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How to deal with family estrangement struggles

estrangement
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Loneliness, heartache, isolation, and feeling misunderstood add layers of pain to family estrangement.

As one who’s traveling that road, I can attest to these feelings. The social insistence on “family first” and dating advice that calls it a red flag if someone has cut ties with family, adds to the shame.

As a result of the social stigma, those of us estranged from family have an intuitive sense that it’s not safe to share this information. That self-protection may be wise, but it leaves us feeling as though there’s something wrong with us, and we’re hiding something fundamental.

As a result of the social stigma, those of us estranged from family have an intuitive sense that it's not safe to share this information. Click To Tweet

You may carry a lingering fear that friends or lovers would abandon you if they knew the truth about your estrangement. You bear the burden of a constant fear of judgment over your family status.

It’s important to note that the decision to withdraw from family members is almost always a last resort. It comes after years or decades of trying to make a relationship function. Or to fit into a family system that won’t make room for your wants and needs.

Mixed emotions

Your logical mind might know you made the only decision you could. But another part of you will second guess or take on a woe is me attitude instead of celebrating your freedom.

This could be due to a past of never receiving comfort and support. As a result we have trouble meeting our own needs for comfort and support. It feels much more natural to be mean and harsh with ourselves.

You may feel resentful of the support other people receive from their families. You wonder how, in spite of this support, they complain about their family members.

In fact, it’s natural to have disagreements and express displeasure with your family. But you were probably never allowed to do that. Your opinions or desire for change, no matter how tactfully put, may have resulted in abandonment or gaslighting.

You learned that there was no way to disagree with your family or express honest opinions and emotions. The only way you could be yourself was to leave.

How to deal with estrangement

1. Resist the urge to isolate.

Family estrangement is more common than you think. Rather than keeping it to yourself, share with someone with whom you feel safe doing so.

If there’s no one in your life right now who understands, find a support group or counsellor skilled in dealing with estrangement, either online or in person.

2. Leave the door open.

If it helps, you can view the estrangement as impermanent. Instead of seeing the situation in black and white, tell yourself we’re estranged for now but who knows what the future holds?

Not only is this true, it can make the estrangement easier. Often, when we grow up with childhood trauma, we tend toward black and white thinking to keep ourselves safe. Allow yourself to hold onto things more loosely and have less control over them.

3. Set boundaries with family members.

You may be lucky enough to have supportive family members who understand your decision. That’s wonderful, but be sure to set boundaries around what you’re willing to listen to or talk about.

Often, however, especially when dealing with a narcissist, other family members may covertly support the person you’re seeking to avoid. This is evident in the case of so-called flying monkeys, who are part of my story, too.

4. Don’t blame yourself.

If you’ve been put in the difficult position of living with estrangement, chances are you might blame yourself. You may have grown up in a family role that blamed you when things went wrong.

If you've been put in the difficult position of living with estrangement, chances are you blame yourself. Instead of beating yourself up, treat yourself with loving kindness. Click To Tweet

Therefore, it feels like second nature to take responsibility for family breakdowns, or any rift in a relationship. You were probably always the one to try and make things better before the estrangement.

Instead of beating yourself up, treat yourself with loving kindness. When you are feeling the pain of your situation, listen to your needs and comfort yourself as you would a little child.

Gaslighting: what it is and how to overcome

gaslighting
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Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in the which the perpetrator denies or diminishes your experience. It’s a cruel emotional manipulation that makes you doubt yourself and even reality.

Gaslighting occurs in all types of relationships, including family, marriage and other romantic partnerships, friendships, and among siblings. It can also happen at work.

If you’ve had someone tell you your emotions are the problem instead of the issue at hand, that’s gaslighting. If someone denies they said something you know they did, they might be trying to rewrite history.

Gaslighting keeps you quiet by turning the blame on you instead of addressing the problem. Rather than face the issue, your abuser encourages you to blame yourself for the problem.

Gaslighting keeps you quiet by turning the blame on you instead of addressing the problem. Click To Tweet

This allows them to continue in the delusion they’ve done nothing wrong. Or it prevents a dysfunctional family system or relationship from looking at its own problems and what needs to change.

People who gaslight won’t think twice about throwing you under the bus to protect their own image of themselves. They will lie about what happened or deny having said something in a way that’s so convincing you will either doubt your memory or believe they actually forgot.

Either way, you never blame them but yourself for the problem. You go away believing they are innocent and you are guilty and may feel bad about having caused them distress. You even take on the role of patching things up between the two of you.

Fake concern

These types of abusers will pretend to be concerned about you. In reality, they are only concerned about protecting themselves from the consequences of the truth you are telling.

That could mean exposure of them as an inadequate parent or spouse. Or facing the fact that they need to make changes.

Your normal human response to a situation becomes the focus rather than whatever provoked your reaction. For example, if you express honest emotions, these will become pathologized as evidence that you are “crazy”.

This tactic further serves the abuser’s purpose of identifying you as the problem. And makes you turn against yourself and mistrust your emotions.

You are not allowed to have feelings about your abuser’s behavior. Any emotional reaction receives scorn and derision and turns the blame on you.

You are not allowed to have feelings about your abuser's behavior. Any emotional reaction turns the blame on you. Click To Tweet

As a result, you may suppress or deny your feelings because they only make you feel worse. You cut yourself off from the barometer of your feelings, and lose access to the internal guide that signals you to change or confront something.

Gaslighting is difficult to discern because it often comes from those who profess to love and care for us. In order to avoid facing their shortcomings, a “loving” parent or spouse will deny your experience instead.

This leads to the devastating confusion of feeling unheard, unseen, and misunderstood by those who claim to be your support system. Those closest to us have the greatest ability to hurt us. That’s why gaslighting works most effectively in these intimate relationships.

Gaslighting and self-abandonment

gaslighting

It works to silence you because you’ve learned it’s easier to keep quiet and go along with the status quo rather than share your feelings. Your membership in the relationship becomes contingent on you keeping your thoughts and feelings to yourself.

This leads to a psychic and spiritual death where you abandon yourself and your needs. Any desire to be seen, heard, and understood as a separate and unique human being gets quashed in favor of the dysfunction that allows the abuser to stay in the dark.

You feel like you can never be yourself and this is the price you pay to stay in the relationship. In addition, you feel alone, as though everyone around you thinks you’re crazy or a troublemaker.

You desperately want to feel understood, but no matter what you say or do you cannot make the abuser see your point of view. This is done intentionally to discredit you, and will likely never change.

You might feel like you have to prove yourself to the person. This could mean you deny your emotions to appear more calm so they will accept you. Or you go above and beyond to serve or please them hoping to win their favor.

How to overcome gaslighting

1. Name it.

Understand when you’ve been subjected to gaslighting and that nothing you say or do will make the person understand your point of view. The whole point is to undermine you and your position, so trying harder to make them hear you will only increase your frustration.

With gaslighting, nothing you say or do will make the perpetrator understand your point of view. Click To Tweet

2. Keep receipts.

Even a paper trail won’t make a gaslighting narcissist admit wrongdoing. But it will give you consolation and reminders that you’re not making things up. Those email, voice, and text messages will help when you feel tempted to second guess yourself.

3. Self-advocate.

Refuse to allow someone to dictate your behavior. Speak up about your thoughts and emotions. Let them know you’re no longer available to have your experiences minimized, trivialized, or erased from memory.

4. Educate yourself.

Whether it’s from books or by talking to a trauma-informed counsellor, learn more about gaslighting so you understand the signs. Arm yourself with knowledge about this abuse so you’re less surprised when it happens and know how to deal with it.

5. Leave the relationship.

I’ve had to walk away from relationships due to gaslighting. It’s a last resort and sometimes the only way to end the abuse and step into the life you deserve and desire. It’s a courageous act, and my only regret has been not ending these relationships sooner.

Are you the family scapegoat? Here are 9 signs

family scapegoat
Image by Masaaki Komori

My mother suffered with an undiagnosed mental illness which made her incapable of experiencing empathy or compassion. My role as the family scapegoat began with me bearing the burden of my mother’s emotional neediness while displaying no needs of my own.

As I grew up and began to act out as a result of the years of emotional abuse and neglect, my family labeled me the problem child. I became a convenient diversion from the family’s real problems which were multi-faceted and generational.

Through studying the dynamics of dysfunctional family systems, I’ve learned my role as the repository for the family’s grievances is archetypal. They used me as the scapegoat for their own shortcomings, making me the problem instead of facing their need to change.

Origins of the family scapegoat

The scapegoat is first mentioned in the Bible as a living sacrifice. Rather than kill the animal, the community releases it into the wild to carry away the sins of the whole group.

Its only purpose is to bear the burden of sins that are not its own. Today, we more often see scapegoats in dysfunctional families.

The family singles out one person to take the blame for all the problems in the family. Rather than look at themselves, the family points a collective finger at the scapegoat.

This allows them to carry on in their dysfunctional patterns without changing. They pretend to themselves they’re all right while the scapegoat is all wrong.

The scapegoat is the one who tells the truth about obvious defects in the family. Rather than support, she experiences gaslighting from the rest of the family.

She may be the mentally healthiest member of the family but by banding together, the clan convinces itself, and the scapegoat, that the opposite is true.

She may not understand why the rest of the family is unwilling to admit the obvious, keeps secrets, and hides the truth. For the scapegoat, the truth will set you free, but she is part of a family system that would rather remain in chains.

Fear of change and exposure motivates the family to sacrifice the scapegoat this way. Rather than face the truth and the possibility of deconstructing the whole family system, they demonize the truth teller.

If any of this resonates with you and you believe you’ve been targeted as the family scapegoat, here are nine signs you’ve been put in this role.

1. You are punished for telling the truth.

It seems like anytime you speak the truth, your family rebukes you. They abandon or punish you when you don’t go along with the status quo.

They can’t acknowledge the obvious truths you point out and instead point the finger at you and say you are the one with the problem.

2. You are the whistleblower.

Perhaps you threatened to expose a family secret but somehow got branded the bad guy. That’s because your desire to bring the truth to light poses a threat to a family dynamic that functions in the dark.

The hardest part of being a scapegoat is that families can be exceptionally good at hiding their dysfunction. This results in further isolation when the victim is not believed.

3. Your family blames you for their shortcomings.

They refuse to examine the poor behavior you’re asking them to acknowledge. Instead, they point to your human reaction to that behavior and pretend that’s the issue instead.

A valid emotional response becomes further evidence you’re “crazy” or always stirring up trouble.

4. You’re held to a different standard.

You may notice thoughts and opinions similar to yours are celebrated when others express them. But when you say or do the same things you get maligned. In psychology, this is known as the black sheep effect.

5. You feel left out as the family scapegoat.

You may find yourself left out of family events or conversations. Because you tell the truth, they’d rather not hear from you.

At the same time, you get criticized for your absence at events you were never invited to. This provokes guilt in you even though you’re the one who has been ostracized.

6. They sully your reputation.

Family members talk about you behind your back and speak poorly of you even to those outside the family circle. Rather than face their dysfunction they’ll tarnish your reputation publicly.

This is so you won’t receive support from outside the family and they can continue in their collective delusion.

7. Your family makes you feel ashamed or guilty.

As a result of years of unjust treatment, you have internalized a false sense of being bad or wrong. This can lead to over responsibility as you try to prove your “goodness”.

You fail to protect yourself from offences against you as a means of “taking the high road”. Or bear the burden of repairing relationships that are either bad for you or not your job to fix.

8. As the family scapegoat, you receive little or no praise.

Your family downplays your accomplishments. You may have never been praised or encouraged for your achievements in life.

Without the motivation provided by a pat on the back for a job well done, you give up and fail to achieve anything close to your potential. On the flip side, you work ever harder trying to prove yourself.

9. You have a difficult relationship with your sibling(s).

You have trouble connecting with your siblings as equals. They treat you with the same disdain as the rest of the family, promoting a false narrative of you as a troublemaker, or even someone with mental health issues.

They disrespect and discredit you at every turn. And do not provide you with the support you see in other sibling relationships.

While there’s no magic number that confirms you are a family scapegoat, it’s safe to say answering yes to five or more of these signs would be a good indication.

It’s important to know it’s not your fault and you had no control over your position within the family. It’s a role that was forced on you from a young age.

Stay tuned for the next post on how to heal from scapegoating and reclaim your life from the lies your family has told you.

The social stigma of going no contact with toxic family

toxic family
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

If you’ve had to go no contact with toxic family, you know the strength required to protect yourself this way. Often decades of internal work go into reaching such a drastic conclusion.

If you’ve dealt with toxic family you know it’s tantamount to having your head held underwater while drowning. Instead of throwing you a life preserver, or even ignoring you, they throw you a boulder.

As a result, you can rarely become the person God (or the universe) put you on earth to become. Therefore, detaching from unsafe family becomes a matter of survival and a spiritual battle for your life.

Gaslighting abounds within the toxic family. They call you crazy for displaying normal human emotions. They deny your reality, tell you you’re wrong to feel the way you do, or reinvent the past.

Gaslighting abounds within the toxic family. They call you crazy for displaying normal emotions. They deny your reality or reinvent the past. Click To Tweet

If you haven’t heard of gaslighting, it’s the way your family throws you under the bus to avoid dealing with their problems. They make you the problem to maintain their dysfunctional status quo.

They deny that anything bad has happened to you. Often, they make you believe you’re overreacting or selfish for wanting to be seen and heard or have your needs met.

Social stigma of detaching from toxic family

toxic family

I heard a dating coach tell his students that it’s a big red flag if someone has a troubled relationship with their family. This is an example of the social stigma attached to making the brave move to protect yourself from toxic people.

In addition to the pain and isolation of detaching from your abusers, you endure the social shame of being someone who “can’t get along with their family”.

After all, the common denominator is you, right? Your family seems to get along with each other and as they’ve told you, you’re the only one with a problem.

This is where the spiritual battle comes in. You may be the family scapegoat and that’s a biblical concept. You are the spiritual bearer of your family’s sins and they will keep piling on you until you take a stand for yourself.

You may be the family scapegoat and that's the spiritual bearer of your family's sins. They will keep piling on you until you take a stand for yourself. Click To Tweet

It’s a lie that truth hangs with the majority. Most often, the one who stands alone is the truth teller. Think of the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Jesus. Any whistleblower you can name.

As someone with the courage to stand up to your abusers and choose the truth you count yourself among the esteemed company listed above.

Most likely, you have been persecuted for refusing to go along with a lie. The lie of toxic family rules and roles. The lie that expressing emotions means you’re crazy. And there is no shame in that.

How to take the air out of your revenge fantasies

revenge fantasies
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Have you ever indulged in revenge fantasies? These are the normal outcome of feeling victimized or traumatized by others. Especially if you’ve suffered from PTSD, complex or otherwise.

I’ve lived long enough to see my childhood bully come to a grisly and untimely end at the hands of a family member. Another of my perpetrators contracted a fatal illness.

Interestingly, these developments brought me no pleasure. My desire to see these people suffer lived only in my imagination. In reality, I experienced sorrow when calamity befell them, and pity over their inauthentic lives.

James Baldwin wrote one of my favorite life quotes:

People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.

My revenge fantasies paled in comparison to the punishment these people inflicted on themselves. By holding tight to the need to be right and condemning others, they created loveless lives.

By denying themselves the personal growth to find their true calling in life, they resigned themselves to meagre existences. This led to physical illness and relationships with people who cared nothing for their well-being.

What causes revenge fantasies

revenge fantasies

The desire for revenge comes from a feeling of bitterness against someone who wronged you. As you move away from such people and tend to your own needs, your resentment abates.

Revenge fantasies serve as a coping mechanism to relieve the pain of complex PTSD. But as we heal that pain through self-love and self-compassion, the need for revenge dissipates.

As you grow and create a fulfilling life away from your former persecutors, pity replaces bitterness. And forgiveness has nothing to do with releasing these bad feelings.

It comes with the knowledge that those people no longer hold any power over you. You see how small they become as you expand into your true essence.

In the film The Revenant, the protagonist spends much of the film seeking revenge against his son’s killer. In the end, he realizes revenge belongs to God. When the perpetrator faces justice in the end, it’s by someone else’s hand.

If there’s a moral here it’s that your abusers will pay for what they’ve done. Whether through the small lives they’ve created, or through physical calamity.

You may be surprised at how little this satisfies you, and even pity them. That’s because you’ve grown like a phoenix from the ashes, while they remain scurrying on the ground.

As you soar to new heights in your personal development, they no longer hold power over you. In fact, you can barely see them from your new vantage point.

That’s enough to take the air out of most revenge fantasies. Independent of whether you’ve forgiven your persecutors or not.