By Kendra A. O’Hora, Ph.D., LCMFT
READING TIME: 4 minutes
Gaslighting – The Word of the Year
Did you know that gaslighting was the 2022 Merriam-Webster’s word of the year?
We are living in a time when words like gaslighting, abuse, toxicity, trauma, narcissism, etc. are thrown around a lot.
In some instances, these terms have clinically relevant meaning. Such as understanding the difference between narcissistic traits and narcissistic personality disorder.
In other cases, the words have legally relevant meaning. Such as, the word abuse and what constitutes abuse.
Another quick fact to throw at ya – in the State of Maryland there is actually a category of abuse that includes mental injury. Because, of course, as providers we know very well, abuse is not just verbal, physical, and sexual. In fact, some studies (check out this one) cite mental injury (could also be called psychological or emotional abuse) as more damaging than physical or sexual abuse. Of course, this is not to discredit or compare anyone’s trauma but rather to alert us all to a VERY pervasive problem.
The Very Pervasive Problem
So what’s the problem we see unfold in our offices? Someone (our client, or perhaps this has happened to you, too) finally sounds the alarm on their toxic family system and they are met with pushback.
To Those Fighting the Good Fight
When you sound the alarm in your toxic/abusive family system and someone in that family system explains how they see things differently you should take pause.
Here’s the deal – they haven’t healed. They are still benefiting from the system. They aren’t able to see how the vulnerable are being destroyed: addictions, loss of identity, relationship turmoil, etc. They are solely focused on their experience being different, and thus heard, because the toxicity served (and still serves) them.
If they aren’t ready to evaluate how the system serves them…have compassion (you were once there, too), wish them well internally, and continue with YOUR healing.
You DO NOT owe them explanation, emotional labor, or a space to process their hurt from your alarm, perspective, or exit. They should utilize their own support system for that.
Are YOU the Problem?
So what if YOU are the one resisting the alarm? Well, here’s a PSA from your friendly neighborhood therapist –
Returning to those who are trying to heal, and in many cases survive, is actually you participating in the toxicity of the system, especially if they haven’t invited you into the dialogue.
Those healing are not here to serve your needs and comfort. Again, use your support system for that. And by support system I do not just mean “yes men.” I mean people who hold vulnerability well, challenge your paradigm with gentleness, and don’t encourage you to stay in your own unhealthy patterns.
Instead of Asking Survivors to Do More
Here’s what you can do instead of asking the survivors to do more:
Simply: the scapegoat role maps onto chronic shame as a result of blame/misplaced anger, the golden child maps onto needing lots of praise and validation as a result of elevated status (and actually is the hardest child to exit the toxic system), and the invisible child maps onto hyper independence as a result of being completely unseen. And flying monkeys? They do the bidding of the narcissist or most powerful toxic member.
An Alternative 8th Step
Only return to the person who sounded the alarm when you can say (in your own words) –
“I am with you. This family (or person) abused you. The environment is harmful for your life and healing. I agree and am working to take ownership of my own participation in the toxicity. My healing journey is my own responsibility *and* at some point, when I can show up as a supportive person with no expectations regarding your choices or future relationships, I’d like to see if we can develop a new relationship. However, if doing so infringes on your ability to heal and live out your values, I will respect that.”
Need a provider who can tackle abusive, toxic, and personality disordered family systems? Wellness & Co. has therapists and coaches who are well equipped to help you heal. AND we have developed a wholleeee resource list of podcasts, books, and articles for learning more about toxic family systems and healing!
Until next time,
Dr. K started Wellness & Co. with the desire to provide top-notch therapy to our local community. Now, Wellness & Co., has therapists, coaches, tutors, and professional organizers – all to provide wrap-around, boutique style care to our clients. Dr. K specializes in couples therapy, healing from infidelity, and supporting individuals through relational transitions.
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