Estrangement is widespread, complicated, and harms all involved. Perhaps you have chosen to cut off from a family member out of necessity. Your experience may include abuse, poor parenting, parental alienation, divorce, poor communication, disrespect, disappointments, and unmet expectations.
The worst of estrangement is abuse and its damaging long-term effects. For those who endured abusive and toxic family members, the decision to cut off is one of self-preservation.
The information in this article can be distressing. I wish we occupied a world free of the destructive behaviors humans impose on each other. However, my intention here is to both inform and ultimately provide hope.
Having witnessed the benefit of therapy and walking alongside others, I know we can be resilient. Indeed, the journey is not in taking a magic pill or wishing it so; it is a daily arduous process paved with resistance and determination.
Humans need not remain stuck but can, albeit inch by inch, recover from misfortune and learn and adapt because of the compression to live purposeful lives. Sadly, not everyone is able or willing to take the journey. They may be your relatives.
Recently, I have received comments and emails from individuals who are uncomfortable with the notion of reconciling. They should be. When an abusive family member has harmed one, there is tremendous pain, and reentering a toxic environment is unsafe. The notion of reconciling is out of the question.
One woman told me her mentally ill daughter is too erratic and unpredictable and seeing her is simply unsafe. Others are willing to reenter the relationship with boundaries, to gather with other family members on occasions or holidays.
In most cases, what precipitates an estrangement is the psychological impact. Relative to how long one is estranged is the degree of desired resolution, ranging from permanently distancing or desperate for reconciliation. Mainly if grandchildren are involved, the loss is so significant that in the absence of their focused objective occurring, some people are inconsolable.
For victims, those harmed by no fault, the abuse falls squarely on the perpetrator. Unfortunately, abuse generates psychological harm that diminishes one’s self-esteem. Abusers’ controlling and blaming behaviors cause feelings of shame and inadequacy. In addition, victims can also suffer from dysregulation or the inability to control their behaviors and reactions.
When there is a history of abuse, the notion of reconciling requires the professional guidance of a therapist and insight into the abuser’s recognition of their behaviors. More to the point, therapeutic work is essential for both parties and ensures future emotional and physical safety.
Researcher and educator Kylie Agllias, in her book Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective, explains that commitment, insight, and integrity are needed to reestablish trust.
Toxic behaviors and estrangement can alter one’s mental state. Specifically, children raised in a toxic home will suffer psychological harm. Harmful behaviors include repeated encounters with a family member who is overly reactive and self-centered, consistently disapproving, and discouraging.
They can be exploitative, unable to assume responsibility for their actions, dismissive of the other’s thoughts and feelings, disrespectful of others’ boundaries, disregarding others by humiliation, and psychologically manipulating to create doubt in the other’s sanity.
Abused family members carry an enormous burden. Cutting off is acting out of self-preservation and self-defense. Toxic behaviors include the abuser standing too close in an attempt to frighten their victim and even to deny them the right to sleep.
In addition, the abuser oftentimes blames the victim for the abuse, invading personal privacy by reading mail or texts, monitoring calls, and telling others private information about the abused. The lengthy list of potential abusive behaviors family members impose parallels the harmful impact their behaviors unleash on the victim.
Survivors of abuse are more likely to suffer depression and anxiety and commit suicide. They are at greater risk for mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorder, complex trauma, and attachment and social difficulties. The long-term consequences can be staggering. Thirty percent of abused individuals become abusers.
Viewers of my videos on estrangement have alerted me to their experience of elder abuse – including statistics on the frequency of elder abuse for those over 60. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 5.2% report financial exploitation by family members, 60% suffer verbal abuse, and 5 to 10% suffer physical abuse.
Like abused adults and children, elder abuse occurs in relationships with an expectation of trust and safety. Individuals at greater risk of elder abuse are functionally dependent, have a mental illness, poor physical health, cognitive impairment, and low income. Long-term effects of elder abuse are early death, cognitive decline, depression, and fearfulness.
The brain’s stress response normalizes a high level of hypervigilance and distractibility. Two people in the same home with similar experiences can have very different psychological outcomes.
Dr. Bruce Perry, researcher, psychiatrist, and neuroscientist studied the effect of traumatic experiences on the brain. Trauma, according to Perry, is an “experience or pattern of experiences that impairs the proper functioning of the stress response, making it more reactive or sensitive.
Fortunately, mental health professionals better understand the relationship between trauma and the nervous system’s response. In the book What Happened to You? Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey eloquently explore how brains process past traumas, memories, and associations.
More importantly, intentional practices can retrain our brains to find new responses that lead to post-traumatic growth. In other words, one can become resilient, less reactive, and permanently walk away from the notion that something is wrong with them.
More to the point, brains are malleable. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to be influenced or trained. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk discusses innovative advancements that offer recovery from trauma by activating the brain’s neuroplasticity.
Dr. Van Der Kolk’s interventions include journal writing, practicing yoga, and dancing. He suggests artistic endeavors, EMDR-eye movement desensitization, reprocessing neurofeedback, and therapy.
Psychotherapy for trauma treatment varies according to the clinician and modality used.
Essentially, one explores their current emotional state and, through safe conversation, finds patterns associated with their past. The work occurs in the capacity and willingness to enter the uncomfortable emotions and then process towards understanding and healing.
Many individuals desire reconciliation. They want the benefits of family involvement, real or imagined. In their best form, families are supportive, welcoming, and accepting. When families are at their worst, they can be toxic and abusive.
Therapy can provide a safe, trusting environment to move away from the negative impact of abuse. Therapy is one way, not the only way. Being informed, discovering more self-compassion, journaling, meditating, practicing yoga Nidra, forgiveness, empathy, and creating boundaries, are all doors you can open. Trust yourself to know what you are ready and willing to do to heal.
Self-compassion is your key to better living. Being human, the experience of hurt is real. Practice positive self-talk that is encouraging and uplifting. Learn to treat yourself as you would a dear friend. Be compassionate in all things. Judging and criticizing are pieces of the patterns you intentionally resist. Extend kindness to yourself and view each day as an opportunity to find gratitude.
Setting clear boundaries that define what is best for you is essential when dealing with a brutal and abusive family. Determine what levels of communication, time, place, and supportive person you will have present to protect your safety.
You may need to attend a funeral or other occasion that will go better if you create a boundary. Only you know what is best for you.
Boundaries can be anxiety-provoking. You have the right to set them without guilt. Trust yourself.
Being mindful is paying attention to what you are thinking and feeling. Observe your thoughts without judgment. Remind yourself that you have done the best and are doing the best you can. Gift yourself with patience, kindness, and compassion, learn to trust yourself more, and be open to accepting what is happening to you.
Processing emotions takes acceptance of the feelings as they present themselves. Rather than moving away, permit yourself to feel. To move forward, you will want to acknowledge the feeling without self-judgment.
You can remind yourself that you will get through this as you have other challenging times. That same strength is still there. Yes, estrangement hurts badly, but it takes using your inner strength to move forward. When we move through the stages of grief, we lean towards finding our way to acceptance.
This is a tough topic to discuss. Too many have scars they never deserved. Then there are those that plodded into the journey towards resilience at their own pace. They are in our company here in this community. They are learning to speaking their voice. They discarded their shame cape. Moving forward into uncertain paths, embracing their genuine self.
Have you suffered abuse in your family? How did it affect you and your relationships? What books have helped you in your healing journey? Which practices are you enjoying?