Many people know all to well what it’s like to grow up under a toxic parent (or parents). Whether it’s a mom or dad who’s narcissistic, alcoholic, neglectful, abusive, or has any number of other issues that render them incapable of providing the love and support every child deserves, children in these families struggle to make sense of it all as they get older… and to heal wounds that can be hard to even put words to. Sometimes, that parent continues to be a negative force even after growing up and leaving home. Does this sound familiar to you? If so, keep reading because this can make huge difference in your life.
One of the biggest challenges I see in my work as a therapist and life coach is the ability to disengage from a toxic parent. There is much that could be written on the topic, and I certainly can’t cover it all in one blog post, but I will talk about what I think is the first step: realistically assessing the relationship and assigning it an appropriate level. Here’s what I mean by that… All of the various relationships in our lives exist and operate at different levels. As illustrated in the picture above, think of them as circles.
- The innermost circle includes your most intimate relationships. This probably includes your significant other if you have one, and perhaps a best friend. These people know the good, bad, and ugly about you. You could call them at 2am if you needed something. Their opinions about you and your life matter deeply and therefore, they have significant ability to influence you.
- The next level is our more casual friends. This group knows us fairly well and we see them regularly, but they aren’t necessarily involved in all the nitty-gritty of our lives. Maybe this includes select people from work or church, or another mom on the soccer team. These people’s opinions of you matter, but not to the extent of your inner circle.
- The next level includes acquaintances. These are people you say hi to and talk about the weather with. They include the remaining people at work, church, or other groups you’re in. You make friendly conversation but do not open up much about anything meaningful. You probably want these people to think well of you, but you’re not going to be controlled by their opinions. And since they have a limited view into your life, there is less opportunity for them to speak into it anyway.
- The final, outermost level is made up of strangers. These are people you encounter out and about, but you don’t know them at all. Examples are customer service employees and other people standing in the post office line.
Now, all of that probably makes sense. But which level is your toxic parent on? As children, our parents are almost always in the inner circle. It happens by default because when we’re young, our family is our little nucleus, so to speak. The problem is that as we get older and have the ability to decide who goes in which circle, we oftentimes put or leave people in that inner circle who have no business being there, and that is especially true when it comes to parents. But as adults, that inner level is a position that should be earned because our vulnerability and access to our lives is a privilege, not a right, for other people. This includes family, even if they want to be in the inner level and believe they deserve to be.
“But as adults, that inner level is a position that should be earned because our vulnerability and access to our lives is a privilege, not a right, for other people.”
Do you need to start moving your parent into the second or third level circle (or in the most extreme cases, the last level)? That can be really hard, because most of us wish our parents could be in that inner circle. But if they shouldn’t be there and we don’t accept and adjust to that truth, we will continually feel hurt, angry, disappointed, or controlled by them. If you can move them to the appropriate level, you’re freer to enjoy what is possible in the relationship, even if it’s not as deep or supportive as you—or they—would like.