Some people can easily recognize the toxicity in their family systems. In these cases, the dysfunction is obvious. Others may dismiss their experiences as normal or even as deserved. At times, this kind of toxicity can even be challenging. It’s hard to heal from difficult experiences when you are unable to identify the pain and childhood trauma you endured.
Of course, no two families look alike, but many toxic families share similar themes. Here are some of the most common signs you grew up in a toxic family.
All healthy relationships require strong and healthy boundaries. These boundaries refer to the emotional, physical, financial, and spiritual limits between two people. Boundaries start in childhood, as parents work to promote a safe, structured environment for their children.
Toxic families tend to lack boundaries, which means that family members often invade privacy and overshare information with one another. In some ways, it can be hard to distinguish where you end, and another family member begins.
Of course, simply being close to your family isn’t inherently toxic. It’s normal (and expected) to share most of your experiences with your loved ones in some cultures. Indeed, it can be wonderful to have a tight-knit relationship. With that in mind, the closeness should feel enjoyable and not obligatory.
Some signs of enmeshment include:
- Family members regularly talking to your friends or partners about you without your awareness.
- Feeling like you can’t trust anyone in your family with a secret.
- Being in a family prone to lots of gossip.
- Feeling like nothing is yours (i.e. everyone is always borrowing clothes, electronics, food, other material goods without asking).
- Parents physically invading their child’s privacy (reading diaries, installing trackers on cell phones, reading through every social media comment).
Enmeshment can be challenging to change. It’s not uncommon for family members to become defensive when confronted with this behavior. Many insist that they are simply looking out for their loved ones.
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Did you consistently receive the message that nothing you did was good enough? Whether family members criticized your grades, clothes, or the way you did chores, these toxic family members can be highly negative. Unfortunately, this negativity can also be influential.
The more a child feels berated, the more they tend to withdraw and avoid intimacy. Loved ones often get away with their criticism- people may dismiss it as them being overprotective, concerned, or simply wanting “what’s best.”
Nevertheless, the effects of this high pressure can be detrimental. When you grow up feeling like a bad person, your self-esteem may suffer immensely. You may experience tremendous shame, which can follow you for years.
All children need validation and support. They need to know they are loved and accepted for who they are. This work starts in the child’s first shaped environment- the family home. When a family cannot meet that basic need, children often grow up trying to find it elsewhere- and they often look in the wrong places.
When a family member abuses drugs or alcohol, their addiction can impact the entire system. Substance use goes hand-in-hand with issues related to denial, enabling, and erratic mood swings. It also corresponds to financial and legal problems, which can create further complications for everyone.
Substance abuse can run in families. For instance, couples may use drugs or drink together. Children who grow up with parents battling alcoholism often struggle with the same compulsions themselves.
When people struggle with substance abuse, they cannot be as emotionally or physically present for their loved ones. The addiction is their primary focus. The more the problem progresses, the more they must devote nearly all their time and energy to their habit.
Perfectionism often stems from toxic family dynamics. When someone is a perfectionist, they tend to value their worth based on what they accomplish rather than who they are as a person. As a result, they tend to be overly critical of themselves (and occasionally of other people).
If you struggle with perfectionism, you may:
- Avoid making significant decisions because you feel paralyzed about making the right choice.
- Struggle with procrastination, particularly when you fear doing a certain task.
- Spend hours rewriting or redoing certain tasks to get them done just right.
- Have limited tolerance for people who think differently than you.
- Experience high levels of anxiety in work or school.
- Identify as a workaholic.
Perfectionists tend to receive tremendous praise for their behavior. Often, other people look up to them because of their accomplishments. They may be seen as the star of the family.
But perfectionism has a steep cost. You may feel a profound sense of emptiness, and it can be challenging to accept that mistakes are an inevitable part of growth.
Feeling Sheltered or Inexperienced
If the real world feels daunting, this fear might be a product of your family system. Even if they have the best intentions, some families try to shield loved ones from the burden of life. In this sense, they aim to do anything and everything for their children.
You may struggle with this issue if you:
- Feel overwhelmed by ‘adult tasks’ like paying bills or making appointments.
- Reach out to your parents instead of engaging in your own problem-solving skills.
- Consistently rely on your family for money.
- Struggle with indecisiveness about the future.
- Act immaturely at work, school, or in your relationships.
Although parents shelter their children for many different reasons, the intentions are rarely malicious. Most of the time, they want to keep their children safe and supported. They may have experienced first-hand challenges themselves, and they don’t want their children to share the same hardships.
Fear of Abandonment
Nobody likes to feel alone, but the fear of abandonment can be debilitating. While this fear can be primal, it often stems from early childhood.
Abandonment can be real or perceived. In real cases of abandonment, the child was disregarded by a caretaker. This can happen through instances of neglect, where the caretaker is too busy to attune to the child’s needs properly. They may leave the child alone for long periods, or they may come in and out of their lives at various intervals.
In perceived abandonment, caretakers often threaten to leave. Even if they don’t follow through with their threats, the child learns that one wrong move can lead to them being alone. Likewise, some caretakers don’t physically leave, but they emotionally withdraw, which can be just as painful as a real absence.
Do you get in your own way? Does the fear of success scare you more than the fear of failure? When things are going well, do you inevitably sabotage your hard work?
Self-sabotage can be a tricky paradigm to understand. After all, it seems so paradoxical to jeopardize your good fortune with seemingly careless decisions. But self-sabotage is often a sign of a toxic upbringing. It happens when you don’t believe you are worthy of love, success, or good things.
Self-sabotage comes in many different flavors. For example, you may date emotionally unavailable people who leave you feeling hurt and frustrated. But once someone compassionate comes along, you deem them as too boring. Or, you might try to start losing weight. But after a few days of eating salads and drinking plenty of water, you decide to reward yourself with a few slices of chocolate cake.
Self-sabotage maintains a status quo of not feeling good enough. Instead of charting new territory, it keeps you right where you think you belong.
Stagnation and Indecisiveness
Do you feel stuck in your life? Are you watching other people make exciting changes, but you feel paralyzed at the idea of even starting something new?
Stagnation can be a symptom of toxic families. This can happen for a few reasons. In some instances, children are so used to parents deciding everything for them. They have never really needed to think for themselves, so they find the idea of doing it overwhelming.
In other cases, you may struggle with the idea of failure or struggle. If you’ve had someone to rescue you, it can feel terrifying to venture out on your own and take risks. The indecisiveness serves as a buffer. Rather than make an executive decision, you can default to not knowing the right thing to do.
If someone in the family has narcissistic personality disorder, the rest of the family unit tends to suffer as a result. Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition characterized by an overinflated ego and disregard for other people’s emotions and needs.
Narcissists struggle with emotional regulation, and they can become erratic, angry, and demanding very quickly. Many times, family members find themselves conceding to their needs. It’s easier than putting up a fight.
Children of narcissists may grow up with the following struggles:
- A lack of real identity.
- The inability to set boundaries.
- Excessive guilt or shame over their family dynamic.
- Fear of change.
- Dating and befriending other narcissists.
- Coping with ‘escape behaviors’ like drugs or alcohol.
- Extreme people-pleasing tendencies.
Research shows that approximately 40-50% of American marriages end in divorce. Divorce itself isn’t inherently toxic. In many cases, it’s the best decision a couple can make, particularly if they cannot get along.
But some divorces can be especially brutal and complicated, and these issues are exacerbated when children are involved. Some signs of traumatic divorce include:
- Instances of infidelity or other forms of betrayal.
- Needing law enforcement for peaceful transfer for children.
- Children feeling forced to pick to live with one parent, particularly if the parents live far apart.
- Children needing to adjust to new stepfamilies very quickly.
- Children feeling caught in the middle between parents who refuse to speak amicably to one another.
In a best-case scenario, parents aim to maintain a sense of dignity and respect for the well-being of their children. Even if they no longer love each other, they try to maintain a healthy relationship. When parents are unwilling to do this, other family members tend to suffer as a result.
Some toxic families have incredibly strict standards for how people should think, behave, and feel. There is very little to no room for individuality. If you express an idea that’s different from theirs, it becomes problematic.
In these family systems, people are often shamed- rather than embraced- for their uniqueness. It’s often perceived as threatening.
Sometimes, this can be seen in religious communities. For instance, a family may shun someone for failing to abide by certain religious expectations. They might become extremely hostile if someone even asks questions related to a different perspective.
With that in mind, people can be rigid about anything from politics to hobbies to social issues. A high-achieving parent may expect nothing less than a perfect report card from their child. A former soccer star might become angry if their child expresses an interest in basketball.
In rigid family systems, one of two trends often emerges.
The first trend consists of complete compliance. The child adapts and adheres to the family’s way of thinking. They don’t outwardly challenge it, but they may still struggle with some internal tension.
The second trend consists of rebellion. The child feels stifled and wants to defy their family’s rules. As a result, they tend to “act out” and do things much differently from everyone else. They often want their family’s approval, but they engage in the very actions they know will repel them.
There are no perfect families. And even toxic families can also bring forth feelings of love, connection, and support.
If you’re struggling with unresolved issues related to your family, keep in mind that it’s okay to embrace your emotions. They may fluctuate depending on the day, and that’s normal. If the problems don’t seem to improve- or if they worsen- it may be worth seeking professional support.
Therapy can help you untangle some of the stress you experience as a result of your family dynamics. Likewise, it offers a supportive environment that promotes self-growth and self-love.