The Umwelt of Family Estrangement


“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”
― George Eliot

Sometimes, perhaps not as often as I would like, I find my research reading / thinking / writing dovetails nicely with something I have been wanting to write about here. Today happens to be one of those days. Yay!

Firstly, I want to confess my sort of fascination and repulsion with snowglobes – well the sort that have people in them. I have always thought of them as little “microcosms” of life … you know, maybe really good little “realities” if the scene was a happy and good one, but maybe a terrible fate to be perpetually trapped in a “winter wonderland” if you happen to hate the snow! {and what is going on in the snowglobe up there?!)

I do think we’re all kinda living in our own snowglobe, our own micocosm, and I want to talk a little bit about what we perceive; think, feel and believe and to do that, I want especially to consider the ideas of the Umwelt or Lifeworld.

Umwelt and Lifeworld

I won’t get into the background of “Umwelt” or “Lifeworld” too much, other than to say Umwelt is a German word  describing the environmental factors, collectively, that are capable of affecting the behaviour of an animal or individual” and “lifeworld” or Lebenswelt (another German word) is a phenomenological term / word relating to something very similar to the Umwelt – the world as immediately or directly experienced in the subjectivity of everyday life, including our individual, social, perceptual, and practical experiences.

“Good grief“, you’re probably thinking, “what on earth does this have to do with family estrangement?”

The thing is, how we experience and think and feel about our familiy is a subjective thing, and this subjective thing influences and shapes the things we believe to be true about our family {and other people’s families too}. Those beliefs inform the way we behave and that in turn, informs the sorts of situations and circumstances we find ourselves swimming in.

Another point: our umwelt is something we tend to generalize to other people’s umwelt – that is to say, we take our subjective experiences of our relationship(s) and family and we generalize them to be true for other members of our family, {or all} relationships and families. Our experience of family is our “snowglobe” our “umwelt”. It’s the totality of our experience and what we know.

So how “true” is our Umwelt?

David Eagleman wrote an interesting article about this very thing, What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? He points out that ” … each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality “out there.” Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense?” He goes on to explore the limitations of our perceptions, as they relate to our sensory capacity i.e. our sense of smell as compared to say a blood hound’s sense of smell. The end point? There’s more to life than that which we percieve.

Freud used the term umwelt to designate the 1% {or so} of sensorial material that humans are able to process and make conscious. The 1% that can be made to mean something, that can be {is} woven into a personal and/or cultural narrative, is the Umwelt.

Our umwelt or “lifeworld”  is of fascinating interest to us {when we stop to notice it} because it is ours. Yet our lifeworld is restricted/restrictive because it is only ever one small piece of all there is to know and experience. It is humbling and equally as fascinating to realize that our experience is a limited and constrained experience – there is always something more or different or new that can be known and experienced. Of course, we’d first need to let go of the idea that what we think we know, is all there is to know. or even that what we know is “true”.

We’re  meaning making creatures, and we build our meanings on pretty limited information. What might it mean for our personal and family lives if we could remember that?

The Price of Authenticity

consequencesSo here we are, at the heart of authenticity, decisions and consequences.

We’re all busy with this dynamic tension of wanting to be authentic and congruent with our thoughts, feelings and actions, and at the same time, also wanting to be loved, valued, respected and connected.

I was speaking about this tension in my post Competing Interests and have had some interesting feedback.

It seems most of us will agree that if we aren’t able to be authentic and congruent with ourselves, the cost of relationship is untenable. We seem a little less able to see that everyone else has the exact same privilege. They too have every right to live in a way that is congruent with their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

The Price of Authenticity

So, what’s the end result of this way of moving through our lives and the world? We will have to acknowlege that relationships may be conflicted and they may well end on the other side of our authenticity.

We might resist or close off relationships that compromise our integrity or authenticity. We will also need to acknowledge that other people may not be willing to accept our authenticity, which may lead to conflict and their decision to close off relationships with us.

We can’t have it both ways.

We can’t staunchly choose to stand in our authenticity and expect to be loved, valued, respected and connected all of the time, by all of the people – whilst at the same time withdrawing our love, respect and connection because others are choosing to be their authentic selves.

We can all say whatever it is we want to say, do whatever it is we want to do, behave however it is we want to behave – but we must also be willing to live with the consequence. Sometimes the consequence is conflict. Sometimes the consequence is the termination of relationship.

The better we become at authenticity and congruency, the better we will need to become at managing conflict and relationship endings.


Shades of Relationship

shades“Lots of things can be fixed. Things can be fixed. But many times, relationships between people cannot be fixed, because they should not be fixed. You’re aboard a ship setting sail, and the other person has joined the inland circus, or is boarding a different ship, and you just can’t be with each other anymore. Because you shouldn’t be.”
― C. JoyBell C.

Outside of our family we experience many “shades of relationship”. We have close intimate relationships, and close connected relationships around a particular interest or time in our lives, we have colleagues, and acquaintances and friends of friends, and people we don’t necessarily want to be close to but with whom we interact regularly. We have people we don’t like much, but for whatever reason, need to remain on cordial terms. We intuitively understand this need to interact differently, with different people, at different times, in different circumstances.

We also have an understanding and tolerance for outgrowing relationships, allowing them to drift or come to a close if they no longer meet mutual need or benefit. We accept that a close, connected relationship we have in our childhood or early adulthood, might not survive time, distance, differences of interests and opinions, or changes in our lives and circumstances. For instance, we “get” that a relationship that was formed when we were getting our education and developing our career, might be less connected when our attention shifts to marriage and raising children. Many of us are able to allow change or closure to happen in those relationships without needing to demonize the other person, or feel terrible about ourselves.

So many of us are able to navigate all these shades of relationship …. everywhere but in our families. We seem to have very different expectations and tolerance for “shades of relationship” when applied to our family members. Our relationships are oriented around the idea that family relationships are forever, and should be of the highest quality and deepest connection, all of the time. We believe that family are supposed to unconditionally love, support and value us, our beliefs and our choices, even when they are radically different from their own beliefs and choices.

Family becomes a life-sentence and a cage where members are expected to “be like” or never change at the risk of censure, ongoing conflict, toxic stress and the threat of disconnection or expulsion from the family system. In our family relationships we so often struggle to accommodate shifts and changes and we certainly are not good at letting go gracefully, compassionately and respectfully.

Family is like any other social relationship or grouping. These groups are formed and maintained because they meet the needs of the people who belong to them. In all other social groups the cost of membership is the ability to navigate differences and ensure that each member of the group experiences “enough” equity of committment, caring, love, nurturing and respect. When equity is not possible or desirable, the group {whether a family group, a social group, a business or a community or country} will experience the breakdown of relationship.

It’s obviously lot easier to participate in groups {and families} where tolerance for difference is high and sameness is not the cost of belonging. The more rigid the resistance to difference —> the more difficult it is to experience freedom, integrity and individuality —> the more painful the cost of belonging.

It’s worth questioning our expectations and views of family relationships – holding them up against other relationships and asking ourselves whether we have one set of rules and expectations for family relationships, and another set for everyone else. Why do we think they are or should be any different?