Sometimes toxic parents think they have us over a barrel even after we’ve grown up, gotten physically and financially independent, and started our own family.  They count on our loyalty to some ideal of “family” no matter how badly they treated and still treat us.  They count on our self-bullying and guilt.  They count on us still trying to jump through their hoops to win their love and approval...  They count on our fear that they’ll manipulate the rest of the family into thinking we’re ungrateful and bad.  And they often count on our enduring the verbal and emotional abuse so we can inherit our share of their fortune. Of course, I’m talking about those toxic parents who are still blaming everything on us and abusing us because “It’s your fault” or “You are selfish, ungrateful and don’t deserve any better” or “It’s your duty to do what they want in their old age.”  They’re the toxic parents who know our every weakness and sensitivity, and still poke them hard when they want too; still find fault with every little thing we do; still compare us unfavorably to someone else or to their standards; still criticize, belittle and harass us and our spouse and our children in public or they’re the sneaky ones who criticize, demean and denigrate us in private but pretend they love us in public so everyone thinks they’re wonderful, loving parents.

Of course, we’ve tried everything we can think of, but the negativity, harassment, criticism, blame, shame, bullying and abuse haven’t stopped.  We’ve tried to do exactly what they want, but it’s never enough.  We’ve apologized and pleaded with them to stop, but that just makes them act nastier.  We’ve gotten angry and threatened not to see them, but they broke down in such tears of distress we felt guilty or they blamed on us even more or they acted nice for a few minutes but, when we relaxed, they attacked us more about something different they didn’t like.

So what can we do now?

  1. For the sake of peace and quiet in the whole family, we could keep trying to endure the abuse while begging them to stop.  After all, we never know; if we only kept trying, if we only did enough, they might change.  Also, they might leave us in the will.  And it’d be our fault if we quit too soon.  Many people fly low until they have children and see their toxic parents either criticizing and emotionally abusing their children or belittling and criticizing them while being sweet to the grandchildren.
  2. We might continue objecting and arguing; enduring our frustration and anger.  Usually this tactic repeats endlessly and often spirals out of control.  Relentlessly toxic parents won’t admit they’re wrong and give up.  Eventually they’ll escalate and cut us out of the will.
  3. We might try withdrawing for a while; not seeing them, telling them we won’t return emails and calls, and then carrying through.  People usually shift from the first two tactics to this one when they see the effect of their toxic parents on their own children.  This tactic sometimes convinces nasty, mean, bullying parents that they’d better change their ways or they’ll lose contact with their grandchildren.  But the relentlessly toxic parents don’t care.  They’re sure they’re fine and they’re sure they’ll win if they push hard enough, like they’ve always won in the past.  So they don’t change and we go back to arguing or we give up or we finally respond more firmly.
  4. The next step is to withdraw for a long time, maybe forever – no contact.  It’s sad but we have to protect the family we’re creating from our own predatory parents.  It’s usually both scary and very exciting.  Most people, despite any guilt they feel, also feel a huge surge of relief, as if a giant weight or a fire-breathing dragon has been removed from their shoulders.  Our spouse and children may celebrate.  Get out of town, go on a vacation, turn the phones and email off.

What to expect and how to respond?

  1. They’ll attack when we withdraw.  Expect them to make angry calls and send hostile emails.  Save these on an external drive or a cheap recorder before deleting them.  They want to engage us, so do not engage endlessly and fruitlessly; no return calls or emails, no hateful or vindictive responses.  We’ve only gotten to this point because they haven’t changed after many approaches and warnings.  We might have to change our phone numbers to unlisted ones and change our email addresses.
  2. They’ll rally the extended family.  Prepare by making cue cards of what to say; no excuses or justifications.  Just tell the family what you said and did, and what you plan.  Ask them not to intervene.  Tell them we’d like to see them but only if our toxic parents are not present.  We’re sorry they’re caught in the middle but that’s life.  They do have to choose who to believe and what behavior to support.  Be prepared to withdraw from anyone who attacks or interferes.
  3. They’ll disinherit us.  When they can’t manipulate us through love, blame, shame and guilt, they’ll try greed.  If we don’t do what our toxic parents want right now, they’ll cut us out of the will.  Don’t be a slave to greed; it’s a deadly sin.  If we want to have a bully-free family life, we’ll have to make it on our own.  The real benefit is not merely ending the brutality, it’s the strength of character and the skills we gain when we make decisions for ourselves and chart our own course in the world.  We’ll end the negativity, stress, anxiety and depression usually caused by toxic parents.  We’ll develop the strength, courage, determination, perseverance and resilience we all need to make wonderful lives.  We’ll be able to express our passion and joy without cringing, waiting for the next blow to fall.
  4. We’ll have an empty space in our lives.  Even more than the empty physical space we’ll now have at the times when we used to get together with our toxic parents, we’ll have a huge mental and emotional space.  How many hours have we wasted thinking about our parents, worrying about the next episode, dreading what might happen next, agonizing over what to do.  We don’t have to do that any more.  Of course, being weaned from an old habit takes a little time.  We must be gentle with ourselves.  Focus on the freedom we now have.  Now we can think about the things we want to think about; not about pain and suffering, not about past failures.  Now we have space to bring into our lives people who will be part of the tribe of our heart and spirit.
  5. Our children will wonder why.  Tell the kids in a way that’s age appropriate.  Are we protecting them from the verbal abuse of their toxic grandparents or from lies that paint us as bad people?  They’ll want to know what’s going to stay the same.  Will they have fun, celebrate holidays, get presents, have extended family?

The most important lessons we offer our children are not through books and lectures.  Those are important, but the most important ones are the ones they see in our behavior when we’re models of behavior we want them to learn.

Be a model for them of someone who protects himself and them from anyone who would target them, even someone who’s close by blood.  Being close by behavior counts more than blood.  Show them not to be victimized even by blood relations.

Show them to how to be the hero of their lives.

With expert coaching and consulting, we can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.  We can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying.  We can overcome childhood rules to endure whatever bullying and abuse our toxic parents dish out simply because they’re our parents.  We can become strong and skilled enough to stop bullies in their tracks – even if those bullies are blood relatives. “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” has many examples of children and adults getting over their early training and freeing themselves from toxic relationships.  For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).

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AuthorBen Leichtling
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Jane was stuck in an internal war.  Every time she made some progress toward goals she’d been pursuing for years – cleaned her house, did things on her to-do list, met people she’d wanted to, signed up for classes toward a better job, courageously risked being honest – she’d start beating herself up in ways she was familiar with since childhood. A part of her would say, in an old, familiar voice, “Who do you think you are, you’ll never succeed, you’ll fall back into being a failure, you’re fat and ugly, you’re not good enough to stay on track, you’re weak at your core, you’ll never do the right thing, you’ll fail like you always do, no one likes you, no one will love you, you’ll be alone all your life.”

Then she’d isolate herself and start picking on herself physically.  That’d only make things worse.  She’d feel ashamed and guilty.  “Maybe they’re right,” she’d think.  “I’m not good enough.  I’ll always be a mess.  I’ll never change.  I’ll never succeed.”

She’d become angry at her parents and all the people who’d taken advantage of her, at all the people who weren’t supportive now and finally at herself.  And the cycle would continue; a little success leading to self-loathing and predictions of failure, followed by anger at everyone in her past and present, followed by more anger and self-loathing.  After several wasted days, she’d get herself together to try once more, but the emotional and spiritual cost of each cycle was huge. Self-bullying – negative self-talk, an internal war between the side of you that fights to do better and the side that seems to despise you, that’s full of self-loathing and self-abuse – can go on a whole lifetime.  Of course, the effects can be devastating – anxiety and stress, discouragement and depression, loss of confidence and self-esteem, huge emotional swings that drive good people away and attract bullies and predators.

Perhaps the worst effect is a sense of desperation and panic, isolation and loneliness – it feels like this has been going on forever and doesn’t look like it will ever end; every failure feels like the end of the world; like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.  You feel helpless and are sure that it’s hopeless.

Or maybe the worst effect is marrying someone who bullies you and stimulates your most negative self-talk.

This is not a war between the left and right sides of our brains.  This is usually not our being taken over by an evil spirit that needs exorcised psychologically.

This is usually a battle between two sides of us that split apart because of terrible, overwhelming pressure when we were kids.  Back then, we didn’t know how to cope with the horror so we split into two strategies that have been battling with childlike intensity and devotion ever since.

On the one hand, we fight to feel inspired and centered and to do our best; to be courageous and bold and fierce; to try hard, be joyous and hope for success.  On the other hand, we fight to make us docile and not try to rise above our meager lot in life, to accept what they tell us and give up struggling against them so they’ll let us survive, to motivate ourselves by whipping ourselves so we’ll make enough effort and do the right things, and maybe then they’ll give us something in return and we’ll have those feelings of peace and joy.

Both voices want us to survive and to feel centered, peaceful and filled with joy.  Each takes an opposite path to get there.  Instead of a psychological exorcism, we need an internal reconciliation and a release from old battles with our external oppressors and between our internal, battling voices.

The inner goal is clear: We’ll be whole and unified, both sides will be working together toward the same end (http://www.bulliesbegoneblog.com/2008/04/25/getting-over-parents-who-wound-their-children-the-2nd-stage-of-growing-up-and-leaving-home/#more-35): the different possibilities for action will be presented to us in the encouraging voices of coaches; we’ll be inspired and motivated by encouragement, not whipping: we’ll have an adult sense of our strength and capability; we’ll feel like we can cope successfully without tight control over everything and we’ll act in a timely manner; situations won’t put us into a panic; mistakes won’t be a portent of doom.

The path or process toward that goal varies with each individual.  It’s not easy; it’s not instantaneous.  There are steps forward and steps back.  Sometimes it will seem like we’re back at square one.  It requires great helpers and guides.  But, as we are able to step back more and more easily and look with adult eyes at the big picture, we’ll recover our poise and press on more easily. Have I ever seen these wars overcome?  Many times.

For example, Jane finally made internal peace.  Her warring sides accepted that they had the same outcome – making a good life for her, filling her with the joy she’d always wanted to feel.  They realized that neither side could defeat the other; their only hope was to work together using adult strategies of motivating her to take actions that would help her succeed.  They saw that her situation now, in middle age, was very different from when she was a helpless child and had to depend on parents who seemed to despise her character, personality and style.

In order to end the external war, she moved far away from her birth family and cut off contact.  She started a new life.  She knew she’d have to bear unbearable loneliness until she made friends and loves worth having.  It wasn’t easy but she did it.  You can too.