It feels like everybody who cuts out “toxic” people from their lives talks about how good they feel afterward. So I don’t know why it feels so terrible for me.
I was very close with my family growing up. But my mother and younger sister have some deep-seated problems (and likely undiagnosed mental illness) that, my whole life, have manifested in regular cruelty to me. Between bouts of this, they can be loving, funny people who are a joy to be around. But over the years, they have called me unattractive, overweight, lazy, etc. and have expressed disapproval almost every time something good happens in my life. I have a great job and a loving husband and they never have enough awful things to say about both. It’s like I’ve been the repository for every resentment and bad mood they’ve ever had, and whenever I’ve protested or pulled away, they’ve made it about me being a bad sister or daughter.
For so long, I thought I was a “bad kid” only to realize years later that that was something that they had invented. In case you can’t tell, I’m in therapy, and it’s been immeasurably helpful. But it took me several relapses of an eating disorder before I finally realized that the years of comments on my body, clothes, jobs, boyfriends, etc. have taken an extremely painful toll that makes it hard to spend any time with them.
What movies and TV shows don’t ever show you is that abusive family members can also be kind, generous, magnetic, and fun to be around. It’s also very difficult to reason with people who say stuff like, “Why do you only remember the times I called you fat? Why don’t you remember the nice things, like when I paid for your first car?” And she did pay for my first car! But for a long time, that’s meant — to both of us — that she’s allowed to say and do whatever she wants. It’s a huge mind-fuck. It would be way easier if she and my sister were pure monsters 100 percent of the time. I’ve tried saying, “I love you, but I don’t want any more unsolicited opinions about my life anymore,” and they’ve told me that they’re allowed to criticize me because I am family and therefore their “business.”
I tried to see them only at holidays and keep up over text and email. But the last time I saw them, they were horrible to my husband and in-laws, and we ended up having a huge blowout over the fact that I didn’t want to spend the holidays with them on another continent without my husband, who is never invited because they think he was an unsuitable choice. If that sounds like I’m living in a Victorian novel, it definitely feels like that, and worse.
They’re not speaking to me. It’s been months. I know, intellectually, that they’re being crazy and have done fucked-up things to me my whole life. But this estrangement still hurts. My therapist has told me not to reach out to them or apologize. I don’t feel particularly eager to mend a fence that keeps getting broken by the same two people, but I’m wondering why instead of a sense of freedom, I only feel this leaden dread. I keep asking myself how I would feel if one of them died while we weren’t speaking. I guess what I’m asking is — what happens when you’re at this kind of impasse? I love my “chosen family” of my husband and friends, but can people live happily without their “family” family?
I’m a big advocate of staying in touch with difficult family members and friends. When your family is negative but not abusive, when they say stupid things by accident every now and then (but only because they’re severely disordered and hurting), when they generally try to be pleasant in spite of their giant flaws, then why not keep the peace? Show your gratitude for the love they do give you, and spare yourself the pain of a dramatic breakup that might haunt you for years to come. Sometimes when you’re generous with selfish people, they transform before your eyes.
Your family is different. They’re emotionally abusive. Not only won’t they acknowledge that, they also won’t pledge to change it. At first, I was almost willing to believe that they said nasty, stupid things in the past but they still want to change their ways. But the more you describe them, the clearer it gets that your family doesn’t want to change a thing. They think they deserve the right to continue to insult you. They refuse to acknowledge your legitimate concerns. They refuse to look at themselves. And even that might be workable, in some cases! A lot of people refuse to discuss difficult things, but when you stop confronting them, they become gentler. Their inability to hash out difficult relationships springs from their shame and fear of intimacy.
But your family has no shame. This is crystal clear because THEY DON’T INVITE YOUR HUSBAND TO FAMILY GATHERINGS BECAUSE THEY THINK HE’S AN UNSUITABLE CHOICE. In other words, they have no boundaries. They think your husband is their choice. They think your weight is their choice. They think your choices are their choices. When you ask for something, they don’t say, “Let me think about it” or “I will try but I’m bad at that” or even “I don’t think I can do that.” They say ”What’s wrong with you? Why would you ask for that? I would never do that.”
To them, you aren’t a person with rights. You aren’t a person with choices. You aren’t a person at all. The only acceptable choice is for you to pretend to have the exact same needs and desires and preferences that they have. Look at your sister. That’s what she does, right? She pretends to agree with your mom about everything. Maybe she does this so thoroughly that she can’t even remember what she wants independently of your mom anymore.
This is why your therapist doesn’t want you to reach out and apologize. Your therapist knows that apologizing is what you do. You apologize as a way to get back in their good graces even though they don’t deserve it. You apologize in order to avoid feeling lonely and insecure about their judgments of you. That’s probably what you did when you were younger. There was no way to gain any control by holding your ground, because no one recognized you as a person with rights. The only way to be seen, to be visible, to gain their love, was by saying that you were wrong all along. Even now, apologizing might feel like a way of having some control, but it’s actually a way of erasing yourself for their convenience.
I know that’s hard to hear. It’s hard for me to write it, because I’m very pro-apology where family is concerned. But your situation is different. Your therapist wants you to take a stand. Because as long as you’re accepting their abuse, you’re still living inside their view of you. That means some part of you will always want to “fix” what’s wrong with you to win their approval. This was at the root of your eating disorder. And this is probably at the root of a lot of your problems today, even problems that don’t seem related to your family. When you want something, you feel ashamed of it. At some deep level, you aren’t allowed to want things. Wanting things means that you’re bad. This is the logic of their view: You don’t deserve to stand up for your own needs.
Even though you know in your heart that they’re being unfair, that doesn’t change the fact that you miss them. They know you incredibly well, and you know how charming and fun they can be. When you’re not around them, you feel like you’re missing out.
Boy, do I get that! I went through a rough time with my mom about nine years ago, and it was excruciating. I kept trying to set things straight. I wanted her to understand where I was coming from. I thought that if she would just listen to me, I could finally explain all of my feelings and she would get it completely. There were days when I just wanted to apologize and take the blame for everything, so we could be close again. I wanted to stop feeling rejected. I wanted to stop feeling disapproved of. I wanted to seize control of the situation, so I could put it behind me.
But those uneasy feelings taught me a lot. Every time I wanted to “fix” things, I looked directly at my feelings in that moment. Was this about my hurt ego? Was this about proving her wrong? Was this about feeling rejected? In a lot of our interactions, my default, onboard shame (which is enormous, truly a force of nature, formidable, vast!) made me want to do something, take action, argue my point. Instead, I needed to give us both time to work through our feelings separately. In the end, my mom came around and started the conversation that made things better between us. And she needed to be the one to start it, because when I pushed the issue, she always got defensive and our conversations went nowhere.
She didn’t change and I didn’t change. We just heard each other out. We resolved to accept each other, in spite of our frustrations. For me, that meant I had to stop living inside the fantasy of who I wanted her to be, and make some more room for who she actually was.
Your situation is much tougher than mine was. It doesn’t sound like your mom or your sister are remotely accepting or flexible. I know this is really hard for you. You have to live in an uncertain place now. You have to make yourself vulnerable to how much you’ve lost. You have to grieve. But more than anything else, you have to tolerate this distance, and face your emotions alone.
It doesn’t help that you’re in a situation that kicks up all of the confusion of your past. Because you were taught to doubt your own impulses and emotions and assessments at every turn, your impulse is to doubt those things now. Your urge is to eat some shit and get back into their good graces. Your impulse is to explain what you want and need, all over again.
But don’t they know what you want already? You want them to stop insulting you. Don’t they know that you’d like for them to include your husband in their plans, and treat him with respect? They do know these things. You have asked for the bare minimum of decency, and they’ve refused to comply with your requests.
So why don’t you feel better? Because you’re left to grapple with the legacy of their shame, all alone. You’re left with the legacy of what they taught you about yourself: That you aren’t a person. That they determine who you are. That their approval is everything. That you’re overweight and your choice of a mate is unsuitable. I want you to listen to these haunting voices very closely. Notice how much you’ve internalized these voices and made them your own. As long as you and your family aren’t speaking, you have the opportunity to examine these voices in a vacuum. You can see how you feed them. You can see how addicted you are to the idea that someone is rejecting you. You can see how, when you feel restless or avoidant, you return to hurt places and dig up past sadness and revisit past insults and rejections.
Do you still feel embarrassed by who you are? Are you still sure that life among magnetic people who ignore your needs is better than being seen and heard by people who truly care about you? Do you still hate being seen clearly? Do you still prefer to be ignored?
We’re so accustomed to thinking that vulnerability and apologies are ALWAYS the best course of action for bighearted people. But not all conflicts are solved by everyone diving in and hashing things out. Sometimes you have to step back and take care of yourself.
It’s okay to feel sad about something that’s broken, in other words, but that doesn’t mean you’re the one who has to fix it. You need to really experience this sadness and welcome it into your life and ask it to show you things. You need this sadness and longing to show you how to be a person with rights. You need this sadness so you can start to build a religion of your own, one that makes you feel strong, one that gives up on apologies as a means of control, one that finally abandons this old, dusty view of yourself that your family planted in your brain. You are beautiful just the way you are, naturally, and you need to take that fact into your heart. You don’t have to make yourself smaller or quieter or more apologetic. You don’t deserve to be surrounded by ruthless, careless, thoughtless people. You deserve to be seen and heard. You deserve to be treated with gentleness and care. You deserve to treat yourself that way.
They will come around or they won’t. You are exactly as you should be, exactly where you should be, exactly who you should be. Believe that, for once. You’re on a path to joy. Don’t worry about what they’re saying about you in their land of charming misery. Stay on your path.
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