The Creativity Cure

A do-it-yourself prescription for happiness

Leaving a Bad Family

Agonizing, necessary, the beginning of something better

Sometimes, (as in the Thomas Wolfe book), You Can’t Go Home Again, even though everything in you wishes you could. John Bon Jovi sings “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” Well, for a few people in my practice and some I have personally known, going home is not an option. If you are lucky enough to have been raised in a loving, loyal, mostly sane family and can maintain those connections, great.

However, if maltreatment, misunderstanding and sadism superseded tenderness in the family of origin, if home was an unsafe place, it’s best for you to get out of there. In reality and in your mind. Some families score high on the hostility scale. Whether this is expressed through passive-aggressive action or outward insult, it can decimate a growing self. Little injuries accumulated over time or a few big assaults flatten self-esteem, sap confidence, and compromise the ability to trust.

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There is a therapeutic fantasy that talking (mirroring, validating empathizing) can cure the problem. But for severely afflicted families, dialogue does nothing and can even escalate the agony. Some people are too regressed to contain their meanness. If a couple of members are irrational, cruel, thrive on conflict or love a catfight, forget it. Combine this with no capacity for insight or self-reflection (some people just can’t look at themselves and see what they’ve done) it is a recipe for the destruction of souls.

When people say, “Oh, it’s all just being part of a family, ” this is upsetting. They may not know any better so they think they are being helpful. Harassments can be hidden and known only by the target. It is incredibly painful to walk away because one does not want to accept the truth that given the rigid, denying personalities, the circumstances will never improve.

The wish for it to be different makes one cling. We think if we keep trying, if only we change our own behavior or explain things better, we can stop the madness. We hope, wish, believe that the supposed loved ones will see what they do and stop doing it. We twist the truth to give them higher status as a benevolent being but this is a trap. The knowledge that you cannot do anything about what they do may save your life.

Much as you wanted it to work and after you’ve tried every way of communicating, it is time to cut your losses. There is an innate need to belong to a clan and it is counterintuitive to cut it off. It takes courage, massive autonomy and the ability to tolerate aloneness. But when there is no choice, there is no choice.

People need support and encouragement to leave. It is crazy-making to have been tortured and then be expected to brush it off. One cannot violate one’s own truth. We maintain self-respect by holding our ground on the way we need to be treated. This is not about righteously claiming victim status but rather acknowledging a painful reality and dealing with it appropriately. Some people never change. If this is the case, self-protection means shutting the door forever.

Yes, all families have issues. People bicker, compete, want what the other has, feel less loved, feel left out. But when push comes to shove, a good family stands behind you, is there for you, and wants to know what you went through. They care. Not every family actually loves.

Psychologist David Celani writes in his book Leaving Home that the most difficult psychological task one can confront is separation from a bad family.

Here’s the good news: when you are free of the toxicity, you are open to loving others: a family of friends, co-workers, classmates and teachers that fill in. You can create a life from your own value system, not the one you were born into. Even if it takes till 40 to figure out you were never cut from the same cloth, so be it. The good years as your True Self are ahead.

Establish a new clan by reaching out, sharing, asking about the other, being a friend. Build new relationships. In the flesh meetings or quick how are you texts keep relationships going. If it’s awkward at first, it will get better. Better than what you came from. 

The other good news is that throughout history those with early injuries develop unusual strengths in later life. The wounds lead to generous, sometimes great actions. Suffering leads to strong character, practical success and sensitivity to others.

Carrie Barron, M.D., is a psychiatrist and co-author of The Creativity Cure: A Do-It Yourself Prescription for Happiness, which she wrote with her husband, Alton Barron.

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