The Shame and Guilt of Family Estrangement
Why we turn our decision to cut ties with our family in on ourselves.
Posted Sep 29, 2020
I have written previously about my own experiences of family estrangement and about how painful and difficult a decision it is to cut ties with your family. Humans are social beings. We all have a deep desire to belong and our families provide our first experiences of defining ourselves in relation to others—mums, dads, brothers, sisters, and perhaps even extended family.
If we’re lucky, we’re born into a family that provides both a healthy level of protection from the wider world and a healthy degree of connection to it. It’s a place where we’re safe and loved, where we are listened to and respected, and where we are accepted simply for being ourselves—without having to act or think in any particular ways.
Unfortunately, some of us have a very different experience of family. Instead of the safe cocoon we crave, those people closest to us are emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive. We live in fear of doing or saying the wrong thing and find it hard to adopt a neutral stance within the maelstrom of family drama. Being part of a family where you are scared and silenced takes such a toll on your mental and physical health that, sometimes, the only option which seems available is to completely cut ties.
Having been in this situation myself, I know what a devastating decision it is to take—and that the only reason most people make this decision is because it’s preferable to remaining stuck in a toxic environment. Along with the grief, regret, loss, depression, and anxiety which might be the fallout from estrangement, there’s something else which most people who have been through this experience: deep shame and guilt.
You might look around you at happy mothers and daughters, brothers, sons, and dads and think, Was I right to do what I did when it has led to this consequence? No matter what has led to the estrangement, it’s common to feel some guilt about it. Guilt is that feeling we have when we feel we’ve done something wrong and, when we’re estranged from our family, it’s very common to question ourselves. Interestingly, if a friend or colleague was to describe their discomfort at being part of their family, you may well feel they were right to estrange themselves, but it’s hard to have a logical perspective when it comes to yourself.
Another common feeling is shame. In contrast to guilt, which is a feeling that we’ve done something wrong, shame is a self-judgment that our whole self is wrong. What is so fundamentally wrong with me that I cannot have a close and healthy connection with my family? “The family” is often portrayed as a sacrosanct entity. In the movies, even where there is fallout, there’s always a deathbed reunion. We think of big families as being happy, loud, supportive environments and we tend to assume that mums and dads have the best interests of their children at heart. If “blood is thicker than water”, what is so flawed about me that the blood has become deeply toxic?
Whilst guilt is never pleasant, that feeling that you have done something wrong is perhaps easier to manage than the feeling that there is something wrong with you. The shame which results from family estrangement goes deep to your core and can profoundly affect your self-esteem. During my brief reunion with my family—which lasted a couple of months after many years of estrangement—I felt happy to mention my brothers and sister in conversation. Although I had worked through my issues of estrangement, there was still some relief to be a “normal” part of the family again. It was pleasant to feel that I was a person who could get on with all my siblings.
When my efforts to stay friendly with two of my brothers and my sister (I remained on good terms with another brother and my mother) failed, for the second time, my go-to places were shame and guilt. I felt like a bad person and I questioned every action, from whether I used the wrong word which had upset my brother in a conversation to whether I should have gone against my own morals and ethics in order to keep in with my siblings. I realised that the constant questioning of myself as a person was far more intense than any feelings of loss I had towards my siblings. “Am I just a bad person?” I asked my partner, having been hurled back to the point of lowest imaginable self-esteem which I had suffered from earlier in my life.
Despite all the awareness I had gained over the years, I was judging myself from an emotionally bruised place—and the judgment was warped through the lens of our societal ideals of “the family."
If you have found yourself choosing to estrange yourself from your family, remember: Your family might be your siblings, parents, or children, but they’re also just people. They have no right to gaslight you into believing that their actions are justifiable, when they are, in fact abusive. They have no rights to you, whatsoever, simply because you happen to be related to them.
If you are part of the type of family where you feel the only available option to you is to estrange yourself, it’s unfortunate and nobody would choose to be in that situation. But it is your choice to make and going down that route does not make you a bad or misguided person. Once you have come to terms with estrangement, most people find they find a sense of peace and relief which was unattainable whilst they were part of their toxic family and can begin the process of healing.