From Toxicity To Triumph

Connection and Relationships Grief Narcissistic Parents

The Dual-Edged Trauma of Family Estrangement

“No one would choose this! Why would anyone choose this? Who would go out of their way to be disconnected from a family that is supposedly loving, to lose all the support and community and connection that a family supposedly promises? What could someone possibly stand to gain aside from isolation, trauma, anxiety, fear, hopelessness and exhaustion? No! No one chooses “no contact”. It is always forced on us. It is simply the last resort because there are no more options left.”

And yet, those who are estranged from family are constantly placed in a position of having to explain and justify their decision to others.

When we have to explain, we are left vulnerable to the dual trauma of invalidation and silencing.

Choosing Estrangement is Like Choosing Food Poisoning. It Only Happens When You Need To Expel Toxicity and Harm

The powerful quote that opens this article comes from a survivor of severe covert narcissistic and scapegoating abuse. Let’s call her Cindy (not her real name).

Cindy spoke up about the toxicity infecting the entire family and was literally kicked out. Exiled. Banned from the former relationships with her parents, siblings, extended family and even close family friends.

And yet, the smear campaigns keep painting her as a selfish person who “walked away” from the people who “loved, supported, and cared for her the most”.

She has heard it all:

“But they’re family! Can’t you just forgive and forget?”

“It couldn’t have been that bad. Think of all those family vacations they took you on.”

“That doesn’t sound like them!”

“What? But your family has always been so nice!”

“That’s not my experience with them. They aren’t like that.”

“They (extended family/bystanders) are smart people. If what you are saying is true, then they would have recognized it and stepped in.”

Cindy has often agonized over trying to correct the false information being circulated about her. About reaching out to extended family and begging them to hear her side. But, what’s the point of speaking up when no one believes you? When people shut down your reality? When the narrative against you has been carefully curated since you were a child?

You feel completely alone and your voice gets swallowed even further. You become smaller.

Family Estrangement Is Simply The Last Stop

Going no-contact is one of the hardest things that a person can face. It is the last stop on a train ride of pain, betrayal, disappointment, fear, emptiness, confusion and a lot of self-blame.

People who have suffered covert abuse often end up well into their lives wondering when life and happiness will begin for them. Wondering if happiness is even an option. Wondering what is wrong with them and what they did to ‘deserve’ a life like this when it’s clear there are happy and loving families out there. Why not for me? They ask.

The impacts of covert abuse are severe and far-reaching; from difficulty making basic decisions to functioning in day-to-day tasks, to poor self-esteem, troubled romantic relationships, and guilt around self-care and boundaries. Often times the things we struggle with are so ingrained in our life that we don’t even realize they are tendrils left over from severed attachments and we assume they are just part of our personality. That we are somehow just…flawed. Not ‘as good as’ other people.

These devastating lies can be carried for decades before the truth of one’s role as the family scapegoat is recognized. Survivors state that finally understanding what happened to them is liberating, but now they have to make impossible decisions about what to do next. Going no contact is an agonizing step made after every other attempt fails to “transform” the family into the loving, safe, and secure place that it’s supposed to be.

Survivors are exhausted after contorting themselves their whole lives just to be accepted by emotionally damaging parents and then shunned, or painted as crazy, for finally speaking up and trying to get the family to see their dysfunctional dynamic in the hopes that they will change.

That’s the case for Cindy. She worked tirelessly to support her family’s emotional wounds and denied her own emotional needs in order to keep her narcissistic mother comfortable and happy. It was an impossible task. And when she “spoke up”, all she asked for was that her mother get some help.

She didn’t buy a banner and announce around town that her family was evil and awful. She just asked for some recognition of her pain, accountability for the damage, and genuine efforts to improve their relationship. She asked for healing.

That’s a kind thing to want for people. Cindy did nothing wrong by advocating for her family’s healing.

The Double-Edged Sword of No-Contact, and the Hope of Recovery

When you walk away, you don’t just walk away from toxicity, you walk away from self-doubt and the identity of being responsible. And that is a critical step for recovery.

But even when you get some distance, you may still have to fight for your truth to be heard, understood, and acknowledged. Not just from others, but from yourself too.

Did I make it out to be worse than it really is? Was I the problem? Am I…the narcissist after all?

You start romanticizing the family you walked away from. You start to believe the uninformed perspectives of bystanders who have no access to the reality of your life. And your resolve waivers. Your strength is tested.

You left a cage, but now you seem to be in a barren wasteland. Where do you turn?

I may have painted a bleak picture of no-contact. I may have made advocating for your truth and rights seem like an impossible and even dangerous task. I cannot deny that it is scary and that imposing any boundary against a toxic family can result in backlash as they learn that it is you that is actually in control, and not them. The family relied on you to maintain your position as the scapegoat to “prop them up”. You were the emotional pillar, and without you, their facade will crash and crumble. Of course they are going to fight you to ‘get back in place’.

The best course of action is to step out of the way so the debris doesn’t fall on you.

Because, after all, it never was about you in the first place. There was nothing inherent about you that “caused” this family to be so broken. Your big heart and strong empathy skills simply made you more likely to see what they were trying to keep hidden and made you try harder than they ever would to strengthen the family foundation for the next generations to come.

That is admirable of you and you should be proud of the strength of your voice. The waves you made are not small ripples. These are not the decisions of someone small or meek. What I heard emanate from you is a mighty rawr from the depths of a loving, and caring heart that believes in justice and well-being for all.

There is hope. There is healing. I have worked with countless people who are truly relieved (but admittedly a bit burnt out still) from stepping away. They don’t see the barren wasteland anymore. They see the blank canvas on which they can paint their ideal life. A creative, colourful masterpiece of a life that they never would have had the chance to live out had they stayed caged.

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2 Comments

  1. Dear Dr. Erin,

    I am thoroughly enjoying the scapegoating articles. Thank you for speaking my truth. Everything you have written resonates with me, and I am ready to heal at age 64. I have finally stepped out of my dysfunctional role hopefully for good.

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