Inspiration, Beauty, Your Dysfunctional Family, and Human Evolution

photo courtesy of Saffu, Unsplash

“…Then consider what it means to be broken. What if you could proclaim yourself sick and hurt and sad and broken and malfunctioning, every single day, and still believe that you deserved love? What if you could sit in the rubble of your shattered castle, and still feel compassion for yourself? Because compassion for the self is the same thing as passion: That’s where inspiration and beauty are waiting for you…”      Heather Havrilesky

I’m a psychotherapist. Every day I sit with beautiful souls who’ve been deeply hurt. Usually by family members. They feel broken. Fearful. Alone.

I wonder how humans can ever evolve when so many continue to abuse their own children.

With your sensitive, empathetic, rainforest mind, you’re likely painfully aware of the malfunctioning in your own family, in your community, and in the world. Maybe you “sit in the rubble of your shattered castle.” You notice there’s a heck of a lot of rubble. So much rubble. So many shattered castles. Yours. Your parents. Your ancestors. Your neighbors. Your friends. Your politicians. Your ex-partners. Your dog, Fido. OK, maybe not your dog Fido.

I know about rubble. I’ve been digging out from mine for years. It’s a lot of work. The bigger the castle, the more rubble you’ve got. Therapy can take a long time because of all of those gorgeous broken stained glass windows that you need to replace. OK, maybe they didn’t have stained glass windows in castles. Humor me. Maybe you’re more a cathedral than a castle. Don’t you just love metaphors? But I digress.

The point is. Compassion. For yourself. Human evolution.

I know. It’s hard to find self-compassion when the early messages you received, directly or indirectly, were that you were a mistake. Or that you weren’t good enough. Or that the world was unsafe and there was no one you could trust. So, you learned how to cope, how to survive. Usually by blaming yourself and feeling unworthy of love.

And, if you were also a highly sensitive, empathetic being, which you know you were/are, you may have felt responsible for saving your family members. You may have felt pressure to achieve. Or pressure to underachieve. You may have become the caretaker in the family, honing your intuitive capacity, heightening your hypervigilance, closing the door to your heart.

And you wonder why you’re in therapy for, oh, years? Which, by the way, if you go for one hour a week, every week, that’s only 52 hours a year. Out of 8760. That is not much time. After daily 24/7 exposure during your most vulnerable years immersed in the energies, beliefs, behaviors, and pathologies of your malfunctioning family.

Just saying.

So, now that you’ve recognized the rubble, how do you start to rebuild? How do you open your heart back up? How do you find compassion for yourself? How do you help humans evolve?

Here’s one idea. (Besides getting 8760 hours of therapy, which you know I highly recommend.) Have you heard of Pema Chodron and the practice of tonglen? It’s a simple but powerful meditation technique. You’ll want to read about it to get an accurate sense of it but in summary: Notice how you feel. Anxious? Sad? Ashamed? Fearful? Then imagine all of the other people on the planet who are feeling that way in this moment. Welcome them in as you breathe in. Welcome your anxiety, for example, and the anxiety of everyone else everywhere who feels the same. (Sounds kinda overwhelming, I know. Move it through you. Don’t hold onto it.) Then breathe out love. To yourself and everyone else. Continue this way for about 15 minutes or so. Notice how you feel. It’s counter-intuitive but likely that, over time, you’ll feel more peaceful. And more compassion. For yourself. While you’re sending love out to the world.

And then, Inspiration and beauty will be waiting for you.


To my bloggEEs: What do you think? Are you sitting in the rubble of your castle? What are some ways that you’re rebuilding? Do you know that making the choice to heal from a dysfunctional family is an act of courage and human evolution? Have you tried a tonglen practice? Even if you don’t think you can benefit from meditation, this might be something to explore. Thank you for sharing your comments and your open hearts. I’m so glad you’re here.

Thank you to Heather Havrilesky for her wise words. For more on self-compassion, try: Kristin Neff. 

Note: As with everything I recommend, you’ll need to decide if it’s right for you. For some of you, tonglen may be too overwhelming and not be appropriate. Take care of yourself!

If you’re looking for another way to build your self-compassion through gifts for this holiday season, check out my book! 🙂 And if you’ve already read my book, could you write a review on Amazon? Thank you!


Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

17 responses to “Inspiration, Beauty, Your Dysfunctional Family, and Human Evolution”

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  1. Bianca Roxas Avatar
    Bianca Roxas

    Thank you. 😀 . Dr. Kristin Neff’s site full of self compassion exercises is also a good recommendation.

  2. Raven ❤️ Avatar
    Raven ❤️

    Thank you just what I needed .when I needed it

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober


  3. SirenQueenOfHeart Avatar

    Yes, even the dog. Sometimes especially the dog.

  4. kontekst Avatar

    Thank you for these beautiful metaphors Paula. Right now I’m doing my best to deal with difficulties in a relationship, which has a powerful way of bringing all my rubble to light. So difficult to trust another, when so many hard-wired memories of abandonment and neglect still linger…
    Tonglen is such a wonderful reminder, to reconnect with all the world. Sometimes digging through so much rubble, i feel like i get buried in it, alone in the dark… It’s so relieving to know that anything i feel has been felt before, all over the world, for countless moments, by all manner of different living beings. I think us rainforest/cathedral/labyrinth types have a difficult time remembering how simply human we really are. It’s nice to come back to the basic truths. I’m breathing in and out. I’m feeling sensations. I’m safe in this moment. Pain is part of life. So is pleasure. Everything changes. We’re in all this together.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, relationships are opportunities to see where we still need to work on ourselves. Thank you for sharing and for your wise words, kontekst.

  5. Ro Avatar

    I’m sitting in the rubble right now – as it happens, even my beloved cat was damaged (possibly related to his origins, found abandoned out the back of a drug house as a kitten) and he had to be euthanised a couple of weeks ago after 7 years of battling stress and significant health issues. I consider him a hero, and miss him so much it physically hurts.

    Some ways I am rebuilding from severe childhood abuse: Shadow work. Reading books on healing. Learning about IFS (Internal Family Systems). Making art. Meditation and mindfulness practice. I began therapy about 5 or 6 months ago. Consistently working on decluttering and simplifying my home environment. Journaling (this is an unexpectedly important aspect of the recovery process. Don’t like writing? Record yourself singing or playing music that seems fitting on a particular day; make videos of your embodied movement practice, create an art journal….).

    I’m learning how to quit things. I’m learning how to not always try so hard. I’m learning to attend to my emotions/needs/behaviours, and let other people regulate their own (co-dependency recovery).

    A big one; working on feeling my feelings instead of intellectualising them ‘away’. A lot of us can end up in a real bind from trying to think our way out of situations that instead require the courageous act of feeling something, in the body.

    I also ceased contact with my entire family of origin a little over 4 years ago, which my therapist has labelled a significant turning point in my recovery process.

    A big focus of mine is working on living in closer and closer alignment with reality; doing so can avoid a lot of heartache and wasted energy. I developed a propensity toward ‘magical thinking’ when I was as an extremely isolated, abused, child (no big surprise, right?) – but it’s counter-productive as an adult.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you for sharing these examples, Ro. They are ideas that others might be able to use themselves.

  6. Gail Post, Ph.D. Avatar
    Gail Post, Ph.D.

    Beautiful images to describe the “shattered” psyches of so many sensitive people. You write so wonderfully, and provide so much support to those struggling. And what a reminder about the abuse! How shocking it always is to witness the amount of physical and verbal and sexual abuse that still persists in our society and is inflicted upon children. And I love Pema Chodron. She is so wise. Thanks again, Paula, for a wonderful article.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you, Gail. As a therapist, you’re particularly aware of this! I’ve had a couple of clients tell me that the tonglen practice is overwhelming and not helpful for them. These are deeply empathic people who have lots of somatic symptoms or health issues. So, as usual, there isn’t one size fits all.

  7. M. J. Cuthbertson Avatar
    M. J. Cuthbertson

    Where is that line between fallible human and dysfunction? My family seemed to suffer more from an intersection of lacking imagination, knowledge and introspection. There was not much outright sabotage–more an apathy or, even more likely, a fear within them leading to a failure of support.

    So I may be looking for a slightly different metaphor than rebuilding. For me it’s a bit more like a post school 30 year journey on the wrong road with the wrong map.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Good question, M.J. If things are subtle, it can be hard to know what to call fallible human, what to call dysfunction, what to call abusive, etc. Thanks for sharing your particular metaphor. And thanks for being here.

    2. Themon the Bard Avatar
      Themon the Bard

      A practical difference, as I have seen it, is whether it continues.

      A “fallible” human is someone who tries to bake a cake, and it falls. Or they try to sing an aria with an orchestra, and they come in a measure too soon. Or they say “Watch this!” and then fall on their backside. They tried: they failed. They may keep trying, but they are conscious of failing, they are making concerted, deliberate efforts to improve.

      A “dysfunctional” person is someone who fails and thinks it’s success. Or they fail, and don’t care. Either way, they do it again, and again, and don’t respond to the fact that they are failing. In fact, they’ll often bury the failure behind a whole pile of rationalizations to cover up the failure, ESPECIALLY if they are in a position of power. Like a parent. A teacher. A politician.

      Just a working definition for me. YMMV. (Your Mileage May Vary)

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Cool definitions, Themon. Thanks for sharing!

      2. M. J. Cuthbertson Avatar
        M. J. Cuthbertson

        Suddenly, I’m visualizing every unchanging, unlearning sitcom character in their eighth year of unidimensional existence. Are they quirky fallible character sketches or the writer’s dysfunction made visible?

        Back to the main topic: Another question is whose rubble? Broken parents build upon the rubble of their broken parent’s rubble. Soon it’s an archaeological dig site.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          Ha! Absolutely. An archaeological dig site.

        2. Themon the Bard Avatar
          Themon the Bard

          LOL! Yes, that’s EXACTLY it. 🙂

          Though I’d call it the societal dysfunction writ large, in lucre green.

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