When You Can’t Fix Your Family

Dare 2 Hope_sad kid

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sometimes the people in our life who should love us the most and treat us with the most care, actually treat us with the most indifference. Or worse… inflict the most harm on us. It’s awful and it’s not fair, because we don’t get to pick our family. The good news is that as we get older, we get to decide how close we will be, emotionally and physically, to those family members. (See my previous post about How You Can (Finally!) Disengage from a Toxic Parent.)

A lady I used to do therapy with has a very dysfunctional family she struggled to detach from, even though their toxic behavior and comments provoked disabling anxiety for her, as well as profound feelings of shame and isolation. At 61-years-old, this woman was still trying to earn their approval and acceptance, and blaming herself for their maltreatment, thinking on a subconscious level that if she could just do things ‘right’, they’d finally love her.

Once, she described a vivid dream that she had when she was just four years old: “I was on a battlefield in the middle of a war and there was shooting and bombs were going off. I was lost and terrified at all the chaos and violence, when my parents and brothers and sisters drove up in a Jeep. I thought I was being rescued, but they looked at me, and then just drove off, leaving me there. I remember I woke up bawling, I was so scared and hurt that they left me.”

I asked if her if that little four-year-old girl deserved to be rescued, if she deserved more love and protection from her family than she got—not just in the dream but in real life.

“Yes!” my client almost shouted, angry tears welling up in her eyes as she grieved for that little girl.

“You are that little girl still. You’re just older. But there wasn’t a point, a specific age, when you stopped deserving those things.”

Friends, it’s so tempting for us, especially when we’re children trying to make sense of a confusing world, to believe that our family’s chaos or the abuse or neglect we suffer at their hands is our fault. Because if it’s our fault, then we can fix it, right? If it’s not our fault, and it is actually theirs… well, then that means we have no control over their behavior and that is scary—again, especially when we’re vulnerable children dependent on those very people.

Now you are grown up. And you still can’t fix them. And you can’t change them by ‘fixing’ yourself. But you can put in boundaries to minimize the degree to which they continue to rob you of joy, peace, and self-esteem. You get to decide now what you will and will not accept. And I hope you’ll stop accepting anything that is wounding your heart and soul. Believe it yet or not, you do deserve better.

Much love,
Cherie Signature

About Cherie Miller @ Dare 2 Hope
Cherie Miller, MS, LPC opened Dare 2 Hope Counseling to help clients all over the country get free from their food, weight, and self-confidence struggles. Her specialty is eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, orthorexia and other unhealthy eating patterns. Contact her here.

How You Can (Finally!) Disengage from a Toxic Parent

Dare 2 Hope - Relationship Levels

Many people know all to well what it’s like to grow up under a toxic parent (or parents). Whether it’s a mom or dad who’s narcissistic, alcoholic, neglectful, abusive, or has any number of other issues that render them incapable of providing the love and support every child deserves, children in these families struggle to make sense of it all as they get older… and to heal wounds that can be hard to even put words to. Sometimes, that parent continues to be a negative force even after growing up and leaving home. Does this sound familiar to you? If so, keep reading because this can make huge difference in your life.

One of the biggest challenges I see in my work as a therapist and life coach is the ability to disengage from a toxic parent. There is much that could be written on the topic, and I certainly can’t cover it all in one blog post, but I will talk about what I think is the first step: realistically assessing the relationship and assigning it an appropriate level. Here’s what I mean by that… All of the various relationships in our lives exist and operate at different levels. As illustrated in the picture above, think of them as circles.

  • The innermost circle includes your most intimate relationships. This probably includes your significant other if you have one, and perhaps a best friend. These people know the good, bad, and ugly about you. You could call them at 2am if you needed something. Their opinions about you and your life matter deeply and therefore, they have significant ability to influence you.
  • The next level is our more casual friends. This group knows us fairly well and we see them regularly, but they aren’t necessarily involved in all the nitty-gritty of our lives. Maybe this includes select people from work or church, or another mom on the soccer team. These people’s opinions of you matter, but not to the extent of your inner circle.
  • The next level includes acquaintances. These are people you say hi to and talk about the weather with. They include the remaining people at work, church, or other groups you’re in. You make friendly conversation but do not open up much about anything meaningful. You probably want these people to think well of you, but you’re not going to be controlled by their opinions. And since they have a limited view into your life, there is less opportunity for them to speak into it anyway.
  • The final, outermost level is made up of strangers. These are people you encounter out and about, but you don’t know them at all. Examples are customer service employees and other people standing in the post office line.

Now, all of that probably makes sense. But which level is your toxic parent on? As children, our parents are almost always in the inner circle. It happens by default because when we’re young, our family is our little nucleus, so to speak. The problem is that as we get older and have the ability to decide who goes in which circle, we oftentimes put or leave people in that inner circle who have no business being there, and that is especially true when it comes to parents. But as adults, that inner level is a position that should be earned because our vulnerability and access to our lives is a privilege, not a right, for other people. This includes family, even if they want to be in the inner level and believe they deserve to be.

“But as adults, that inner level is a position that should be earned because our vulnerability and access to our lives is a privilege, not a right, for other people.”

Do you need to start moving your parent into the second or third level circle (or in the most extreme cases, the last level)? That can be really hard, because most of us wish our parents could be in that inner circle. But if they shouldn’t be there and we don’t accept and adjust to that truth, we will continually feel hurt, angry, disappointed, or controlled by them. If you can move them to the appropriate level, you’re freer to enjoy what is possible in the relationship, even if it’s not as deep or supportive as you—or they—would like.

If you want to know more about this subject, I recommend Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend and Toxic Parents by Forward and Buck. Or you can contact me about virtual life coaching!

Be well,