In Adult Survivors of Toxic Family Members: Tools to Maintain Boundaries, Deal with Criticism, and Heal from Shame After Ties Have Been Cut, psychologist and toxic-family survivor Sherrie Campbell, Ph.D. argues that surviving our toxic and dysfunctional family units requires cutting ties forever for a while or forever. Campbell provides strategies for embracing the decision with pride, validation and faith in oneself. She provides tools for creating boundaries, coping with judgment, and overcoming self-doubt.
Living in a toxic family where non-negotiable borders are constantly being violated can set the stage for the human survival system to launch coping reactions, such as enmeshed loyalty at all costs, submission to unrealistic expectations and burdens, self-sabotage and subjugation, intense anger, or intense inhibition of feelings. These maladaptive patterns are formed early in a child’s core development—when emotional needs are not adequately met and noxious experiences construct the framework for a child’s self-concept (along with biology and temperamental makeup)—to become the lifelong automatic responses to ongoing familiar and familial threats.
Toxic family dynamics are largely based in the groupthink paradigm, wherein all thinking and decision-making within the family system strongly discourages the creativity, independence, or individual responsibility of each family member. A toxic family system works because it is strong in numbers, which is powerful when the method of intimidation is ganging up warfare and you are an innocent child. You have been groomed with this type of intimidation from your earliest days.
Cutting Ties as a form of Self Care
When people hear the words “cutting ties” or “no contact,” they may automatically assume those who cut ties are angry, bitter, immature, spiteful, spoiled, jealous, entitled adult children who are being cruel and unreasonable toward our family members. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cutting ties is not about malice, hate, stubbornness, a lack of forgiveness, being spoiled, or exacting revenge. Severing ties is exclusively about self-care.
The habit of not trusting yourself has been programmed into you from a young age. This lack of self-trust has made it incredibly challenging for you, as a survivor, to take the necessary steps to protect yourself. This same lack of trust can seem like a slow bleed as you continually wonder whether you have made the right decision, or when you feel unfairly judged and criticized by a society who cannot fathom anyone needing to decide to sever ties with their family. Because you were raised to be and feel insecure, it’s no surprise that you question whether you are too sensitive or too harsh with your boundaries.
Repairing Core Wound
When you establish no contact with toxic family members, the greatest gift you give yourself is the uninterrupted time and space to repair your core wounds, to start recovering truly and deeply. Your core needs start at birth and must be met. Core needs for children include, but are not limited to, receiving adequate levels of time, love, and attention, along with meeting their needs to feel heard, validated, and understood. When these needs aren’t met, there is no way to rewind to the beginning of life in a way that enables any outside love relationship to heal or meet your core needs.
Wherein the trapped person develops feelings of trust or affection toward their captor. For survivors of toxic family systems, these feelings are exacerbated by the fact that the people we are simultaneously affectionate toward and escaping from are the exact people we should be intimately attached to: our family.
So be prepared for the aftermath to be filled with unknowns. It takes time to adjust to such a monumental change. It is normal that on some days you think about your family members a lot, and on other days they may not cross your mind at all. However, because you are bound to these people, be it biologically or adoptively, your relationship with them will remain active emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, even in a state of silence.
Listen to your pain
Your family members will likely feel slighted about boundaries you apply to them. That is not your problem. That is about the stuff they will need to clean up in their life (or not). You do not need to let them violate boundaries by taking upon yourself responsibility for their feelings, letting their feelings dictate your own, sacrificing your own needs in order to please them, allowing them to blame you for their problems, or accepting responsibility for their problems. How do you know where your boundaries need to be? By listening to your pain. When you feel hurt, you must examine what you will and will not tolerate.
Behaviors have consequences
Behaviors have consequences. Whatever a person puts into the world will have an equal consequence. Cloud and Townsend, in Boundaries, teach that when your family members ignore the law of sowing and reaping, there are consequences. The law of cause and effect asserts that severe consequences await anyone who does intentional harm to another. If you choose to rescue or protect people from the natural consequences their behavior merits, you render them powerless. Family members who emotionally abuse and manipulate you position themselves to face the natural consequences that match their behavior. What is the natural consequence of their poor treatment? The loss of the relationship.
Understanding Core Wounds
Core wounds develop when the actions of someone you are extremely close with, such as a family member, cause you intense emotional pain—so intense it damages your very soul. Core wounds show up as feelings such as these:
- I am not good enough.
- I am not lovable to my parent or other significant family members.
- I am weird, stupid, unwanted, a burden, alone, ugly [the list goes on].
- I am either too much of something bad or not enough of something good.
Toxicity typically starts with or is enabled by your leaders. Not all toxic adults had toxic parenting; other factors—such as addiction, mental illness, and genetics—can create toxic adults when the parenting has been good enough. However, most of those who become abusive and manipulative as adults do grow up with a toxic parent or guardian. Here are some examples of family systems that perpetuate core wounds through the generations.
Toxic shame is experienced as persistent, irrational feelings of worthlessness, humiliation, and self-loathing. Feelings of shame cut deeply into the human psyche and are powerful enough to paralyze your ability to think rationally. Toxic shame can strike unexpectedly from the slightest trigger, making you feel emotionally hijacked, unable to regain control over your emotions and reactions. Unfortunately, this inability to self-manage only leads you to feel more shame.
Your Manufactured Self
Shame creates your manufactured self. Your manufactured self is experienced as a sadness or fear that brings on overwhelming emotional states of emptiness, futility, impoverishment, and loneliness. To find your way to wholeness, you can start by unpacking this manufactured self that you had to become to survive.
To secure love, you had to pretend to be who and what you thought you were supposed to be, knowing that the rules on this would change from minute to minute based on the constantly shifting and unpredictable needs of your destructive family members. Because the abuse and manipulation were present from the very start of your life, you have never been given the opportunity to develop into the person you would have naturally become had you been raised in a healthier environment.
The Search for Your True Self
To be your True Self means you do not worry about pleasing other people or living by someone else’s standards. You live as your natural self without compromise. However, it is important to be aware that the search for your True Self will likely awaken you to your pain before inviting you into the experience of relief from it. To uncover your True Self means clearing the cobwebs of the mistruths you were told about who you are and softening the defenses you have built to protect yourself from perceived or anticipated harm.
The Power of Language
One of the differences between healthy and toxic family units is the kind of language that they use to describe you. Here are some of the different ways a family unit perceive their members:
Healthy: Natural leader, imaginative
Toxic : Defiant
Healthy: Holds strong beliefs; daring, resolute.
Healthy: Knows what they want; forthright
Healthy: Expressive, enthusiastic
Healthy: Careful, discerning
Healthy: Has strong preferences
Toxic : Hyperactive
Healthy: Energetic, passionate, on the go
Healthy: Spontaneous, Inituitive
Healthy: Advocates for a different perspective
Healthy: Finding their own way
Toxic : Stubborn
Healthy: Persistent, determinded, unwavering
Healthy: Enjoys communicating
Healthy: Seeks justice, respects rules, fair
Healthy: Multitasks, pays attention to may things
Healthy: Advocates for needs, seeks connections
Being emotionally abused creates a thick defensive layer around you, born of trauma and betrayal. This armour profoundly influences how you view people who desire to be closer to you. It is not that you are shy, playing hard to get, or being intentionally difficult in social situations. You are simply trying to protect yourself. You are often consumed with anxiety and worry about how others are perceiving you or misperceiving you.
All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.