We've just ended another holiday season. This is a time where, instead of joy, you may have been forced to be with family members you wished you didn't have to be with. You might have been present out of a feeling of obligation.
Instead of "how are you?", "I'm so glad to see you... tell me about your successes", did you find yourself subject to criticism, as usual? Is there one person who always finds fault in what you do? Is that person your parent?
Toxic people prey on others. They dominate and control, disregard your needs and feelings. They focus on themselves and don’t seem interested in you at all. They seem to see other people as tools instead of whole, autonomous beings. They look to take energy from others because they lack their own vital energy. Toxic people drain you! They create drama and chaos but they don’t see that this is what they are doing. They are the person who walks into a room and others will leave or walk away to avoid them.
Toxic people not only are taking energy, but they are also throwing their own pain and raw emotions onto everyone they interact with. This is because they lack the capacity to deal with the severity of a trauma that may have occurred in early childhood that caused them to have a worldview that people are out to harm them. Because of this view, that others are out to harm them, they have problems connecting with others.
Toxic people don’t appreciate you, so they don’t want you to appreciate yourself, either. They need you to ignore your own needs and desires so you can devote all your time to them. They use intimidation to keep you down, which means keeping you from living your truth.
But what if this toxic person is your parent? This is the person who is meant to love you, hold you, and take the sharp edges off the world, while teaching you with love, wisdom and warmth how to do it for yourself. There is a different kind of hurt that can only come from a toxic parent – someone who is meant to love you. It’s a hurt that affects you to the core.
Nobody is perfect, including our parents, but there is a point at which imperfect becomes destructive, taking away from children the love, warmth and nurturing they deserve and require and replacing it with something awful.
When children are raised on a diet of criticism, judgment, abuse and loathing, it’s only a matter of time before they take over from those parents, delivering with full force to themselves the toxic lashings that have been delivered to them.
A toxic parent has a long list of weapons, but all come under the banner of neglect or emotional, verbal or physical abuse. Toxic parents lie, manipulate, ignore, judge, abuse, shame, humiliate and criticize. Nothing is ever good enough. You get on the Junior Varsity team but they don’t understand why you didn’t make Varsity. You get elected as your class Secretary but they don’t understand why did didn’t go for and get elected as class President. You get an A in math but they complain you should have gotten an A+. They’ll demean you then complain you’re a crybaby when you show you are hurt. The toxic parent shows no warmth, caring or security which is paramount in developing attachment in children.
Any negative behavior that causes emotional damage or contaminates the way a person sees himself or herself, is toxic. A toxic parent treats his or her children in such a way as to make those children doubt their importance, their worth, and that they are deserving of love, approval and validation. The truth is that you, like every other small person on the planet, deserved love, warmth, and to know how important you were. You’re not useless at life – you’ve bought in to the messages that were delivered by a parent too broken to realize what they were doing. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
The good news in this regard is that:
In knowing all that, don’t wait for your parents to change, because it’s not likely going to happen. You have to become a fully autonomous person, completely responsible for your own life.
But you must be aware that you can’t change lifelong patterns overnight, no matter how self-defeating they may be. Emotional work on yourself can be pretty heavy, and thus it’s easy to start looking for excuses not to do it. In such cases, slowing down isn’t a problem. Just make sure you never stop.
How to heal from a toxic parent.
1. It’s okay to free yourself from a toxic parent.
This is such a difficult decision, but it could be one of the most important. We humans are wired to connect, even with people who don’t deserve to be connected to us. Sometimes though, the only way to stop the disease spreading is to cut it off. It doesn’t matter how much you love some people, they are broken to the point that they will only keep damaging you from the inside out. You’re not responsible for them or for the state of your relationships with them, and you are under no obligation to keep yourself being abused, belittled, shamed or humiliated. Healing starts with expecting more for yourself, and you’re the only person who can make that decision.
You must absolutely let go of the responsibility for the painful events of your childhood. You were in no way responsible for your parents’ toxic behavior.
You were in no way responsible for:
The toxic behavior is completely your parents’ responsibility. Even if no harmful intent existed, it’s the final result that counts.
2. It’s also okay to stay in a relationship with your toxic parent.
Don’t be harsh on yourself if you stay in the relationship. The act of returning to an abusive relationship can trigger self-loathing. ‘Why aren’t I strong enough?’ Know that loyalty is such an admirable trait, even if it gets in the way of your capacity to protect yourself. Own where you are and give yourself full permission to be there. Accept that for now, this is where you’re at, and fully experience what that’s like for you. You’ll never love yourself enough to change your expectations if you’re flogging yourself for not being strong enough. It takes tremendous strength to keep walking into a relationship that you know is going to hurt you. When you’re ready, you’ll make the move to do something differently. For now though, wherever you are is okay.
3. Be honest about the relationship.
If you’re going to stay, know that it’s okay to put a boundary between yourself and your parent. You can act from love and kindness if you want to – but don’t stay in the relationship unless you can accept that the love you deserve will never come back to you. If it were going to, it would have reached you by now. See their behavior for what it is – evidence of their breaks, not evidence of yours. Put a bubble around yourself and let their abuse bounce off. Love yourself and respect yourself enough to fill the well that they bleed dry. They might not be capable of giving you the love and respect you deserve, but you are.
4. Be careful of repeating the patterns.
You might find yourself drawn to people who have similarities to your toxic parent. There’s a really good reason for this. All of us are driven to find an ending to things that remain unresolved. Because love, warmth and nurturing are such an important part of child development, yet so elusive for the child of a toxic parent, it’s very normal for those children to be driven to find a resolution to never feeling loved, secure or good enough. They will look to receive what they didn’t get from their parents in others and will often be drawn to people who have similarities to their toxic parent. The theory is, with similar people, the patterns will be easier to replicate, and the hope of an ending closer to the desired one – parent love – will be easier to fulfill. The pattern often does repeat, but because of the similarities to the parent, so does the unhappy ending.
The decisions aren’t conscious ones, so to move towards healing, the automatic thoughts and feelings driving the choices need to be brought more into awareness. If this is something that’s familiar for you, it’s possible that you are being drawn to the wrong people because they remind you of your toxic parent, and somewhere inside you where you wanted things to stay hidden, is the wish that you’ll get from them what you weren’t able to get from your parent. Look at the people in your life and explore the similarities they have with your own parents. What do they do that’s similar? What do you do that’s similar to the way you are in your relationship with your parents? Which needs are being met? What keeps you there? The more awareness you have, the more you can make deliberate decisions that aren’t driven by historical wants.
5. Acknowledge your right to be loved and respected.
One of the greatest acts of self-love is owning your right to love and respect from the people you allow close to you. You’re completely entitled to set the conditions for your relationships, as other people are to set the conditions for theirs. We all have to treat those we love with kindness, generosity and respect if we want the same back. If those conditions aren’t met, you’re allowed to close the door. You’re allowed to slam it closed behind them if you want to.
6. Be careful of your own toxic behavior.
You’ve been there, so you know the behaviors and you know what they do. We’re all human. We’re all going to get it wrong sometimes. Toxic behavior though, is habitual and it will damage the members of your own little tribe as surely as it damaged you. You don’t have to be a product of the cruel parenting that was shown to you, and this starts with the brave decision that the cycle stops at you. People who do this, who refuse to continue a toxic legacy, are courageous, heroic and they change the world. We’re here to build amazing humans, not to tear them down. How would your life have been different if your parent was the one who decided that enough was enough?
7. You’re allowed to make mistakes and you’re allowed to do it on your own.
You may have been lead to believe that you’re not enough – not smart enough, beautiful enough, funny enough, strong enough or capable enough. The truth is that you are enough. Open yourself up to the possibility of this and see what happens. You don’t need to depend on anyone and making mistakes doesn’t make you a loser. It never has. That’s something you’ve been lead to believe by a parent who never supported you or never gave you permission to make mistakes sometimes. Make mistakes now, it’s okay. Give yourself full permission to try and miss. There will be hits and there will be misses. You don’t even know what you’re capable of because you’ve never been encouraged to find out. You’re stronger than you think you are, braver, better and smarter than you think you are, and now is your time to prove it to yourself.
8. Document the beliefs that hold you back. (And get yourself a rubber band.)
Document the beliefs that hold you back – write them down. The ones that get in your way and stop you from doing what you want to do, saying what you want to say or being who you want to be. Were you brought up to believe your opinion doesn’t count? You were brought up to believe that parents are always right? You were most likely brought up to believe that you’re unlovable, unimportant, stupid, annoying, incapable and worthless.
Now beside each belief, write what that belief is costing you. Has it cost you relationships, happiness, freedom to be, to experiment, or to explore? Then, rewrite the script. Thoughts drive feelings, behavior, what you expect for yourself and what you expect from relationships and the world. How are you going to change those beliefs? Just choose one or two to start with and every time you catch yourself thinking the old thoughts, actively replace it with a new, more self-nurturing thought – then act as though that new thought is true. You don’t have to believe it – just pretend it is. Your head will catch up when it’s ready.
If it’s difficult to break out of the old thought, try this: wear a rubber band (or a hair band) around your wrist. Every time you catch yourself thinking the old thought, give the band a little flick. This will start to train your mind to let go of the old thoughts that have no place in your life anymore. You just need a little flick, no need for pain, your old thoughts have been doing that long enough already. There is no right or wrong on this. All the answers, strength and courage you need to do what’s right for you is in you. You just need to give yourself the opportunity and the reason to hear it.
9. The dreaded “shoulds” - get rid of them.
“Shoulds” are the messages we take in whole (introject) from childhood, school, relationships, and society. They guide behavior automatically and this can be a good thing (“I should be around people who respect me”) or a not so good thing (“I should always be nice”). Take a close look at your “shoulds” and see if they’ve been swallowed with a spoonful of poison. Our “shoulds” come from many years of cultivating and careful pruning, so that when that “should” is fully formed, it automatically directs you without any thought.
It’s likely that the “should” that’s keeping you stuck has come from the person who wanted to keep you that way. Were you brought up feeling indebted to your parents? Did they make you feel you owe them? Did they make you feel like you’ll never cope if you separate properly from them? Did they deliver you messages to keep you small, quiet, or hidden? Believing the messages may have worked when you were younger, but it doesn’t have to be that way now. Don’t pick up from where they left off. You’re older now, with different circumstances, and in a different environment. Bring your “shoulds” out in the open so your actions can be more deliberate. If your “shoulds” are working for you, love them up and keep them, otherwise let them go.
10. Nobody is all good or all bad. Let that guilt go.
One of the things that make ending any relationship so difficult is that there will be traces of exactly what you want. Even toxic parents can sometimes be loving, warm or nurturing, though it’s mostly, if not always, done to further their own agenda. In the same way that being ‘a little bit bad’ probably isn’t enough to sever an important relationship, being ‘a little bit good’ isn’t enough reason to keep one. Step back and take a look at the big picture. If you feel miserable in the relationship more than you feel good, question your reasons for staying. If it’s because your toxic parent is old, frail, sad or lonely, that might be all the reason you need to stay, and that’s okay. If it is, own the decision in strength and put limits on contact or how much you will give to the relationship. You’re entitled to take or give as much to the relationship as you decide. Just whatever you do, do it deliberately, in strength and clarity, not because you’re being manipulated or disempowered. The shift in mindset seems small, but it’s so important.
11. Work on building yourself up.
Toxic environments are toxic to the brain – we know that with absolute certainty. The human brain is incredibly adaptive, and in response to a toxic environment it will shut down so as to protect itself as much as it can from the toxicity. When this happens, as it does during prolonged periods of emotional stress, the rate at which the brain produces new neurons (neurogenesis) slows right down, ultimately making people vulnerable to anxiety, depression, cognitive impairment, memory loss, reduced immunity, loss of vitality, reduced resilience to stress, and illness (research has shown that migraine and other pain conditions are more prevalent in people who were brought up in abusive environments, though the exact reason for the relationship is unclear).
We also know, without a doubt, that the damage can be turned around. Diet (omega 3, green tea extract, blueberry extract, reduced intake processed sugar and unhealthy carbohydrates), exercise (anything that increases heart rate), and meditation (such as a regular mindfulness practice) will all help to rebuild the brain and heal the damage done by a toxic environment. Increasing neurogenesis will help to build resilience, cognitive function, vitality and protect against stress, anxiety and depression.
Healing from a toxic parent starts with deciding that the lifetime of messages that have left you hollow or scarred are wrong. It means opening a heart that’s probably been closed for way too long, and receiving the love, approval and validation that has always been yours to own. Sometimes, it means realizing that parents break too, sometimes irreparably, sometimes to the point of never being able to show love to the people in their life who deserve it the most. Sometimes it means making the brave decision, in strength and with the greatest self-love and self-respect, to let go of the relationship that’s been hurting you.
Breaking free of a toxic parent is hard, but hard has never meant impossible. With the deliberate decision to move forward, there are endless turns your story can take. You are a whole and valuable person deserving of respect and love. Be open to the possibilities of what that respect and love can bring.
If you need help with leaving a toxic relationship, whether it be a parent or any one else, please reach out to a Marriage & Family Therapist in your area. They can help guide you through the process and work with you helping you see what a truly amazing person you are.
Liz Birch is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist who provides services in her office in Tustin, CA. Her areas of expertise are in communications, relationships, marriage strengthening, stress reduction, depression, trauma, anxiety, anger, personal growth, and ptsd (civilian and military). She can be reached via email at LizBirchMFT@gmail.com, or by calling 714-614-0612. Her website address is LizBirchTherapist.com
I'm a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, Psychotherapist, who works with individuals, couples and families. I'm also a thinker, doer, caregiver and idealist. I hope I inspire you to take risks and step out of your comfort zone. You might be surprised what you discover.