentially, Chosen Family is a group of people who you believe will treat you as an equal, who you might rely on in a crisis, and who you hope will stay close to you, even when one of you has a major life change.

This applies on a societal level as well as a personal one – if you are queer, gender non-conforming, kinky or non-monogamous, for example, mainstream society likely sees your relationships as less valid than those enjoyed by the majority. So it makes sense to band together and create something that works for you.

Created over years

I’m aware that my talking about ‘creating a family’ might imply that this is something done quite rapidly, like picking sports teams at school. ‘I’ll take this one and that one… oh and they look nice, but not that one…’ To be clear, we make these choices over years, during which time the desire to bond and create connection with others may override the quieter messages we may be getting that something is not quite working.

Added to this is the fact that we may replicate behaviours that were modelled to us from a very young age. We may, in our eagerness to create the perfect safe zone, forget that it takes two people to form a friendship, and more than two to form a group. We may forget that consent and boundaries here need to be negotiated, as much as in any sexual scenario, and assume unspoken agreements.

Below is a range of issues you may come across when navigating chosen family:

(1) Letting shiny new people in much too quickly

As a young person you may have been told you had to ‘take what you’re given and be grateful’. So it can feel very exciting, even intoxicating, to realise that you have choices – particularly if this realisation has come to you later in life. 

At the same time, it can also feel quite isolating and frightening to reflect on your own situation when ‘everyone’ around you appears to have so much support from blood relatives, partners and an array of incredible people they seem to have known for years. (Social media really doesn’t help here.) 

So when you meet a new person and things seem to click, the temptation can be to grab them and not let go. ‘This person is fun and we have lots in common and we’ve talked so much already – this must mean we’re destined to be really close!’ And there may be a sense of relief that counteracts the feelings of isolation, and you may stop monitoring the situation because at last you’re home safe.

But having some things in common does not mean everything will match up. NRE  (New Relationship Energy) is a phrase usually used to describe the intense feelings at the start of a romantic relationship, but it also serves to describe feelings at the start of any new association. It’s okay to enjoy this feeling – but it’s also good to wait until it dies down and re-evaluate whether this exciting new friend is right for you as a long-term close person. And it’s worth reflecting before jumping in and sharing your deepest darkest self.

(2) Ignoring warning signs

I have long found it to be the case that when you look back after any kind of breakup, you realise you actually saw the seeds of it very early on. It was likely a tiny thing the person said or did, which you ignored because it seemed too minor to be worth saying anything about. And who wants to look mean-spirited or critical with the shiny new person?

It’s those little moments when the Lovely New (or not so new) Friend suddenly looks at you and says something that is – apparently – totally out of character. Or sends a message that makes you go ‘WTF?!’ Something a little bit tactless, jarring or controlling that is out of your comfort zone but you don’t have a rudder to navigate it – and you don’t want to scare them away by questioning them on it. It’s that that feeling where your stomach drops into your shoes and you can’t quite believe what you just heard – so you discount it. 

Don’t ignore these little messages. They are tiny tells and they are important. For an exploration of the more extreme aspects of this, read Gavin de Becker’s excellent The Gift Of Fear.

(3) Getting sucked into other people’s stuff

When other people are friendly to you and invite you into their group, you may quickly lose a sense of yourself, particularly if you were excluded or othered as a child. If you aren’t used to it, it can feel amazing to be included in a ready made group whose members appear to be welcoming you and inviting you to things. Be aware of your feelings around this. You may feel excess gratitude for this inclusion that may eclipse other more realistic – and accurate – feelings.

Reflect on who is really in control in this new group – the person/couple at the centre may not have your best interests at heart once the fun dies down. Are you there to prop up their glory? Are they really trying to recruit you to go to their workshops or parties? Are there lifestyle issues, like drugs or alcohol, where you are not on the same page? Are you being increasingly weighed down by a lot of gossip and expected to take sides?

You might want to ask yourself why you want to come in at the edges of someone else’s group rather than starting with yourself and people you yourself have chosen.

(4) Trying so hard to be acceptable that you hide the real you

If your Family of Origin message was that you are unacceptable in some way, you may attempt to hide aspects of yourself from new people, in case they find you similarly unacceptable. The trouble is, the Real You is going to leak out somewhere. If you sense that your outrageous true self is disapproved of in your chosen group, wonder about it. What exactly is it that you are needing to conceal from your chosen people? Are you actually avoiding the fact that, while they may be lovely, they may just not quite be the right people for you?  

(5) Doing the opposite of whatever people did at home

Remember – your Family of Origin is the first group you know. This may be hard to hear, but it will inevitably influence how you respond to your role in the groups you create or join as you go through life. 

This feels unfair, but until we have sufficiently understood our own dynamics and patterns, we may continue to replicate the harmful structures we are trying to get away from. Simply doing the opposite of whatever a parent did is reactive and may cause harm. If, for example, you vow never to shout at anyone the way you were shouted at, you may go too far the other way and become a quiet doormat who never gets their needs met.

(6) Sacrificing yourself for the sake of the friendship or group

Something’s not working but you’re not going to say anything in case the whole thing falls apart. It’s cold when the fire goes out and you know how that feels. It’s horrible and you’ll do anything not to feel that again. Similarly, when you feel that if you don’t do it, it won’t get done – such as organising meetups, for example. If you couldn’t rely on your childhood family for the reinforcement and validation you needed, you may understandably find yourself seeking this in others, and this is where problems can arise.

One good way to check the temperature of things is to stop initiating. If you are always the one who suggests meeting up, just stop doing it and see how long it takes for others to realise. It can provide a harsh but fruitful lesson. It doesn’t mean the friendship is over – but it means you likely need to state your needs and decide how much more to invest in this person or group. 

(7) Your priorities clashing with the priorities of others

This is where you need to decide how aligned you need to be with your chosen family. About having or not having kids. And about politics. Being of a different political persuasion can be exhausting, no matter how much you feel you can put these things to the side. Endlessly explaining things, or being hooked into debate, is not sustainable.

You may find that some people prioritise romantic partners over friendships, putting you further down a hierarchy than you realised you were. (You may not have realised you were in one.) You may also be sad when you have a child and so few of your Chosen Family are still around a year later. 

(8) Feeling as if you matter less than others

This is hard because there may be so many echoes from childhood here – some of them are your mind playing tricks on you, and some are real. 

Example: when your Friend X mentions their other Friend Y a lot, who perhaps lives abroad and you have never met, and keeps on going on about how amazing this person is. Months or years pass, and you are finally introduced to Friend Y.  You greet them with enthusiasm – ‘I’ve heard so much about you!’ – and they look a bit embarrassed and say ‘Oh, um, what did you say your name was? Oh, I don’t think they’ve ever mentioned you.’ This hurts, but is worth knowing.

And sometimes people really love you but cannot prioritise you for a huge and complex number of reasons.

(9)  Guilting yourself into not acting on your feelings

You may have found yourself staying in friendships that are not working any more out of fear. One sure way of telling this is if you find yourself wondering what on earth your life would be like if this person wasn’t in it. If it seems unimaginable, it’s worth wondering why you have come to rely on this person (or group) for so much, even when they are making you unhappy.

You may have been told as a child that you were not allowed to have feelings, or you were ‘mean’ or even ‘selfish’ when you said you didn’t like someone or didn’t want to do something. Perhaps you were told you were inherently defective or just ‘bad’. As a result, you may have found yourself letting others take advantage of you because you just don’t think you have the right to refuse, and you must continually atone for your ‘badness’ by letting people push you around. Needless to say, you are doing all the work here, and this is not healthy.

If it’s not working – it’s not working.

You cannot make something work if it isn’t. You can try, but at some point you will need to find a way to go your separate ways. The relief you feel when this association is broken will be tremendous and tangible.

(10) Not being able to discuss the difficulties in a friendship – or end it

So much public advice is about romantic relationships: getting together and breaking up. We are not encouraged to have much emotional literacy about that, and with friendships even less. Are you able to sit one of your Chosen Family down and explain how things are not working out between you? Do you fear their anger? (Perhaps like that of a parent?) Can you find a way to hold a course with them, or is it time to move on? 

Dealing with ending friendships is a whole post in itself. And while not everyone is into Relationship Anarchy, disrupting the presumed hierarchies among friends, romantic partners, (and bio family too), by treating them all with more equality is something many could benefit from.

 

If any of what you have read feels familiar and challenging and you would like to talk about it in therapy, please contact me here.

Further reading:

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Bisexual life – hiding in plain sight?

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Pink Therapy conference 2016

Last Saturday I spent the day with colleagues at Pink Therapy‘s annual conference for therapists. This year’s theme was Beyond Gay and Straight

‘There are gay bars and straight bars, but where are the bi bars?’

Someone made this point during the plenary session. Erasure is something bi people experience on a regular basis. I’ve been told more than once that the word ‘bisexual’ is a bit of an audience killer and best left off publicity materials. This is sadly unsurprising.

Bisexuality and mental health

Dr Meg John Barker reminded us that not enough studies have been done specifically around bisexuality, but what there is – sometimes the B element has to be squeezed out of the side of a larger piece of research – is unequivocal. A bisexual person is likely have worse mental health than someone who is either gay or straight. An aside from another discussion, a good proportion of people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (who are, incidentally, mostly likely to be women) also identify as bisexual. (For more research and information, see BiUK.)

Prejudice from all sides

Bisexual people experience discrimination from both straight and gay communities. Bi people are seen as fence sitters, greedy, manipulative, unstable, sex-obsessed, and indecisive, perpetually on the way from one place to another but never getting there. Women only ‘do it’ to tease or please men. It is seen as marginally more acceptable to be a bi woman than a bi man, however – bi men are either ‘gay, straight or lying.’ A bi person must experience an exactly balanced 50/50 attraction to men and women (never mind other genders), or they are fakes and must be straight. Sometimes therapists (and partners) offer to convert them, or tell them that their issues will be resolved when they ‘pick a side’.

Charles Neal, author of The Marrying Kind, talked about the lives of gay and bi men married to women, the ‘mixed-orientation marriage,’ and the misery experienced by people stifling their identities in order to remain in a socially acceptable unit. ‘Experience before identity’ was his message – but even nowadays, if you don’t identify sufficiently with one tribe over another, you may feel left out in the cold. (See also How To Support Your Bisexual Husband, Wife, Partner)

Born this way?

Current activism tends to promote sexual and gender identities as self-defined, but it wasn’t so long ago that you had to be ‘born this way’ in certain queer scenes, (and adopt one of a specific set of appearances) or you were seen as a ‘tourist’. You were ‘bi-try’ (for bi or bi-curious women entering lesbian environments) or a ‘stray’ (for bi or bi-curious men entering gay ones). And, on arriving at an event, there was that look from the door person that said ‘Your hair goes past your shoulders – are you here to write an article about us?’

Binary versus fluidity

These attitudes remind us how the desire for a binary universe is so pervasive. If you are not one thing you must be another, because of course there are only two things to be. The idea that a person’s desires may shift and evolve over time seems entirely absent. To be fair, if you have fought for years for your singular identity, you may well feel threatened by any kind of flexibility around this, but this feels increasingly out of step with younger people, for whom fluidity of identity feels as if it’s becoming the norm.

It all sounds very like the dismissive way some old-school kinksters speak of switches, ie people who are comfortable occupying both sub/bottom and dom/top roles, or have a different role depending on the gender of their play partner. And, for that matter, people who cannot accept non-binary gender identities. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a high proportion of bisexuality in trans communities. DK Green spoke in detail about both topics. Validation from partners is essential: ‘Does your partner see you as you see yourself?’ (Trans Media Watch has a good resources page.)

Caution around labels

A therapist simply being affirmative may in fact be damaging when a client holds multiple identities, and this can apply particularly if they are intersex. And in a flurry of anti-religionism (for sure understandable given the damage that religion has done to people with minority identities), you may trample over the fact that a queer person is religious and gains comfort from it.

Multiple intersections – multiplied difficulties

Ronete Cohen spoke about the intersection of bisexuality and race, where a bisexual person of colour can be marginalised and objectified in a number of communities simultaneously. Microaggressions are multiplied, and there is far less social support and consequently worse mental health outcomes. She gave the example of a bi person of colour asking for help dealing with stress, and being told to go to yoga. There are a number of reasons why this was inappropriate – western yoga is generally white, middle class, often expensive, promotes a particular body type, and contains potential inherent cultural appropriation.

Elsewhere during the day, someone gave another example of a therapist trying, unsuccessfully, to take mindfulness into communities of colour, having not thought through the missionary implications of this. A therapist may have training around gender, sexual and relationship diversities, but they may not have any cultural competence training around race. (See Bis of Colour for more information and support.)

Queering relationships

From the other sessions I attended:

Niki D talked about biphobia in relationships, and the difficulties of being a bisexual person in a relationship with someone who is monosexual.

Meg John Barker, using their excellent zine ‘What Does A Queer Relationship Look Like?‘ talked about queer relationships, and the fact that a high proportion of bisexuals are also non-monogamous. (The ‘Normativity Castle’ is especially pertinent here.)

Amanda Middleton presented on queer identities and offered a breakdown of Queer Theory. She outlined the slippery and paradoxical implications of queer – (for example, if a queer person experiences microaggressions, it can mean they are doing queerness well) – and the fact that identity will inevitably change over space and time.

It’s an exciting time for Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversities therapy

Thanks to Dominic Davies and the Pink Therapy team once more for a great day and an excellent learning and networking opportunity. There’s a lot of work to do – especially around training – but this community is growing.

For videos of the main talks, go here.

Contact

If any of the issues in this post are affecting you and you would like to talk further to someone, you can contact me here.


Low-cost counselling and psychotherapy services in London

London skylineSeeing a therapist in private practice isn’t financially accessible to everyone.

Here’s a list of reduced-fee talking therapy services in the London area. I hope you find it useful.

PLEASE READ THIS FIRST:

 This list is not definitive or exhaustive – it is a work in progress, and I will be adding to it as time goes on. [Most recent changes 17/12/17]

• Being listed here doesn’t necessarily mean I know the service and/or can personally endorse it. It may have been recommended to me, or I may have heard of it a number of times. I am going on what is stated on the organisations’ websites so cannot personally guarantee the content.

• There will be a number of different fee scales and a variety of numbers of sessions offered, from a few to open-ended. The trend is generally towards time-limited work of up to 12 sessions, but some places offer longer. And there will also be a variety of therapy offered. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions.

• The counsellor you see at some of these services may be in the later stages of their training. Please don’t let this put you off. In order to practise, their trainers, if they are from a reputable college, will have spent time reflecting on whether they are ready or not. Psychotherapy students generally work very hard and have to give very detailed accounts of themselves on a regular basis.

• Some therapists in private practice do offer reduced fee places. Pink TherapyThe Counselling Directory, and the BACP’s It’s Good To Talk are all good places to start looking.

GENERAL – Clients accepted from all round London

Awareness Centre (Clapham SW4)

The Blues Project at the Bowlby Centre (Highbury N5 – waiting list currently closed at 11/17, but they say they may have spaces again in 2018 – also worth contacting the main therapy team as there may be some therapists there offering lower cost)

British Psychotherapy Foundation (Scroll down for their list of reduced fee schemes. Longer-term work.)

Centre for Better Health (Hackney E9)

Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy Education (CCPE) (Training organisation in Maida Vale W2. Also runs The Caravan drop-in counselling service at St James’s Church, Piccadilly W1)

Community Counselling (East Ham E6)

Free Psychotherapy Network (Collective of therapists offering free and low-cost therapy, mostly in the London area but also elsewhere)

IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) (A long list of London-wide local counselling services, many of which take self-referrals. Otherwise through your GP.)

Metanoia Institute (Training organisation in Ealing W5)

Mind in Camden – Phoenix Wellbeing Service (Mental health charity in Camden Nw1)

Mind in Haringey (Mental health charity in Haringey N4)

Minster Centre (Training organisation in Queens Park NW6)

Psychosynthesis Trust (Training organisation near London Bridge SE)

Spiral (Holloway N7)

WPF (London Bridge SE1)(Fees not really low, but they have a range of types of therapy.)

BOROUGH SPECIFIC

Help Counselling (Kensington & Chelsea W11 – mainly for residents of K&C but not entirely)

Kentish Town Bereavement Service (Kentish Town NW5 – for residents of Camden, Islington, Westminster and the City of London only)

Mind in Islington (Several sites – short term therapy for Islington residents only. Longer-term work also available.)

Mind in Tower Hamlets and Newham (Tower Hamlets E3 – for residents of Tower Hamlets and Newham only)

Time to Talk (Hammersmith & Fulham; part of Mind – likely for Hammersmith & Fulham residents only)

West London Centre for Counselling (Hammersmith W6 – for residents of Hammersmith and Fulham only)

Wimbledon Guild (Wimbledon SW19 – for residents of Merton only)

BME/INTERCULTURAL

BAATN (Black, African and Asian Therapy Network) (Extensive list of free counselling services for BME clients – UK-wide with a good number in London)

Nafsiyat (Finsbury Park N4 – for residents of Islington, Enfield, Camden and Haringey only)

Waterloo Community Counselling (Waterloo SE1 – for residents of Lambeth and Southwark, and London-wide)

CANCER SUPPORT

Maggie’s (Hammersmith W6 – clients from all round London. Also other centres UK-wide.)

Dimbleby Cancer Care (Based at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals SE1 – patients from South East London and West Kent.)

HIV SUPPORT

Living Well (North Kensington W10 – clients from all round London)

River House (Hammersmith W6 – clients from Hammersmith & Fulham, Ealing, and Kensington & Chelsea only)

Terrence Higgins Trust (Online counselling; Also London and UK-wide in person services)

Metro (HIV prevention and support services in English, Spanish, Romanian, Polish and Portuguese – centres in Greenwich, Vauxhall, Gillingham and Essex)

LGBT

Spectrum Trans Counselling Service (Ladbroke Grove W10 –  free service for people who identify as trans, non-binary or are questioning their gender identity)

ELOP (Walthamstow E17 – clients from all round London)

Metro (Greenwich SE10, Vauxhall SE11, Rochester Kent ME1 – clients from all round London)

London Friend (Kings Cross N1 – clients from all round London)

Albany Trust (Balham SW17 – LGBT+ and anyone with sexual issues/difficulties)

OLDER PEOPLE

Age UK Camden (Camden WC1 – for those registered with a GP in Camden)

WOMEN

Women and health (Camden NW1 – residents of Camden only)

DRUGS & ALCOHOL

REST at Mind in Camden (Camden NW1 – support for people experiencing difficulties due to benzodiazepine dependency)