Sherrie Campbell, PhD, ContributorClinical Psychologist, Author and Radio Host
One of the most challenging things to undertake is separating ourselves from a toxic family. The “family” is reveared as something too sacred to separate from, regardless of its toxicity. Adult children feel an obligation to stay connected even when it goes against their best interest. As adults, we stay connected out of fear and guilt. We fear the lack of understanding and recrimination to come from others who falsely assume all children are loved deeply. To follow are the entanglements suffered in a toxic family system, and how to break free.
Children (no matter their age) of toxic parents are emotionally starved. The family dynamic functions around the needs, wants, desires, and dramas of the parent. Children are not viewed as people, but rather as things to be controlled, used and manipulated. It is common for parents to abuse one child and worship another. Each child’s role serves some distorted need in the parent. The more abused child is raised feeling unloved and rejected, while the worshiped child feels loved for “good performance and behavior.” Each child has some awareness they are not loved for who they are, and both suffer low self-worth.
The reason it is challenging to separate from these dynamics is because the type of abuse these children endure is not obvious. It’s the passive-aggressive, guilt-driven, needy, jealous, divisive, martyring, baiting abuse that somehow disappears into ether whenever confronted. These parents are sly, underhanded, blaming, manipulators who use their children for games, positioning and getting them to feel guilty, ashamed and increasingly needy for parental approval, which they can never authentically secure.
Toxic parents scapegoat their children for their own personality flaws and dramatics. They turn everything around to be the child’s fault, and claim how “mean and disrespectful” their children are. These children grow up feeling nothing they do is ever enough. They are consistently rattled with back-handed remarks by their overly critical parents, and are accused of being too sensitive. Being raised like this is no different than living in a house of mirrors, where even the fake apologies initiated by the parents are designed to put the child at fault.
Children become frozen under the hypocrisy, constant projection, and circular communication style these parents utilize. They quickly learn that being good enough in the eyes of their parents is about as likely as successfully scoring on a moving goalpost. They live trying to avoid conflict, or trying to express themselves to the point of rage or meltdown, only to face being shamed for their emotions and “treating their parents so poorly.” These psychological games lead children into a state of helplessness, self-hatred and guilt, as every situation is set for their destruction. There is no way to win.
There is nothing more psychologically debilitating than living in a world of unexpressed frustration. Very few, if any, validate what these children see and experience. In fact, most attempts at sharing their story are met with disbelief and the minimization of; “things can’t be that bad, your parents love you.” These children are typically advised to be more loving, to do as their told, and to accept who their parents are; thereby, blaming the victim. There is no amount of convincing these children can do that will be more powerful than the societal standard held to never separate from family.
6. Disenfranchised grief.
These children/adults live with a grief not accepted by society. Loss is one of the most common experiences to bring about grieving, and although this is often viewed as normal, there are times when grieving is disqualified; cutting ties one’s family members being one of those times. Traditional forms of grief are more widely accepted, like when a parent dies. When grief is not accepted, but rather viewed as something a person brought on themselves, there are few, if any, support systems to help them cope with their disenfranchised grief.
As adults, we have the right to determine when enough is enough. If we know it is not possible to be healthy in tandem to staying connected to a dysfunctional family, then it is time to let go. We must have the courage to face the unfair smear-campaigns that will be initiated at breakneck speed to everyone the parents know, the lack of compassion, understanding and support from others, and the loneliness, confusion and grief to process after we sever ties. We will likely have to create distance with mutual connections that bind us to our family, as the more strings attached to them the less likely we are to protect ourselves from their toxic drama.
8. Duty Days.
After we cut ties, it is common to receive cards/gifts on “Duty Days,” such as holidays. These gestures allow them to maintain that they try, and we are just too stubborn to let things go. What is missing in their communication is any combination of three sets of three simply-worded statements; “I am sorry,” “I was wrong,” or “You were right.” They are incapable of owning what they have done; always viewing themselves as right. They show up on “Duty Days” to assuage their guilt, to save face, and to add more drama to their smear-campaign . And…people will believe them.
9. Reclaiming yourself.
In severing ties, we are not doing so to punish anyone else, as much as we are doing something to protect ourselves. Once minimal or no-contact has been established, we must reclaim our lives and rebuild our self-worth. When we risk it all, the Universe in all its magic, will organize and materialize the supports, loves and people we deserve to live lives we love. We build a chosen-family who shows us that love is thicker than blood. Most importantly, we develop a self-respect no one can shake. We are free to live from the truth of who we are, as we come to trust our inherent goodness. The greatest power we have is not give these people what they want…our attention. We must now give our attention only to those worthy of it.