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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.

There's a kind of hurt that can only come from people who are meant to love you. 'Healing from Toxic Parents' Click To Tweet

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.

     

  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.

     

  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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662 Comments

Stevie M

I’m having a hard time processing the reality of my childhood. My mother and father had stopped using drugs when I was 6 years old. They stayed clean and sober until I was 15. My dad started using meth again and left my mother for another woman he was using with. My mom went manic depressive and started using meth as well. My older siblings x3 were already moved put of the house and had children. They abandoned my mom in her time of need and were no where to be found until My older sister by 11 years went through the court system and took my younger sister age 11 out of the toxic environment but left me there. My mother trying to impress my oldest sister decided to start going to church. I was a straight A student and played varsity basketball, volleyball swimming and water polo. I was a peer counselor at my school my sophomore year, one of only 7 students who made it through the college course. One Sunday mom wanted me to attend a new church with her but I was too tired from the basketball tournament the day before and didnt have the energy to get up and go with her. So she brought a meth pipe into my bedroom to wake me up. I didnt know or think it was a big deal at the time as I had smoked pot a couple times by then. I was too young to have any memories from when they used meth when I was a child so I had no clue of the path she was leading me onto. So she got me high and we went to church. After that day she regularly smoked meth with me like it was nothing. At one point my father had come to the house and was smoking meth with mom and I and asking me to go beat up his girlfriend who was making his life hell. I was 16 at this point. My Junior year I was unable to keep my grades up high enough to play sports due to all of the late night staying up on meth with my mom and new friends she had made. I lost my full ride scholarship to davis university for swimming and I fell behind on credits so I decided I would try a continuation school to catch up. That lasted may e 2 months and I had dropped out of school completely. My 17th birthday my mother and her new boyfriend took me to a bar and told the woman it was my birthday. So she told me that I had to go shot for shot with her all night to celebrate. She of course thought it was my 21st birthday because my mom and step dad had brought me into the bar with them. So I ended up drunk as you can imagine. What I didnt understand at the time was that now everyone from the bar lnew I was 21 so I was allowed in anytime I wanted to go. One bar lead to another and by the time I was 19 I was still getting high with mom and I had started bartending at a local dive bar and became a regular at all the others in town. After that on birthdays I always said I was 21 again. There is so much more to the story but I just wanted to give you an idea of what I’m trying to process. Now I just turned 34 and as you can imagine my life has never been anything close to my dreams as a child. In fact its been one big messed up party with no meaning or true purpose. My mother still to this day takes pride in telling the story about getting me high to go to church that first day. Now my mother has dementia, she still uses meth and my step dad is paralyzed from a stroke. My siblings have chosen to ignore my mother all together, they dont even call to say hi once in awhile. I however cant help but continue to put myself aside to be there for her. Even though the way she treats me now is far from good. She is vindictive and manipulative and mean. She is hateful and full of spite. She blames everyone including me for the situation she is in, and still I can not find it in myself to think about my needs and wants for once in my life and leave her to her self created disasters as my siblings have always done. I recently started seeing a therapist as I have found myself depressed for the first time in my life. I dont feel its helping me that’s why I decided to look up how to process and let go of the hate I feel inside toward my mother, the resentments and move past it all to find my purpose. I’m still not sure how to do it but I realated to this arrival on So many levels that I decided to take a chance and leave this comment with the hopes that someone might be able to give me some kind of advise or point me to a starting point so that I might start to live a life for myself that I have chosen for myself with lurpose and meaning.

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Marie

I finally decided to leave my toxic family for the sanctity of my marriage of almost 30 years. I am almost 50 and you get to the point that enough is enough and life is better without them. It took me almost 40 years to realize this and I regret I let it go on as long as I did. You have to love yourself enough to not allow people to hurt you emotionally and physically. You have to surround yourself with people that truly have your best interest at heart! I am in the process of finding those people now. I know God is good and he will bring positive people into my life we just have to have faith!

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penelope

if you don’t like your therapist, then it is okay to stop seeing them. But you should definitely try out other therapists until you find one who can help you. It’s okay to be picky, but don’t give up on the search. Talking these things out can help you process the past in a new way.

I’m sorry for all you had to face in childhood. Your past does not have to haunt you, though it will always be an aspect that shapes the person you become. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

I really believe that people who face difficult pasts, and then respect themselves enough to work through them, become extremely empathetic and therefore very important members of society.

You deserve to feel love. You are valued. You are important.

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Kim B.

Stevie M. Please don’t do what I did and wait until you are 57 years old to make changes. I hope you are sober now dear. And I’m sorry to say this but your mother is toxic, and you need to stay away from that toxicity. I know it’s difficult. You feel sorry for her. But she’s going to continue to drag you down. I suggest you pray over this. The Lord will help you find peace. You won’t feel as alone in your decision. I know this because this is what I have done. and I am sober now. And I’m not dealing with the daily toxicity from my mother any longer. I have found peace. Stevie, you will be in my prayers. Don’t be afraid.

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Tilly

Stevie you are a strong person and thanks for sharing your story. It does help me and i am sure many others not feeling alone.

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Nicole W

You are so courageous for sharing your story. My own narcissistic mother has bullied me into keeping all the experiences I lived through a secret, and went bonkers when she found out I actually shared my true life story with my husband. How could I betray her like this? You have shown your incredible capabilities during the times that you excelled at sports and school and worked as a counselor with others. Those qualities and abilities are inside of you today because THAT is who you are. someone who is strong and capable. you may be your mother’s daughter but that’s just one aspect. if you choose to wear that as your only label, you may miss out on all the other facets of yourself. Sometimes, people who are supposed to love us are just in a lot of pain and pull us down so the blow hurts them less when shared. I am struggling to remember this myself, that I am worthy of love and support even when my mother tries to undermine my opportunities for love and support. because it’s all about her and how she looks. Well, it’s not about her. And your life is not about your mother’s life either. unless you allow it to be. it’s great you have tried therapy, and hopefully you will find the therapist and type of therapy that’s right for you. Our moms may never give us the love that all children deserve, but maybe we can remember that that doesn’t mean we aren’t worthy of love. Maybe we can learn how to love and accept ourselves.

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Lara P

I feel for you. Your siblings are protecting themselves from your mother and so should you. It’s so hard – I have just read this article for the same reason as you – trying to decide whether to cut my mother out of my life too. I have read so much and searched so far to try to find resolution to my problems with my mother and I highly recommend John Bradshaw’s works on healing the shame that binds and healing the inner child. He is a pioneer in this work. Good luck finding your true self and purpose! Hugs!!

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Kely B

Thank you for sharing with us what most of us can relate. Thank you very very much:)

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Kelley K

I noticed this article was first published in 2015 and has over 600 comments. I am reading some of the first comments and praying that many people have found peace and happiness. I searched online for answers and came across this piece and am relieved by the words of encouragement. At 54-years-old, I want to share with everyone what I am telling myself: “It’s never too late to love yourself and heal.” I do have thoughts of, “Why am I fully understanding this now? Why didn’t I accept this knowledge when it was first presented to me, many years ago?” Who knows. The point is that we are life-long learners and the mind grows forever. I wish you all the love and support you deserve. Remember you are not alone. Many more people will be thinking of you, even those that never comment. If we all think of each other and at the same time, love ourselves, we CAN heal. We are meant to “love” in this world and not be sad. And there is nothing “normal” about hurt. Many families laugh, love, and enjoy each other. If it didn’t happen for us until today, we are blessed with knowing we can have it from this day forward. We all have a chance. Thank you for listening. I have a “thing” about being heard. I like being heard. I have been missing it all of my life. Much love.

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richie

This is great to read as you just painted a perfect picture of my family , childhood was horrible , that man would use cable wires like three inter tiwngled together to beat me butt naked , when i think of it i hate him now , most of the things they got from me even without my consent i feel like they dont deserve i have been able to confront them and they can’t even talk to me i always tell them shame on them the other three whom they abused too are not even near where i am in life , growing up to know your family is evil is cruel

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Auswoman33

Hello lovely community. I haven’t posted in a while as I have been doing really well, emotionally detaching and becoming stronger. I’m now due to have my second baby any day. I think I’m in prelabour, so it could be next 24-48 hrs. Interestingly, tomorrow is my mother’s birthday. It feels like the ultimate challenge to accept the possibility of my child sharing her birthday. Being narcissistic, you can just imagine the joy and pride she’d feel if that happened. We are on civil terms and I am OK with where things are at on that front however the arrival of a new baby will require strict boundaries etc. I just wanted to share as most people do not understand why I’d be disappointed and anxious about the prospect of a shared birthday…

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Jaz

My mother is so mean and hateful. So much to the point where I just want to cry. I am very strong so it’s shocking that all the abuse I have endure for so long still brings me to tears. I am going to college in a few week, very far from home which is intentional but I don’t know if I should bother including her in my life anymore. It breaks my heart but she hurts me in so many different ways and has done so for so long. I don’t know if I should try to rebuild our relationship while I’m away in college or if I would be better of cutting her out of my life. I get judged for the feelings that I feel regarding our relationship but no daughter should experience the abuse, belittlement and humiliation I do from my mom.

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