The adult behavior modeled in our family deeply affects the core beliefs we hold about ourselves and has long-lasting impacts on trust, self-esteem, and the ability to form or maintain healthy relationships. Our caregivers teach us what it means to be a male or female, how to believe in ourselves, how to love others, complete goals, grow up and compete in the world. What is a toxic parent? A toxic parent is often personality disordered, constitutionally incapable of changing, and a professional victim. They wreak havoc in the emotional lives of their children and teach self-hatred among other things. Some adult children of abuse externalize their rage. They fill our prison systems, rehab facilities, abuse our children, and inflict violence in our society. I have worked most of my professional life intervening with the externalized rage in male and female domestic violence offenders from toxic families. Self-hatred and depression are a driving force in their contempt and violence. The child that internalizes their toxic caregivers rage tends to partner with this “familiar” abusive person. Internalized rage can present as depression, anxiety, self-blame, shame, low self-esteem, substance abuse, and people pleasing behaviors.
CLUSTER B PERSONALITY DISORDERS DSM-IV
Personality disorders are associated with significant disturbances in personal and social functioning. The disorders are characterized with inflexible and pervasive destructive behavior patterns in most situations. The person perceives their behavior to be appropriate. Personality disorders are chronic, life long, and highly incurable.
●Antisocial– Characterized by a lack of empathy, violation of social norms, and a pattern of criminal activity.
●Borderline– Instability of mood, relationships and self-image, history of self-harm (e.g. cutting) and impulsivity. Extreme “black and white” thinking.
●Histrionic– Person displays shallow or exaggerated emotions (drama queen or king), excessive attention-seeking, and inappropriately seductive behavior.
●Narcissistic– Characterized by a lack of empathy or remorse, pervasive pattern of grandiosity and excessive need for admiration. Person feels a sense of entitlement, displays arrogance, and extreme levels of jealousy. Person is preoccupied with fantasies of idealized love, fame, and self-importance.
When a child’s early developmental needs are not met by supportive positive role models it can lead to core beliefs that make healthy friendships and adult relationships nearly impossible. Lacking self-worth and not feeling loved or a sense of belonging can make children more vulnerable to emotional and physical abuse, and general feelings of discontent. Fear of losing control of emotions tends to result in coping strategies such as denial or suppression. I believe one of the early childhood traumatic suppressions is profound sadness. Recent research evidence (Terrence Real, 1997) points to suppression of sadness (depression) as a link to violent behavior. Especially vulnerable are boys and men that learn to control by using force, fueled by denying feelings of depression, not trusting feelings, or talking about feelings. Maintaining control of emotions, thoughts, feelings, actions, and relationships is a way to survive in emotionally impoverished chaotic environments. Showing feelings in toxic environments is often met with disapproval, rejection, criticism, and belittlement. This mistreatment makes trust of our caregiver(s) difficult as is the development of self-reliance on our own perceptions and feelings. As adults this makes expression of true emotions in relationships a challenge.
A developmental task that tends to be stifled by toxic parenting is the ability to be spontaneous, have fun, and stay flexible with change. Often a child feels blame and shame for the family chaos believing that they are the cause of a parent’s cruelty. The first-born and or the sensitive child may become overly responsible for the family pain in trying to control the dysfunction. If efforts to make family life better continuously fail, he or she may give up on being responsible and become irresponsible in completing goals in adulthood. This sets the pattern for ignoring emotional needs and not setting psychological boundaries in intimate relationships.
For an adult child’s well-being foregoing a relationship with a parent(s) sometimes is necessary, at least for the short-term while changing the negative feelings and thoughts about oneself. You do this to protect “you” from further psychological harm. This self-care can be difficult because even the most abusive parents can sometimes be loving and makes severing the bond harder. Basically any behavior that shames the child or makes them feel guilty contributes to a lack of entitlement to feelings. This is an emotional trap!
Damage from growing up with toxic parents is not a life sentence of doom and gloom. Repair of self-esteem begins with a commitment to re-parent ourselves. You must go through the process of growing up again. You will need to uncover the core messages you believe about yourself. For example, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m unlovable,” “I’m weak,” “I’m stupid,” “I’m a bad person,” “I deserved the abuse,” “Nobody will ever love me,” etc. One way of discovering your core beliefs is to write a relationship inventory. Sit down and list all the behaviors that have hurt and you feel resentment about from your current/past relationships with friends and partners. Evaluating the list of painful behaviors, ask yourself what a person would have to think about themselves to stay in the relationship. This exercise is not about reinforcing self-blame. It’s a process done to revisit your childhood and recover your true self. Have your partners been unloving, demeaning, disrespectful, cold-hearted, cruel, or physically violent? Your core beliefs might look like the list in the example above.
Look at the inventory list of behaviors again and see if what you described matches the abusive treatment from a caregiver, difficult relative, or a sibling. This is an opportunity to understand and address unresolved issues within yourself and family of origin. Changing your core messages requires the practice of listening to how you talk to yourself and correcting demeaning thoughts and put-downs. Practice being aware of your core belief triggers, especially when a parent is abusing you. For example, when your mother is making critical statements, you are thinking, “This where I tell myself I’m not good enough.” Change the negative belief by repeating silently to yourself, “I am a worthy person” while looking your mother in the eye. Eventually you will get good at observing your thoughts and changing them. You will learn to witness your mind in conversation with another person. I suggest keeping a journal to affirm the reality of your life and give voice to expression of feelings.
Re-parenting yourself requires correcting negative core beliefs and acknowledging the abuse you received from your caregivers. This isn’t about blaming your parents for why your adult life is not working. The truth is no matter how pathetic their behavior has been it’s the best they can do with the emotional maturity they have. Acknowledging who is responsible for whatever type of abuse occurred is a process of understanding what happen to you. You will then be clear about the resentments you are letting go. I don’t believe you can just get over toxic parenting by putting it in the past without examination. You cannot live in your past or blame others for your conflicts and problems if you really want to live your life and be a healthy parent and partner. You deserve a life that is manageable and full of love. Commit to investing in yourself and possibilities for living well will be unlimited. Remain a victim and your life will be predictable.
Thank you for reading this article. I’ve dedicated my personal and professional life to the importance of non-violence and self-compassion by teaching from my experience. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to create healthy relationships. And, as I learn and grow, I teach self-compassion and give advice I use myself, in the hopes that it helps you to improve your own life.