10 Steps to Survive Toxic Family

Disclaimer:  This blog does not give medical advice. I am sharing tips that had helped me in overcoming challenges related to my highly dysfunctional family upbringing, during which I have experienced severe emotional and verbal abuse. Hence, it is not my intention to harm any other survivor’s feelings. My only intention is to help others and spread the message that you can fully heal, thrive, love life, and be happy regardless. Since a sense of humor had profoundly contributed to my healing, I truly believe that it is a powerful tool that everyone can use for free. Therefore, I hope that this post, although touches on very serious issues, will bring a smile and won’t offend anyone.

I grew up in post-Soviet Poland in the 90s and 00s in a little town, located in the middle of nowhere. The way I have been raised was based on three fundamental rules: the first one was that a child is a property of the parents and basically, of the whole family. Thus, do not try to be yourself because there is no such thing as yourself. Be what the family expects you to be because you do not own a house yet and live in your family’s house, so you must obey the rules. It is irrelevant that your parents brought you to life and that was their decision. Now you are here, and you are a burden.

The second rule was that love is conditional. The condition is that you will be loved only if you will be the best at school while quiet and subservient at home. Don’t waste your time on extracurricular activities that bring you joy such as drama class, because you still have to work on your math grades. It is not important to be the best in what you are talented in, it is important to be the best at school so you will fulfill the frustrations of your parents and become an attorney in their friend’s small law firm. That is the synonym of success and that is the path you have to pursue, don’t think that you can accomplish more than that. Yes, some people do accomplish amazing things but only because they are special. You are definitely not special and therefore, you cannot achieve really ambitious goals or live an extraordinary life.

The last rule was: you are never enough. Despite the fact that you are the best in your school, there is always someone with a 0,5 higher GPA than you in another school! Despite the fact, your middle and high school teachers, your parents’ friends, and school peers say you look very thin and call you anorexic, according to your parents, you have the obesity gene. Even though without any effort and without eating disorder you are very, very skinny, your parents say there are many girls that are ‘naturally skinny’ but you are not one of them.

Never complain because you don’t have anything to complain about. You have a roof under your head and food on the table. Your grandparents had the II World War, your parents had communism and you, the spoiled child of the new capitalism, only have the verbal abuse and lack of emotional support from your family. Don’t you dare make mistakes, follow your unrealistic dreams, and change your plans. The whole family is counting on you. Your parents are in a very incompatible, abusive, and highly toxic relationship and reasons, why they are still together, are other’s people’s opinions and money. Your mother is cold and depressed, your father is angry and neurotic. Your mother doesn’t like you because you remind her of your father and your father doesn’t like you because you remind him of your mother. So at least the one thing you can do to make everyone happy is to suck it up and achieve the goals your family has set for you. Is this really that big of a deal?

Having lived through all the above, I was constantly screamed at (with calling names and curses) for nothing. I was the ‘adult one’ at home, responsible for what is going on, always on guard. I was mediating between my parents after their constant fights, comforting my crying mother, immature father, and younger brother. I was being treated disrespectfully, sometimes pulled with anger from my parents. I witnessed physical abuse. My every move was controlled. When a week was too calm, I would be anxious because I knew it won’t last long. The predominant atmosphere was a heavy tension in the air. Every ‘family dinner’ at the table ended with screaming and fights (that is why I don’t like sitting at the table to eat with other people). However, I loved it when we had guests over because then my parents would transform into other human beings and were nice to me.

This is only a glimpse of my previous life, there were many more drastic elements that require another post or even a book, but I hope this brief description gives an idea of what kind of issues and problems a person raised this way had to face later in life. My younger brother suffered from severe mental and emotional problems and spent a couple of years at a closed therapy center. Fortunately, he is doing better now. Shortly after I moved abroad, my mother left my father. She did an intense soul-searching and found her happiness which helped her to fully comprehend and apologize for her toxic behaviors from the past.

Interestingly, before my parents divorced, everyone thought that we had a perfect, loving family. All the dark secrets were hidden, and it was hard for anyone to believe that such kind of abuse could take place at our home. This made it harder to be brave enough to break the toxic cycle. However, at 23 years old I decided to save myself. My journey was challenging, required a lot of sacrifices and bold decisions such as moving to another country. Over time I gained confidence, dared to follow my dreams, and now, at 31, I can say that I am happy and fully healed.

It would mean a world to me if anyone who struggles with similar life circumstances would find this post at least a little bit helpful.

  1. Know that your feelings and emotions are valid.

The first step to survival and healing is to realize that all your feelings and emotions are valid and justified. If you feel constantly attacked, hurt, not respected, then it is true – even though you have been told your whole life by your family that there is something wrong with you, you are oversensitive, crazy, etc. If you feel drained and even physically exhausted (you suffer from migraines, stomach problems, rashes, insomnia, panic attacks) when dealing with your family, then your mind and body are trying to say you something. When you cannot focus on your own life because every aspect of it is affected and/or supervised by toxic family, then it is time to fully acknowledge the fact that you have a problem and it is time to save yourself. The only person that you can control in order to have a normal, healthy life is you.

2. Remember that true love is never conditional. Look for good people around you.

Yes, all families have their own issues. However, not all families are highly dysfunctional and abusive. True love is never conditional. Don’t allow anyone to persuade you that the ongoing suffering and stress in a family is normal. Make an effort to seek good, supportive people around you, who will believe you and believe in you. Reflect upon the common characteristics of your toxic family members, their behavioral patterns, and avoid people in friendships or relationships who represent the same. As Marisa Peer emphasizes, the brain is used to what it knows, even if it is very bad. But we all have the power to become self-conscious and train our brain to start getting used to good words, positive thoughts, and supportive people.

3. Forgive but distant yourself.

Give yourself time to forgive by distancing yourself. You can inform your family that you need to be separated for a while. You don’t need to explain everything to everyone. Sometimes you need to distant yourself for a month, a year, or even forever. Initially, the time can be longer, and then, with time, things might (but also might not) get better. Depending on your personal situation, decide for yourself and don’t feel pressure to solve everything or to torture yourself by staying in touch with a toxic family. If you will start feeling calmer, empowered, and less emotional, you will feel ready to reconnect and maybe establish ‘diplomatic’ relations – not deep, engaging relations but just proper relations that would allow meeting your family for holiday dinner.

4. Seek professional help but try to avoid anything which would change the chemical balance of your brain.

If you feel like you don’t control your life at all and that consumes you, your relationships and your life, seek professional help. However, my strong recommendation is to go to ‘talking only’, one on one therapy, without medication. Avoid any substances which would change the chemical balance of your brain such as medication, excessive drinking, or drugs. Since you can feel very unbalanced and lost, do not add other factors that may cause you to do things you will regret or make you even more disconnected from your true self. You can drink calming herbal tea since it has a soothing but natural and not addictive or invasive factor to them. Therapy helps in putting things into perspective. You will have someone from outside look at your family, explain to you the patterns, allow you to be heard and understood. Make sure your therapist would be the person you are willing to open up to. If you are not feeling safe with the first therapist you have met, go to another one. 

5. Take good care of yourself.

Exercise, eat healthy food, meditate, and try to focus exclusively on yourself. Think about your dreams, what you want to do with your life, start planning, journaling, strategizing and take control over your life: from your body to your mind and soul. Take gratitude notes every day, writing three things you are grateful for such as a love in your life, good health, food.

6. Move on with your life.

Don’t wait for your toxic family members to finally understand you, to improve, or to apologize to you. You have probably already tried to address all the issues with your family and constantly get dismissed. Therefore, it is time for you to focus on yourself and move on with your own life and goals. Time to be with people who actually can show love, appreciation, and, simply, are good to you. Consider moving to another town, city, or even country, even for a while. Sometimes changing the place to live can creatively stimulate you and allow you to finally be yourself, do what you want, without having to worry about hearing attacking, mean comments, and comparisons to others.

7. Treat yourself as your best friend.

What would be your advice if you would see your best friend being treated in a cruel way? To stay and let others treat her or him like this? Would you say: ‘Oh well, you have probably done something to deserve it!’ or would you rather say: ‘I am really sorry for you being treated like this’. What kind of words would you use to comfort your best friend when she/he would be sad, hurt, or stressed? Would you ignore your friend and say that’s his or her feelings are irrelevant or rather prepare a cup of tea, let him or her cry, and listened to the problem? These examples illustrate the importance of being your best friend first and foremost. Be kind and gentle to yourself and talk to yourself nicely. Remember, you are never alone – you have yourself.

8. Deal with your guilt.

As mentioned above, you should be the most important person in your life. You should feel safe, calm, and happy. Unless you have children, the one and the only person you are responsible for, is you. You shouldn’t feel guilty that you want to survive and have a beautiful, healthy life. Even if that means distancing from your biological family for a long time. Thus, address your guilt and remind yourself that if you won’t save yourself from toxic family, no one else will.

9. Don’t repeat toxic patterns.

Once you understand the patterns of your family members’ behaviors, you have the power to break the toxic cycle. Identify your reactions that may resemble those of your toxic family members. When you will become self-aware, you can decide that you don’t want to be like your family. You don’t want to hurt others and sabotage your life, relationships, and friendships. Appreciate good people that were with you in your darkest moments and make them feel loved and respected. Don’t use your ‘toxic family victim’ card to justify your own bad behaviors. You have the chance to have the family you have always dreamt of when you were a child – but make sure you are treating your partner (and children in the future) in a good way.

10. Remember that your past does not define you.

It might be difficult to fully realize that not every biological family is loving and supportive. We don’t have to choose what kind of biological family we are born into. However, you can choose people that become your real family. Hence, do not waste your precious time and energy on people that simply don’t deserve you. Endless fighting with your family is just not worth it. What’s worth fighting for is the wonderful life that is ahead of you.

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