Crawling out of the slime pit: Escaping the severely toxic family

By: Arthur Wenk , Oct 01, 2012

How can I escape unhealthy family situations?

Despite your best intentions, you can’t change somebody else.

Personal change is difficult not only because one’s core beliefs resist change but also because systems resist change, and families are systems. Let us imagine that after working with a psychotherapist for some time you gain renewed confidence, a strong sense of self-esteem, and the ability to face and deal with your issues. Flushed with your own success, you are eager to bring to others your new-found joy at living. You attend a family dinner and find that the same relatives who used to belittle and demean you continue to do so. To your shock and disappointment, you find that you still resent this ill treatment. Wasn’t therapy supposed to make you immune to their carping criticism? It almost feels as though they were deliberately trying to bring you back to your former state of poor mental health. Consciously or not, that’s exactly what they are doing.  Systems resist change, and family systems do everything they can to restore equilibrium. By undertaking psychotherapy to bring about change in yourself you unwittingly brought about a change in the system, and systems strike back. 

What are you supposed to do? Having experienced the elation of change in yourself, you would like to change others. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. It’s like the old joke—“How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.” Despite your best intentions, you can’t change somebody else. Unfortunately, they can sometimes undo your hard-won changes. If permitted to, a system will restore its members to a state of former equilibrium, a state that embraces the old, unhealthy you. It is very difficult for an individual to hold out against the continuing pressure of a group, and very unlikely that the individual can single-handedly change the psychology of the group.

Leaving a seriously toxic family situation can feel like crawling out of a slime pit. While your therapist fosters and encourages your liberation, members of the family grasp your legs and try to pull you back. Once you have managed to extricate yourself, don’t fall back into the slime pit.  Seek new friends, form new networks, and engage in new social situations. It may not be necessary to renounce your family completely. You may find that you can safely interact with some relatives one-on-one, but you still want to judge the relationship the way you would judge a friendship: does being with this person make me feel good about myself? If not, better to avoid the relationship. Over time you may be able to attend family functions or see individuals and not be triggered or negatively affected by their inappropriate behavior. You may clearly see the dysfunction, realizing that you are no longer vulnerable as you are not now an active part of this family system. At this point, you cannot be drawn back in.

Do not expect your family members to understand or to wish you well on departing. Do not make your new healthy life contingent upon their understanding and acceptance, for you will probably never get it. Consider how much work you put into gaining mental health and whether you want to sacrifice that to a misguided sense of family loyalty. It is not egotistical to put your own self-interest first; it is an essential element of having a healthy sense of self-worth.

Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.

Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.

Art currently practices at Wilson Counselling Associates in Oakville, Ontario.