If you ask someone why family is important to them you will often get an answer that conveys no actual information.
“Because family comes first”
“Because you only have one family”
“Because blood is thicker than water”
It seems most answers to this question boil down to simply, “just because it is”.
To me, this kind of unquestioning acceptance points to the importance of our family of origin as something deeply coded in our genetic heritage and our collective consciousness. Like all such programming (like the need to look to an external authority figure for truth and guidance, the desire to fit in with the crowd and be accepted, even the unquestioning acceptance that death is inevitable) this belief is something that is worthy of deeper examination.
I believe the importance we place on our blood ties has grown out of millions of years of evolution, during which being part of a tribe was essential for survival. This tribalism came first, but the strong attachment to a nuclear family unit came later, when we started to exist less as hunter/gatherers and more as communities formed of families who tilled the land, raised animals, and depended on each other to accomplish all the domestic tasks necessary for survival. The tribe (now the village or town) was still important, but gradually the family of origin became more about informing our identity and sense of belonging, rather than something we needed to survive.
In addition to that, family actually IS vitally important in helping us form a healthy nervous system and all the mental, emotional, physical, and social skills that grow out of that.
But that only happens when things go well.
We are supposed to receive secure attachment and healthy modelling from our primary caregivers. We’re supposed to receive unconditional support, love and acceptance from them, from our siblings, and our extended family, all of which sets us up to thrive in the world. We are supposed to have our basic safety provided for and our authenticity celebrated such that we can discover our own unique place in the world and the gifts we have to offer.
But today, at least in most of the industrialized world, such healthy upbringing is the exception rather than the norm.
Today it is much more common for parents to be stressed out, overworked, exhausted, and traumatized. Industrialized society and the demands it places on us have set us up such that now there is generation after generation of unresolved trauma and suffering that gets passed down both through genetic tendencies and the dysfunctional behaviours and relational styles that reinforce and perpetuate said genetic tendencies.
This…has nothing to do with love. Love is not nearly enough to raise healthy humans.
A mother may love her child and yet be so filled with her own suffering that she is unable to attach to that child in a secure way. A father may love his child but be unable to master himself and keep from lashing out when his own unresolved trauma gets triggered.
Both parents may be relatively healthy, but simply uninformed about what’s necessary to cultivate a healthy human system, and unaware of how simple acceptance and the passing on of cultural norms are plenty to traumatize a child and set them up for a lifetime of problems. Such norms could include:
Children should be seen and not heard
Don’t express emotions that may be uncomfortable for others
Be polite by repressing your basic biological functions (crying, passing gas, sneezing, etc…)
Circumcision and other non-essential surgeries are good ideas
Spanking, time outs, yelling, and other forms of toxic shaming and controlling tactics are ok
It’s ok to be glued to your cell phone while spending time with your baby or young child (and really, it’s never great to be glued to the ‘ol screen during any time that is meant to be spent relating with others)
These are just a few of the ways a human can get messed up.
Then there are those that have been so harmed themselves they have become sadistic, psychopathic, sociopathic, and/or narcissistic and yet still end up having children; those who have no filter whatsoever and who will torture their own children or stepchildren without a second thought. Not to mention families bound up in oppressive religious systems or cults, where the entire community is toxic and abusive.
This entire range of dysfunction; from those who are simply ignorant and stressed, to those who have become an embodiment of evil and sadism, is much more the norm in industrialized society than a well-informed, securely-attached, healthy family system is; and yet that inherent belief that family comes first, that family is the most important thing and must be held on to at all costs, has not fundamentally changed; and in my mind this is a big problem for those who want to break the cycle of trauma and arrive at a place of true health and vitality.
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We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
– Albert Einstein
If we have been traumatized by our family system and are determined to heal we MUST start to consider the ways in which we think about the world, relationships, and how we have been formed by a need to adapt to and survive our family system, and that they are probably not very accurate.
We also must consider that if we want to address these problems then we are most likely an outlier – often we will be the only one in that family system who wants to change the dynamic – and the rest of our family will usually have a STRONG desire for us to NOT challenge that system.
If we are aware of the trauma and dysfunction it may seem crazy to us the rest of our family is not.
And it will almost certainly seem crazy to them that we want to go a different way! Those who are deeply attached to a dysfunctional family system will feel (usually unconsciously) their very survival is being threatened when one member tries to break the patterns and establish something new for themselves, and they will often employ every trick in the book: shaming, guilt-tripping, gaslighting, anger, threats, bribes, to try and keep that outlier hooked in.
If this is the case for you, if you are ready to change and heal and you find these dynamics of control rising up in your family system in an attempt to keep you hooked in, then you have a choice to make.
What is most important to you? Your health and sanity? Or attachment to the very system that caused the problems in the first place?
I am going to very blunt here – if you are not willing to renegotiate your attachment to the toxic system that harmed you, and/or to adult relationships that have been formed from the same cloth, then you will not be able to heal.
This doesn’t mean you have to sever all ties forever and never look back, there are a variety of ways for you to approach creating a safe container for yourself which I will get into below, but you will have to risk the possibility of permanent estrangement when you set a boundary, because the response you get may necessitate stronger action.
There needs to be a willingness to take the chance your relationship with your family system, or other toxic relationships, will not be able to survive your efforts to heal and care for yourself, because sometimes that is what happens.
Hopefully your family system will be able to support your boundaries even if they don’t understand them, or perhaps you will have to cut ties completely for a time but later on you may be able to establish some good repair if it seems warranted.
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When a mammal in the wild has mounted a survival response in their system, for example – the flight/flight response has kicked in to escape a predator, they will stay in that survival response until they reach a safe haven.
Only once their system is able to sense, at a biological level that they are safe, will it allow that survival energy to be released.
The same is true for us. Only for us it is usually not one event that needs to be released from our system, it is often decades of recurring traumas and chronic stress. Nevertheless, the same paradigm is true for us; it takes much longer and is much more complex a process than simply shaking out a fight/flight response, but still, in order for healing at the nervous system level to happen effectively and be integrated, it MUST be supported by a safe environment and safe relationships.
That environment needs to be safe at a biological level; this means it must actually be safe! This means we cannot stay in an abusive living situation and simply tell ourselves we are safe. Instead we must create a safe haven for ourselves that our physiology is able to sense as real.
This creates a really complex situation for many people and I want to address this first because it is so tricky: there are many cases where a person’s system has become so damaged by unresolved trauma that they end up financially dependent on the very people who caused the problems, and in many cases they are still living with their abusers. I wish I had an easy fix for this kind of situation but there simply isn’t one that I know of, although there are things that a person in such a situation can do to start moving towards health and healing.
First, if possible, find a different living situation. Living with a different relative who you have a better relationship with, or a friend, or even government-subsidized housing, may all be better options. I understand though, that sometimes none of these are possible.
If you must live with your abusers then start working on your boundaries, both energetic and practical. Energetic boundary building can mean a couple things. One way is to start tapping into what is referred to as Healthy Aggression, which you can read about here. Another way is to practice visualizing a sphere around you that is filled with your own energy (this is supported well by Healthy Aggression work) and that no one else’s energy is allowed in that sphere unless you decide.
These energetic practices are well supported by practical boundaries – having a lock on the door of your room so that no one can enter your sphere without your permission, and limiting time and conversations with any dysfunctional family members you are living with. If you are able to practice and implement this boundary work it may be that you can create a small safe haven in your room and your physiology and psyche will start to recognize it as such.
Spend time outside of the house with friends and have regular appointments with a good therapist. If you can find a good Somatic Experiencing Practitioner in your area then that is wonderful, but many SE Practitioners provide sessions online. Even a good counselor, or well-attuned somatic psychologist, or free crisis line worker may be more helpful than having no support.
If you are able to live on your own, or with good people whom you resonate with and feel genuinely safe around, then that’s great and the process is simpler. The first thing is to simply set some boundaries with people you need space from and see if they are respected.
For example, if your mom calls you every week, tell her to stop calling and that you will call her when it feels good to you. With caller ID standard on pretty much all devices these days it’s easy enough to not pick up the phone even if she does still call, though if she persists this shows she is not respecting your boundaries and at that point it would be fair to inform her that if she does not stop calling you, then you will block her from your phone entirely.
If some member of your toxic family system has a tendency to just show up unannounced tell them that’s not ok and to stop it, that they must ask to come first. See what happens. If they respect your boundary, then great! If they don’t, then tell them again that they MUST stop or you will cut off your relationship with them entirely.
If they still don’t stop then tell them that you will file a restraining order and that they will be prosecuted if they don’t respect your boundary. This may seem extreme, but often just the threat of some kind of actual consequence will be enough to stop this behaviour and you may not have to actually carry it out, though you should be prepared to.
That’s the general gist. Start by employing boundaries that are clear and kind and see what response you get.
Tell them that you are doing this for your own healing, that it’s not meant to be hurtful towards them, but that it’s simply what you need to do in order to heal and that you would like to have their support. Often times this will do it.
I didn’t see or talk to my own parents much for about five years. They didn’t like it, but they respected it and now, after many years of good somatic, nervous system based healing work, I am able to have functional relationships with both of them. I still need to limit the amount of time I actually spend with them as their lifestyles and energies are still quite toxic to me, but I’m not triggered by them any more and I am able to maintain a connection.
In most cases where the abuse has been because of ignorance, unquestioning acceptance of societal norms, a chronically stressful lifestyle, or because of the parents’ own unresolved trauma, I think that maintaining some kind of connection, if possible, is the best choice, simply because of the archetypal power our parents have in our psyche and because without them we would not exist at all and we should honour that if we can. This can be super powerful!
It may be entirely necessary to cut communication for a time while we do our work. Repair is usually possible with people who have passed on this kind of abuse (the kind that is not outright sadistic), and they will generally be able to accept these kind of boundaries, even if they don’t like it.
However, in cases where the parents or other family members were unquestionably sadistic; when there were outright beatings, torture, molestation, rape, ritualistic abuse, etc…, all of which happens a lot more than one might think, there is probably no value at all in keeping any connection whatsoever.
Likewise, if our family members are more in the first camp and yet are unable or unwilling to respect our boundaries once we have set them, then I think it is appropriate to cut off all contact and sever our energetic ties. We may decide at some point to try and re-establish contact, or we may not, but it will be our choice.
Cutting off contact is relatively easy. Delete them from your contacts and block them from your devices. If they are in the area and insist on showing up physically then file a restraining order as I mentioned, or it may be better to simply move to a different area of the country or world entirely.
Severing the energetic ties though is not so easy, especially with parents.
Ritual can be very helpful in this regard. There is one member of my family who I had to sever my energetic ties with because even though they agreed to no contact, I felt they were still attacking me psychically and energetically, which I am quite sure they were entirely unaware of, and therefore would probably never be able to change. I did a ritual of ceremonially burning all photographs of them with a strong intention of severing all ties at all levels. And yet that on it’s own was still not quite enough to fully free my psyche. For that I needed to do what is called Annihilation work.
This is a very powerful form of somatic/energetic work and it is, I believe, crucial in freeing ourselves from the imprints of our abusers.
You see when we grow up in an environment of abuse and we are unable to defend ourselves, we end up internalizing the energy of our abusers. These are the self-hating critical thoughts and voices in our psyche that can continue to abuse us long after we have no contact with the actual person.
That’s because these introjections, though they may have the face and voice of our family members or other abusers, are actually fabrications of our own psyche and energy. They must be destroyed such that the energy they are holding can be freed up and be used for for our own healing and creativity. I’ve written an entire article on Annihilation Work, and you can read it here.
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What about reconnecting? After a period of estrangement during which we do the work to heal and resolve these wounds how should we go about re-engaging with a relationship that we have severed, assuming that is something we want to do?
The first step is to let them know you are available for reconnection and ask them if they would like to do that. If there was a lot of wounding and hurt feelings for them about you separating from them in the first place, then it may be useful to find a skilled third party to facilitate – someone who has experience working with couples and/or family systems. If that practitioner can be somatically trauma informed that’s all the better but not totally necessary. This may also be needed if you didn’t manage to exit the relationship skillfully and instead, ‘blew it up’, by being aggressive or mean, which can certainly happen (I speak from experience here!)
The other person may be eager to reconnect, or hesitant, or downright resistant. If they are eager, great. If other, just let them know you are available, and let them come to you when they are ready.
One thing to be aware 0f – it’s totally possible that they will try to drag you right back into the same old dysfunctional dynamics that were the problem in the first place. If this happens then you have a choice. You can practice staying present using all your newfound capacity and regulation gained from doing your work, and simply name the dynamics you are seeing and let them know your not available for that. If they have the ability to relate to you differently then great. Or, you may realize that you don’t want to reconnect after all. It’s ok to change your mind!
It’s also possible that they will have changed and healed some due to the separation. Sometimes, even though they may not have wanted to break from the relationship, that time and space may have helped them as well. After all, it does take two to tango, and when one person extricates themselves from a toxic pattern that can sometimes free up the other person to look at their own part in that. It’s possible that they may have remorse and want to know more about how their actions have affected you.
If this happens, it is a beautiful opportunity for increased healing for all, and there are a couple things to bear in mind if you get the opportunity to go deeper like this.
Their feelings are not your responsibility. So often the root of toxic dynamics with our parents stems from us learning to try and take care of them emotionally at a young age, such that we have a better chance of getting our needs met. This pattern can then continue into other relationships with siblings or spouses, etc.. When you are reconnecting with someone who has harmed you, and you see them in pain, grief, or shame for their own actions, it may be very tempting to fall back into this pattern of minimizing your experience so they feel better, of telling them, essentially, ‘it’s ok’. Don’t. It’s important to let them have their feelings. Simply stay present with them and if you feel this, let them know you love them. Instead of, ‘it’s ok mom, I’m fine now!’, try something like, ‘yes that happened, and I’ve worked through it. I’m here now and (optional!) I love you.’
Don’t vomit your experience all over them. That can be another thing that can happen when someone who harmed us wants to know more about our experience. Instead of trying to take care of them, it may be that some aggressive impulse surfaces and tempts us to really lay into them. That won’t be productive for either of you though. If those kinds of feelings are present you also don’t want to sit there gritting your teeth, repressing them, so if that’s the case then it would be best to let them know you realize you still have more you need to process on your own and leave the conversation to come back to later.
This is all about capacity. Riding this line, between not trying to take care of the other emotionally, but also not being mean and poking at their system, takes a lot of capacity, especially if that person was one of our primary caregivers who has hurt us, and your ability to do it, or not, will be reflective of the work you’ve done while apart from the relationship. Don’t beat yourself up if you realize you’re not ready yet! Jut let them know you appreciate reconnecting, and would like to leave it for now, as you realize you still have some more work to do on your own. It’s ok to leave it and come back later!
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My wife, Irene, recently wrote a great article on why everyone can heal, but not everyone will.
The main thing that keeps people from healing is a belief they do not deserve to, and this is only reinforced by staying hooked into a toxic family system, romantic relationship or friendship. That dysfunctional system is dependant on you NOT healing, because if you do heal, that will fundamentally change the system.
If you don’t already truly know this, that yes, YOU DO DESERVE TO HEAL, it is very important for you to give your psyche and physiology that message, and part of doing that should be setting boundaries or severing ties with existing toxic relationships.
The great thing is that when we do this and start to heal, then a whole different kind of relationship opens up to us; with others and, even more importantly, with ourselves.
Here’s to your freedom, and to your bright future; it starts by making the best choices for yourself now.