First of all, family estrangement is more common than you think. If you’re in the difficult position of having to limit or go no contact with family members, you’re not alone.
Because of cultural taboos, you may not talk about your estrangement issues. You may have felt misunderstood or judged whenever your tried to broach the topic.
But, would you be surprised to learn that one in four people experiences family estrangement? With many of us shamed into silence about our situation, no wonder we often feel isolated.
What causes family estrangement?
The reasons for family estrangement differ for everyone. You may have initiated the boundary or someone may have enforced it on you. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on the former.
An Atlantic magazine article talked about a shift in cultural values increasing estrangement. Families used to fight over material things and now we’re more interested in psychological issues.
I believe a cultural move away from cult-like devotion to our families represents a positive shift. We now seek to meet our emotional needs instead of suppressing them for the sake of the tribe.
And those of us who refuse to go along with the dysfunctional family’s rules will find it difficult to stay in our roles. That creates discomfort in the family and earns you the label of troublemaker.
The dysfunctional family system
When you step outside your role in a dysfunctional family, you receive tremendous pushback. You discover that your family may not have your best interests in mind.
This heartbreaking revelation comes with some soul searching. Am I going to keep my membership in this family at the cost of my authentic self?
Despite the difficulty of setting boundaries in such a rigid system, you muster the courage to do so. But when you begin to express your thoughts and emotions honestly, you experience gaslighting.
After much confusion, self-doubt, and frustration, you begin to understand that nothing you do or say is going to make these people change. They won’t see your point of view because they don’t want to.
If they admitted they had wronged you or acknowledged your pain, that would mean facing the need to change. But, dysfunctional family members are terrified of change and will do anything to avoid it.
I’m reminded of my own years as an active alcoholic when I’d avoid facing the truth of my addiction. That’s because acknowledging my problem meant needing to change, and that sounded too hard.
If you only know one way of solving problems, as sick as they are, envisioning a new way can feel terrifying. I believe that’s the tyranny these families live under.
Is it okay to be estranged from your family?
Recently someone challenged my long-held belief in estrangement as a last resort. I often write about the years of effort and heartache that precede such a break.
“But why do we need to wait so long to act in our own self-interest?” the reader asked. So, whether or not estrangement comes as a last resort, it’s a personal decision.
That means no one else can tell you if it’s okay. You have to look within and decide for yourself if it’s right for you. Some questions to ask:
Does this person refuse to take any responsibility and instead lays the blame at your feet?
Do they refuse to listen to your point of view and insist on maintaining the status quo?
Does their presence in your life negatively impact your mental health? Cute self-help quips say no one has the power to make you feel a certain way, but they do.
Do you come away from an encounter with this person feeling depressed, anxious, self-loathing, guilty, etc.?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, the benefits of staying in this relationship (if any) may not outweigh the loss if you step away.
How do I get over family estrangement?
I’m not sure if you ever get over family estrangement. It’s something you live with and manage, but here are some ways to enhance your healing journey:
Find other growth-oriented people experiencing family estrangement. Support groups abound both online and in person.
But, make sure these are solution-oriented rather than filled with chronic complainers. The latter will make you feel like a victim instead of empowering you.
Give yourself grace for putting up with the abuse or neglect for so long. You faced tremendous cultural pressure to maintain ties with your family. Stay mindful of the present moment and your glorious future.
On the flipside, don’t feel pressured to forgive your family member. Use that precious energy to rebuild your life and focus on your own healing.
Accept your anger and sadness
Forced forgiveness requires you to suppress anger which causes disease in the body. Besides, you need that anger to remind you of why you left in the first place.
There’s nothing wrong with so-called negative emotions; they’re there to give you information. You’re allowed to grieve the loss of your family member or the mother or father you never had.
You’re also allowed to feel rage at how they mistreated you and refused to listen when you told them how you felt.
Learn to parent your inner child
As abused and neglected children, we missed out on the care and attention we deserved. Now, as an adult, you can parent your inner child by reassuring her she is safe now.
When you’re feeling dysregulated and powerless, your inner child is running the show. When she learns you’re taking care of her needs, she will step aside and let your confident adult take over.