Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Stronger for the Breaks – How to Heal from a Toxic Parent

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Stronger for the Breaks - How to Heal from a Toxic Parent

It’s one thing to be dipped in venom by those you don’t really care about, but when it’s by 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, it changes you. There is a different kind of hurt that can only come from a toxic parent – someone who is meant to love you. Kind of like being broken from the inside out.

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The scarring and hurt that comes from a toxic parent probably isn’t something we talk about enough. None of us are 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 replacing it with something awful.

When children are raised on a diet of criticism, judgement, 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. 

Toxic parents come in many shapes. Some are so obvious that they can be spotted from space through the eye of a needle. Some are a bit more subtle. All are destructive.

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 criticise. Nothing is ever good enough. You get an A, they’ll want an A+. You get an A+, they’ll wonder why you aren’t school captain. You make school captain, your sister would have been a better one. And you’ll never be pretty like her. They’ll push you down just to criticise you for the way you fall. That, or they’ll shove you off a cliff to show the world how well they catch you. They oversee childhoods with no warmth, security or connection. 

Any negative behaviour that causes emotional damage or contaminates the way a person sees himself or herself, is toxic. A toxic parent treat 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. If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Well yeah, my parent/s did that, but only because it was true – I’m pretty useless at life,’ then chances are that parent was a toxic one. 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 realise what they were doing. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. 

It is possible to heal from by toxic parenting. It begins with the decision that the legacy of shame and hurt left behind by a toxic parent won’t be the way your story will end.

How to heal from a toxic parent.

Here are some ways to move forward.

  1. It’s okay to let go of 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 amputate. 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 lining yourself up be abused, belittled, shamed or humiliated. Healing starts with expecting more for yourself, and you’re the only person who can make that decision. 

  2. And it’s okay not to.

    Don’t be harsh on yourself if you stay in the relationship. The act of returning to an abusive relationship can set 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 possibilities.

    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. Ever. If it was going to, it would have reached you by now. See their behaviour for what it is – evidence of their breaks, not evidence of yours. Put a forcefield 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.

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  4. Be careful of repeating the patterns with other people

    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. 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 fulfil. That’s the theory. 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 your wanted things 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. Own your right to love and respect.

    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 behaviour.

    You’ve been there, so you know the behaviours and you know what they do. We’re all human. We’re all going to get it wrong sometimes. Toxic behaviour 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 inept, 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 many lives could 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 capable enough. The truth is that you are so enough. It’s crazy how enough you are. 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 them now. Make plenty. Heaps. 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.

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  8. Write a list. (And get yourself a rubber band.)

    Write down the beliefs that hold you back. 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? That parents are always right? That you’re unloveable? Unimportant? Stupid? Annoying? Incapable? Worthless?

    Now beside each belief, write what that belief is costing you. Has it cost you relationships? Happiness? Freedom to be? To experiment? To explore? Then, rewrite the script. Thoughts drive feelings, behaviour, what you expect for yourself and what you expect from relationships and 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 – you don’t need to hurt yourself – your old thoughts have been doing that for 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. Find your ‘shoulds’ that shouldn’t be.

    ‘Shoulds’ are the messages we take in whole (introject) from childhood, school, relationships, society. They guide behaviour 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 ‘should’s’ come from many years of cultivating and careful pruning, so that when that should is fully formed, it direct you so automatically that you don’t even need to think.

    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? Like you owe them? Like you’ll never cope if you separate properly from them? Were the messages delivered to keep you small? Quiet? Hidden? Believing the messages may have worked when you were younger, steering you way from their foul mood or toxic consequences, 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. But don’t be guilted by that.

    One of the things that makes 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. Zoom out and 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. Build 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, with absolute certainty, 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. Because they are. 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 realising 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. Brave, extraordinary, unexpected turns that will lead you to a happier, fuller life. It’s what you’ve always deserved. Be open to the possibilities of you. There are plenty.

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310 Comments

Brenda

Wow, this is the best resource I have found on the subject of healing from a toxic parent and the scarring legacy of growing up in an atmosphere of abuse.
Tears filled up my eyes as I recognized myself so much in this – especially the part about migraine, which I have struggled with for years.

The hardest part for me is that I love my parents – no matter how much damage they have done. I want to forgive them, and I still care about them, but in the end I know that I must take care of myself for now and that forgiveness doesn’t mean that I have to keep disregarding my own health.

Thank you so much for this amazing posting, and my best wishes to all out there who can relate. You are not alone.

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Yunita

I never knew I had a toxic parent, especially a toxic mother. All this time I thought it was only me going against their rules term and condition. I was feeling as if I was a rebellious daughter to them. All the symptoms, I went through all of it, even the side effects.
Now, it would be my first step to take to recover myself. And now I know, I’m not alone. Thank you.

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Colin Stannard

Hiya,

I was once very invested in forgiveness. Forgiveness meant nothing had to change. Forgiveness does not alter behaviour. Forgiveness means we can continue the chase for their love. It is only once we acknowledge they are incapable of true love that we can stop chasing after these damaged people. Forgiveness, ok if they acknowledge take ownership of the damage they have created but that is never going to happen because its beyond the abilies of the self absorded.

Forgiveness is on the path to a healthier self its not the destination. Ultimately we have to stand up for ourselves and say no I deserve to treat myself better.
Rather than forgiveness seek to build up Self esteem, set boundaries, set the bar to how u want to be treated. Move on and let go.

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Kima

Powerful statement, forgiveness is indeed a natural by-product of time and space and self affirmation, but is actually counter productive as a goal. It comes in of its own accord when the time is ripe. The real goal here is to love and respect and cherish who you are in every regard.

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mary

thank you…sometimes the world gives harsh beliefs that having a toxic relationship with a parent is OBVIOUSLY the childs fault.knowing that this isnt the case and that it is ok there are others out there is a relief and the beginning of healing to me.

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Brenda

I think one of the effects of the abuse/toxicity within my family of origin is a very automatic and hypersensitive misplaced guilt reflex! I almost automatically assume something is wrong with me – and I caused it – whenever anything goes wrong.

I remember my toxic mother blaming me for my parents’ marital difficulties and subsequent separation (my father was also was abusive, sadly, to both my mother and I). It is tragic to realize my entire family had copious amounts of toxicity/abuse in it – stretching back several generations likely, since I know both my mother and father experienced childhood abuse and family dysfunction. It’s like a never-ending chain of pain. It is something that just breaks my heart. And one of my greatest fears is that I am becoming toxic and abusive myself. I have noticed I have trouble regulating my own anger at others, because I grew up in a family where anger was so completely mismanaged and was taken out on people (through emotional and physical abuse). When I interact with a toxic person, I notice that I retaliate in a toxic way back – often emotionally abusing them in return. Then I start to hate myself further for “stooping to their level”.

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Scott

Insightful article very articulate sums up my experience very well. Toxic damaged father and emotionally unavailable mother. Yeah I was emotionally neglected. I’ve had long period of therapy (14 years). It’s so hard to see how the unconscious damage has affected key life decisions. My life feels like it’s been one big waste of time. I just can’t see how you get over “the knowing” knowing how damaged you are……I’m 53 and wish I was dead

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Scott no experience is ever wasted. I know how exhausting it can be growing up in an emotionally neglectful environment, but keep fighting for you. It sounds as though the experiences you have been through have caused breakage to the way things should have been, or to the way you deserved them to be, or to your expectations or dreams or hopes, but don’t let them break you. You are not damaged. You are a fighter. A survivor. There is wisdom, strength and courage in you. It’s impossible for there not to be. You have everything inside you that you need for a happier version of yourself. If you don’t believe it, act like you do – eventually your mind will catch up. Please keep fighting for you. You deserve it.

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Scott

HMmm thanks but lots of platitudes in that reply lots. It would appear that I deserve this conscious misery I now have. Besides who says I deserve better? How do you get over “The Knowing” of long term therapy. When you can see how your script of don’t be close, don’t succeed, don’t exist has played out in your life by subconscious genius?? I’m 53 it’s too little too late

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Kathy

I’m 59 and just figured it out. Yes, I need to grieve that my parent is on another plane and is incapable of communicating with me. She’s 81. We may not recover any relationship before she passes. I just need to move on with the people who want to be in my life.

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Joni

I am 60 and finally drew the line in the sand, so to speak. Not too long ago, I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t FEEL like getting out of bed. I was just waiting, and wanting, to die. My mother is extremely neglectful who shows absolutely no nuturing, no motherly instinct. She hasn’t given me a hug since I can remember. I was abused in every possible way as a child, until I left home at 17. She told me about a year ago that she knew. I told her when I was 15 and she did nothing to protect me or make it stop. She knew, though, way before I told her. I was devastated beyond the devastation I had already endured my entire (ENTIRE) life. I changed my phone number and no longer have anything to do with her or my violent brother. I feel good knowing that I won’t have to become completely stressed ever again because of one of her angry, vile phone calls. I gave our relationship one last shot and put everything I had into it. She continued to tell me I was disrespectful and a horrible person. My brother became angry because I had power of attorney. It was a helluva stressful, strenuous catastrophe. So…..I quit. At 60 years old, I’ve made the decision to allow myself to have feelings and thoughts that are truly mine. Although, it is difficult to separate the chafe from the corn. It is a struggle to “undo” the basis and foundation for all of my thought processes and decision making. But, I’m doing it. I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful husband who helps me by pointing out characteristics that aren’t beneficial to a healthy outlook.

I have grieved the loss of my childhood and the loss of my family. But, for the first time ever, I am looking to the next minute without dread. The days will take of themselves if I just take care of the minutes.

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Jodie

My goodness I can relate to your post. I will be 50 in May and I just made this “final cut” with my mom today. It was a long time coming and we’ve had starts and stops in the past 9 years or so…..but this time….with the healing I have done, I knew it was different. It wasn’t out of “spite” or “in the moment anger.” It was a deep knowing that there was nothing left I could do. We had already limited our relationship to the point of only occasional contact on fb messenger……but then she went full tilt crazy on one of my friends posts today (she’s not even friends with them but fb lets her see when I post on their timeline anyway…stupid thing!) And when I asked her to stop she just went even nuttier….and it affected my two daughters as well……it was just time.

Yet I sit here in my yet another round of freaking painful tears (my gosh how many more bouts of this crap!) feeling guilty for now banning her from my fb page as has my husband and daughters….and then the onslaught of nasty texts I received from her but didn’t reply to…..

This is not what I expected when I woke up this morning but I guess it was the day it was destined to happen. Ouch.

I am grateful for this page as it described so many things that I think I am FINALLY willing to acknowledge are true about her……no matter how much I fight the guilt and the pain of it……one step at a time I guess.

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alison

I admire your decision and however painfyl you know its right.. im also 50 and gave jyst done exactly the same… its sad but a sense if relief.. my world will be richdr for nit frelingvthe torment and negativuty from a woman with no kindness of soul… syrround yourself with the love you deserve xxx bug hugs from Alison Cambridge ENgland

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Colin Stannard

Hi Scott,

Try and be kinder to yourself.

At my lowest I struggled to find anything positive. What may help is to view how you are feeling now as just a snap shot, a moment in your journey to recovery.

I also tore myself apart looking for the negatives. I think that is normal and quite a natural reaction. But its only one of many many responses some negative others positive all part of recovery.
These experiences make us the people we are, so much stronger for having survived

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Tara

I’m 58 and cannot take the anguish and heart ache my 91 year old father is still able to inflict on me. His bitterness and constant complaint makes my life a misery. A situation last year and over Christmas was the last straw. I have written him a letter to say I am going to keep my distance from him as his words and actions continue to hurt me. I have told him that I have to focus on my own life, husband, children and grandchildren. I have tried all my life to make him love me and be proud of me but I have to eventually call it a day for reasons of self preservation. The letter is written and ready. But I fear I don’t have the courage to post it.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Tara your response is so understandable. It sounds as though you have fought hard to make the relationship with your father one that works for both of you. You have every right to be happy and feel free from control and criticism. My only comment is that letting go doesn’t have to be angry and it can be done with love and grace. Here is an article that can explain how to do that http://www.heysigmund.com/toxic-people-when-someone-you-love-toxic/. I hope this helps. Love and strength to you.

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HR

Watch Tara Brach talks on YouTube and begin the road to healing with recognizing what you feel, allowing it to be, investigating it further, is it true? Is it real?, then naming it.
Then give it the most amazing compassion ever and do this every time something comes up for you.
Unpack it bit by bit snd show yourself the utmost compassion, for you, the little child who deserves love, validation and kindness. Parent yourself now, accept yourself, forgive yourself and take care of yourself.
Practice self compassion every day, all day. You will heal and become whole. G-d bless you all on your paths.

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Karrie

Im 63 now and suffered a life of abuse from my father who is now dead but has carried the legacy of abuse towards me in the living trust. It has been a lifetime of efforts to overcome, even now that he is gone. I find encouragement and hope reading sites on Google, always searching, an unending ordeal, never overcoming or dissolving, just encouragement from reading other peoples experiences to know others deal with the same thing. Thank you for all your thoughts.

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alison

This was sad yet comforting to read. Im not alone !!! My mother was the toxic abuzer in my life and sadly although i see my dAd as a loving but weaK man i realise he is the enabler…he stands by lets her nasty sharp tongue cut me down… and he szys/does nothing.
Ive divorced my mother and this has sadly left me as the outsider in the family as my sister continues to play the martyr and other relatives dont rock the boat.
So im very much alone but with ftiends and a heart which can no longer be destroyed. Its painful its so sad but its what i had to do.
I am 50 and its tsken me until now to do whats right for myself… to anyone out there going through such pain.. i send big hugs and wish you the very best in finding peace xx

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Lwanele

I am 28years old and I only started realizing that my parents especially my mom are toxic in 2013 when I moved away from home after studies. Infact, I knew that there were doing horrible things, but did not define them as “toxic” before then, probably because I was living with them, I overlooked all the abuse they heaped on me as a child and as a young adult. From a mother who would compare me with my other siblings, who only spent money on herself and who wanted the spotlight all to herself, to a father who was a drunk and would even try to touch my private parts and say inappropriate things a father should not say to a daughter. By God’s grace, I came out of that place called “home”alive, after I decided to go to a bigger city to further my studies and work. It was such a huge fight, because my parents expected me to stay in that rural town with no opportunities for me, and they wanted me to change my career and study another course so that I can be close to them for the sake of their broken relationship.

So I then moved away did my honours, worked and in 2013 they did give me a bit of support. However, in 2014, I did not get a job after my internship was over and God sustained me. Long story short, they still think that I made a bad career choice, when I ask for financial help from them , I get criticized of my career and development as a person, so I no longer ask for any of their help even in my deepest trouble. When I got my first good job in 2015, all they wanted to know was how much I am earning, and they were so upset that I refused to tell them. Things got worse when I bought my first car and when I went home to show them, mom seemed happy but my dad said, “you don’t even want to tell me how much you are earning” and did not look pleased.

My brother who is 26 years old was so hurt at what they were doing to me , because they would send me to town to run they errands with my car and then refuse to help me with petrol money, and he felt that they are using me. I still overlooked that.

This year, my mother demanded that I but Christmas groceries and I refused and my father wanted me to get a 100,000 loan from the bank to pay of house rates that he did not pay off over the years. He had money last year, but he blew it and made bad decisions.

I love them so dearly, but the thought of them gives me chest pains, and I realized that I can’t live like this as a result, I am planning to move overseas, very far from them. I want to go and never look back. I really hope that they will realize what they have done and see that they need to change, otherwise on my side, I feel that I have done my part. I will only love and pray for them from a distance.

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Robin

I have been part of this online family the last several months and I really appreciate the support and growth. I did stop speaking with my mother for the most part. We hardly communicate anymore except for the short email every few weeks give or take. I feel that this isolation has helped my mom. My perfect narcissistic mother who always knows best, is controlling, Her way or the highway, verbally and emotionally abusive has just admitted that she thinks she may be borderline! It is a miracle that I do not think would have happened if I would have continued to communicate with her regularly. If you want to stop communicating with your toxic parent allow yourself the freedom. They are not your responsibility. Your body is a beautiful sacred temple. Love your body by discerning who you allow in your life. If you have a sweet parent who is married to the toxic parent, you do not owe it to them either. They are not your responsibility. Where were they to defend you when you were being abused by the toxic parent? They probably understand more than they admit to. They do not admit out of fear. Best to this amazing online family.

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