Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rural Community Rules: Image Is Everything

June 19, 2000

Make no doubt about it, rural living can be wonderful. There is a wholeness, sanity, and healthy quality to it that is missing in urban society.

Rural people enjoy a sense of community, rich and rewarding relationships with friends and neighbors, and a balanced lifestyle that embraces many aspects of life other than work and careers.

Members of rural communities wrap their arms around each other and give basic acceptance, unconditional love and security. There is joy in belonging, not only to a family, but to a community that acts like a family.

The dark side. Rural life has its dark side also. There is a recognition that this love and acceptance is fragile. If a person deviates too far from local wisdom, becomes too different, or violates community norms, the community is disturbed.

There is danger in being too unique, too flawed, too self-oriented or in distinguishing oneself too much. The connection people have with each other also makes them vulnerable to comparison, gossip, control by public opinion, and people-pleasing.

Occasionally, a mean-spirited judgmental attitude that lurks beneath the surface of polite society is exposed. Public censure of mistakes and weaknesses happens often enough to make people fearful. Instead of being open and honest about their troubles, mistakes and feelings, people worry about image and appearances.

In small communities, dysfunctional family rules may have their origins in perceived community norms. The family exerts tight control so that appearances are maintained. The family guards itself from exposure and censure and/or attempts to maintain its position of prestige and esteem in the community.

What are these community/family rules that teach people to hide behind masks? Recognize any of these?

"We don't hang out our dirty linen."

"Don't make waves."

"Cowboys don't cry."

"You get back on after you've been bucked off."

"You've made your own bed, now lie in it."

"What will the neighbors think?"

"Don't blow your own horn."

"If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all."

"Keep a stiff upper lip."

Hiding shame. These rules hide shame. The image for outward consumption is one of goodness and success. "We are fine. Everybody is making it. We care about each other. We get along." Myths about how wonderful life is in rural communities are intimidating.

Some rural people react to the urban stereotype that country people are inferior and uncultured "hicks". Too much of their energy goes into trying to live down that image. This is an additional burden of shame and defensiveness that is unnecessary to carry.

On the inside, a sizeable number of rural people live a different reality. Their lives aren't picture perfect. They have trouble. Their kids give them trouble.

Financially, they are too close to the edge. There are marital problems. Their neighbors aren't always wonderful. There is too much problem drinking. They have real feelings - some feel jealous, envious, lonely, angry, unfairly treated, used, or depressed. Not everything that has happened to them has been their fault. They are in pain. They feel a lack of control.

There is no language to express the negative part of life - the experiences of being overwhelmed, of having pain, of being imperfect and of having failed at something. When real problems and struggles come, there is no safe place to talk about them. Personal problems become grist for the community gossip mill.

To admit to problems violates all the rules and challenges the myths. This lack of dialogue about problems isolates individuals and families. Denial is rampant. Inwardly, people feel unworthy and alone. They are fearful of being exposed as inferior in this "looking good" community.

Unhealthy concern. There is too much unhealthy concern for appearances, people pleasing, searching for approval and unclear boundaries between self, family and community. People deny or run from their pain through addictions, compulsive behavior or workaholism.

Healthy communities, like healthy families:

  • Allow for the expression of feelings.
  • Match words with behavior.
  • Accept differences as OK.
  • See mistakes as developmental.
  • Operate in the present.
  • Recognize and deal with problems early.
  • Are open to controversy and have faith in dialogue as a way to resolve issues.
  • Allow members to grieve their losses.

"Looking good" communities, like "looking good" families, project a great outward appearance while putting their members in emotional strait-jackets.

Real growth finally takes place when image is ignored and reality is talked about.