There are many articles on parents with estranged adult children. This article however will touch on adult children with estranged parents.
When people hear about the loss or the impending loss of an estranged parent some people feel shocked and unprepared to experience the range of emotions of grief. They may struggle with a wide variety of things that they will have to be consider in a very short period of time. Funeral attendance, flights across the country, other people’s feelings and their own feelings. The loss may leave them mourning not only their estranged parents death but also the loss of an imaginary, what-may-have-been relationship.
Sometimes people find out about the death of their parent in an insensitive way. Maybe they found out after the fact in obituaries or through the “grape-vine” of other estranged family members. Communication in estranged family relationships are sometimes non-existent. It is not unusual for major events – even a death – to not be communicated. They may assume that they were left out with evil intent when it’s possible that the family of the estranged parent has perceived the relationship to be so strained that the person wouldn’t want it communicated.
Reasons people may grieve an estranged parent:
Grieving that the relationship now has no chance of mending. Often at some level there is an unspoken hope that the relationship might be restored. Death closes the door on reconciliation. Words are left unsaid and the feelings still remain, sometimes without closure.
Grieving the loss of a part of heritage. Even though the relationship with the parent wasn’t strong, the death involves someone who is a part of their lineage and the chance to learn about the other half of their family may be gone.
Grieve what might have been. People reflect on a time when they loved the parent, or wanted to love them. Although there may not be a longing for things to change, there is a feeling of melancholy that things were not different. The death of the parent brings to mind ideas of how the relationship should have been. After the loss, the dream for a better relationship remains only a dream, and in many cases people grieve the death of the dream rather than the loss of the person.
Some people experience apathy to the loss of the non-existent parent in their lives. It is entirely possible that they dealt with the grief of loss when they were first estranged. The length of time and purpose of the estrangement greatly affects each persons response.
Ways to help someone with the loss of an estranged parent:
Regardless of whatever expectations they think society has placed on them for handling the loss of an estranged parent, they have experienced a loss and they are allowed to grieve. Giving them space to grieve without judgment is important.
People may express deep sadness and remorse for the wasted years. Missed phone calls or chances to re-connect and opportunities lost. Remind them to not waste the rest of their life looking back at what could have been.
Talking about the past can be cathartic and open doorways to recovery. Though sometimes people don’t realize that reciting a general litany of of unhappiness is one of the main reasons they stay stuck. The goal is to become emotionally complete with what happened so that they don’t need to be a current victim of what happened in the past. It’s bad enough that they were mistreated and/or harmed, but remaining stuck in the destructive mental repetition can prevent them from moving forward.
Remind them that forgiveness isn’t saying that the estranged child ‘accepts’ or ‘approves’ what happened. Forgiveness is the acknowledgment that what happened, happened, and that they are now ready to let go of the baggage. Forgiveness isn’t always about the other person, it’s about moving forward.
What NOT to say to someone grieving the death of an estranged parent:
“They were an awful person, why do you even care?” Invalidates the feelings of the grieving person. They are trying to figure out their own emotions in the situation. They may be feeling confused or upset that they care about this person too. They may be upset that they care for this person at all, adding even more to their confusion and grief. Invalidating their feelings may make them feel like they aren’t allowed to express them at all.
When will you feel better?” Expectation for a timeline for grieving puts unnecessary pressure on the griever to just get over it and again reinforces that they aren’t allowed to express their emotions.
“You didn’t even know him/her” amplifies what the griever is probably already thinking. Knowing this doesn’t take away from the pain of being unable to connect to their estranged parent, in cases it might even be the primary cause of their grief.
Liberating Losses: When Death Brings Relief, By Jennifer Elison and Chris Mcgonigle. Sometimes we are relieved that our loved one is no longer suffering; at the other end of the spectrum, a death might finally free us of an abusive or unhappy relationship. In this groundbreaking book, the authors share their own and others’ stories, compassionate clinical analysis, and pragmatic counsel with other disenfranchised survivors.
Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life, By Susan Forward. In this remarkable self-help guide, Dr. Susan Forward draws on case histories and the real-life voices of adult children of toxic parents to help you free yourself from the frustrating patterns of your relationship with your parents — and discover a new world of self-confidence, inner strength, and emotional independence.
What to do when Father’s Day isnt happy – Alison James
Do Father’s Day posts on social media make you want to crawl under the covers until the day is over?
Do Father’s Day commercials make you feel sad or angry?
Do you wish Father’s Day would be over already, so you would stop being reminded about your dad?
Even though Father’s Day is a happy occasion for many people, it can bring up painful or negative feelings for others.
Whether the day reminds you of a loving father who died, a less than loving father who wasn’t there the way you needed him to be, or if you’re a father who can’t be with your child for any reason, those are all losses that could make Father’s Day difficult. If the day brings up negative feelings then you might be experiencing unresolved grief.
Unresolved grief can have a long term negative impact on your life. Grief is cumulative and cumulatively negative. Grief not only affects current relationships, but it affects future relationships, your work, health, and even hobbies. The intensity of your feelings may lessen over time, but grief doesn’t heal on its own.
Here are some signs you might have unresolved grief around your dad:
Do you refuse to talk about him?
Do you feel angry or sad when you think about him?
Do you avoid places that remind you of him?
Do you put your dad on a pedestal or only see his negative qualities?
Do you avoid watching movies, eating foods, or going to places that remind you of him?
Do you avoid contact with him?
Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you weren’t carrying around the pain from your relationship with your dad?
If you’re like most people, you were never taught how to heal your broken heart. Although there are plenty of articles, and well-intentioned people, who will share a list of ways to change your feelings short term, they never show you how to truly recover. Frankly, if you want to recover from grief then you must have the courage to do the work.
The first step is admitting that you want help.
Talk to someone you trust. Tell the truth about yourself. Ask them not to judge, criticize, or analyze (then don’t judge, criticize, or analyze yourself either).
Mourning is hard. It doesn’t matter if the person has passed away, is estranged from you or has chosen not to have contact with you. It. is. hard.
Mourning can be more complicated when the person is still alive but you cannot see them, speak to them, write to them, tell them about your day, your happy moments or your big achievements in life. Or the opposite spectrum, like not being able to talk to them when things are tough, knowing they would have the perfect advice or the perfect response to how you are feeling. We get dependent on certain people and their responses to the events going on in our lives. Sometimes, when a person is abruptly cut out of your life, or you have just “lost touch” when one or both of you moved away, it can be difficult to cope. We find that we miss the smell of our mother’s cooking or the way that she smiled when she was super proud of us.
In the place of those happy memories come tears, pain, repressed feelings and sometimes anger depending on how the relationship ended. Knowing they are still out there somewhere in this big ole world makes it sometimes hard to bear. We don’t know how they are doing, how life has changed for them, we don’t get to celebrate things with them anymore.
All of these feelings are completely normal. Beating yourself up for cutting a person out of your life for your better interest is not healthy and shouldn’t be a reason to let that person back into your life.
They hurt you.
They did something to make you feel as you do now.
We each have the right to take care of our own well-being. The problem with that is it often contradicts the notion that we should “respect our elders,” “take care of our parents” or that “love conquers all.”
All of these philosophies are one-sided. They leave no space for the truth. Sometimes we just have shitty parents, friends, relatives or relationships. They don’t take into account that sometimes the abuse of said elder, parent or person we love can be toxic, overwhelming, overbearing and sometimes downright scary.
That doesn’t mean we cannot still love them! It just means we choose to love them from a distance. I found that in my case, staying in limited contact was only hurting me more because any time I received any kind of contact it was never positive. It always dragged me right back down into the toxic cesspool of despair. I was depressed because I couldn’t fix all the things wrong with their life, with mine and with our relationship, or fix our inability to see eye-to-eye on many important subjects.
I was allowing myself to wither away by trying to keep someone else alive…
That couldn’t work for me anymore. I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be by being a depressed, anxious, worried, fearful, stressed out individual. I wanted freedom from terror.
It is so weird to think that I felt that way. Because how can you feel terror towards a person you also love?
Do not beat yourself up for this.
For those of you still reading, I want to tell you this:
Your feelings are valid.
You have a right to feel them, just as they are, with no manipulation by others or by the person who is hurting you.
Do not beat yourself up for feeling your feelings.
Do not keep giving up your patience, sanity, clear-minded stability and rational perceptions for the sake of the other person’s happiness. You only have one life, don’t waste it by living for someone else.
You cannot heal someone who chooses not to heal themselves. Do not let yourself fall into this trap. There is a reason you chose to leave that person behind, but it’s OK to mourn the loss of this relationship.
Note: The following document contains very harrowing accounts of the suffering that has been caused by ‘the cultic separation of loved ones.’ There are 91 accounts here, all from ex-cult members who all deserve a big thank you for contributing and for sharing their feelings and pain. Thanks to all!
Sometimes, facts about an atrocity need to be dissected and spelt out bold and clear for all to see. Only then, when it is seen for what it actually is, will society rise up shouting, “Enough is Enough!”
Enough Is Enough highlights one of the most appalling acts of humanity; ‘Cultic Separation’ of families. This is where man-made religious laws, are used by groups, in the name of their leader or god, to coerce and overpower people’s minds. It results in parents shunning and have nothing more to do with their children, husbands from wives, wives from husbands, siblings form siblings, children from grandparents etc etc.
For example, a survey conducted with 240 ex Exclusive Brethren members in 2012, revealed that 76% of this group, had family (Children, Father, Mother, Siblings or Grandparents) still in the group and thus were separated from them. If Uncles, Aunts or Cousins were included this number would rise. (Mytton, 2012)
There are over 1000 cults in the UK alone.
The compilation list on this page is from 3 questions asked of ex-cult members:
1: What family members are still separated from you?
2: How do you feel about the effects of the family separation?
3: The group were you part of?
Do you have family members separated from you by a religious group? Can you answer the 3 questions above? If so, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org and I shall add your facts to the list. (Use Anonymous/Initials or full name if you want).
Your contribution will help create awareness which can lead to people getting set free from the clutches of man’s control!
Thank you for your support
1: Separated from 4 grandparents, 2 Uncles, 2 Aunts and 10 Cousins since 1970. My Dad, Mum and brother separated from me since 1988. (32 years)
2: The effects: My family unit destroyed, missing out on decades of love and support.
3: Group I was in – Exclusive Brethren.
John Spinks (Liverpool UK)
1. When we left in 1960 I was separated from my brother and all my extended family apart from one aunt and one set of grandparents.
2. The impact on my mother of losing her son was profound. For over 30 years she did not see him and could not understand why not as she was a christian. She saw him before she died but it was not a real reconnection and she died desolate. Her distress impacted on us all. We all missed out on years of love and support from our aunts, uncles, cousins and one set of grandparents.
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
1: Separated by being shunned from my daughter and two grandsons (her sons)
2: Missed out on the joy and love of family life with them. Also her siblings have missed out on their relationship with their sister and nephews. We are now old and in ill health and need her support more than ever.
3: The cult is Jehovahs Witnesses
1. Separated from parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts, cousins since 1977.
2. My kids have missed out on so much love and support and as a young mother, I could have so used my mother’s advice and help.
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
1. Separated from just about everyone, 1st was the 60 split, then the 70 split when most left, all are in different cults as far as I understand, also appear to have Separation, and never seen since…..
2. I left in early 1973…. Parent + all 6 uncles and aunts have died, some years ago I understand, All 22 nephews and nieces [maybe more ?] + Sister have got married some years ago Understand all of there kids are married with kids. 47 – 60 years Separated is a long time, the odd times I hear a nephews or niece has died……….. This is a so say a religious system ?
3. The group was the Exclusive Brethren.
Philip from Cirencester
1. My mother, my father, my brother, his wife, my nieces and nephews and my grand nieces and newphews, my grandmother, all of my aunts, uncles and cousins.
2. I never saw my father again (from 1990 – 2000 when he died) as they refused to let us see him – even when he was dying. They didn’t even tell us that he had died until they had already buried him. I did see my mother a couple of times – one of the times she talked to my brother and I through the screen door. The second time was when the PB were going through their little exercise of trying to get people to return to their fold around 2003. The one brother that stayed in the brethren hasn’t made contact with his siblings (3 of us) since we went to our mother’s graveside in 2004. It’s a pain that never goes away. One minute you are part of a big loving family and then you are dead to them as if you never existed.
3. Exclusive Brethren.
1: Separated from twin brother and eldest brother and their extended families.
2: Missing out on family celebrations , closeness , not being involved in their lives.
3: Part of the U.K. LDS
1: I have lost 6 children and their children – my grandchildren: 12 I believe 18 direct descendants in total. And numerous cousins.
2: The effects are really too many to list as 18 years later problems related to my upbringing still arise. The biggies are unimaginable grief. PTSD, loneliness, and difficulty living with other people.
3: Exclusive Brethren
1: What actual family members have been separated from you? My mother and my father (20 years) and a sister that turned her back three years ago.
2: I was on my own at the age of 18, became pregnant shortly after. I had to figure out how to be an adult and take care of a child on my own. I had no college education and barely any life experience. So I made some really stupid choices along the way. My two kids and my husband have no idea what my parents are like. Let alone met them. My parents drove 5 hours to tell me they were moving. I called up my mother in law and said this is your chance, come meet my parents. So we pretended that she needed to borrow a dish. Lol. They stayed for twenty minutes. I lost my sister for 17 years. I missed her kids growing up. And she dealt with some serious domestic abuse that was just swept under the rug.
3: What group were you part of? Jehovah Witness Boulder CO Hall
1: My dear mum and dad, and brother, wife, and children. Multitudes of cousins of who I was very close too.
2: Great sadness by my husband and hurt for me. Children very scathing of my family and the eb’s and not entertain churches and religion of any kind, as if that’s what religion is tearing up families they didn’t want a bar of it. Myself a life of constant heart ache, a shadow I can never erase.
3: I grew up in the Exclusive Brethren, Plymouth Brethren.
1: Separated from father, sister, wife and two children.
1: Lost contact with many relatives when the separation edict came in; uncles, aunts cousins etc. Both my parents had siblings who never joined. I lost all my neighbourhood friends too at this time. I think I was about 8. My 3 girls have never met 4 of their aunts, their fathers sisters although they oldest two are in their 40s. Two out of three never met their grandfather who lived in the same city. When their GF died on a Tuesday, he was buried on the Wednesday and we only found out the following Friday when someone told their GF’s brother who had never been in the EBs.
2: As an only child my friends and cousins had been an important part of my upbringing. I was so lonely as no EB kids lived close by. I remember hanging over the fence watching my friends play and also looking through a hole in the fence as well.
I remember sitting outside in the car when my dad visited one of his brothers briefly, so I was unable to talk or play with cousins who I had previously spent a lot of time with, who we shared Christmases and birthday parties with.
I remember coming to the conclusion that I certainly didn’t want to have children in that restrictive environment. I was fortunate to attend school to Grade 12, did well at school and got entrance to Uni and a scholarship to attend as well. I still planned to leave and go but loved my parents dearly. Unfortunately, my father died 6 weeks before my matriculation exams. I felt I could not leave my mother in the midst of her grief. My worldly friends from school all went off to Uni and again I lost good friends. I stayed solely for my mother for the next two years. Meanwhile I met a guy an EB who was later kicked out. Half his family were in, half out. His parents had broken up because of EBs when his Dad was told to kick his older brother out of the house at age 16. The mother left then too, leaving her other 8 children who had no contact with her even though she had been granted access by a judge. This screwed up the whole family I believe as I would class this as early childhood trauma.
I ran away from home to another state of Australia at age 20 but was cut off from my mother from 1972 until her death in 2006.
I married the ex EB guy and we were together 40 years and had 3 beautiful children. This impacted even their lives. They had one grandparent out of 4 and she had her own issues from leaving her children behind. I used to try to keep contact with my mother by writing letters and always visited when in the old home town but if the EBs knew I was coming she was shipped out of town. Visiting was always a quick five minutes at the front door where she was obviously fearful someone would see her talking to me.
Our kids never formed a bond with her. Eventually she lived with other EBs (she had no relatives in) and I totally lost where she was for about 5 years. I remember visiting the last time with my children in 1999 and my then husband I having to sit outside on a garden wall while the 3 girls got to talk to her in the front hall. I couldn’t even see her through the sun shining on the screen door. One of my daughters said she had tears running down her cheek and just kept looking at me.
A couple of years ago I heard she had tried to leave but was prevented. I have no proof of this but have no reason to doubt the story. I never got to visit her unchaperoned again.
They did tell me when she passed away and I did go to the graveside not the EB funeral. If she hadn’t died on a Friday afternoon so the funeral couldn’t happen before Monday morning first thing I would have been unable to make it up there.
Both my ex husband and I tried to connect with our “out” relatives after we left but it was difficult and I believe some even blamed us for how we or our “in” relatives had cut them off. I think for me it is easier since my mother passed away but the ongoing rejection and even grieving her alone has certainly contributed to a lot of heartache and anguish. I used to feel as if the first 20 years of my life had never existed. I never doubted my mother loved me as I was a very wanted only child after she suffered numerous miscarriages. I lived with the guilt of hurting her. I found her rejection of my children’s separate issue. Getting married and having children is something you normally share with your family. I felt we didn’t have that extended family to share with. I believe the traumas both my ex-husband and I suffered contributed to our marriage breakdown for two wounded people after 40 years together. I believe too, although our children were born out of the cult it has affected them to a lesser degree as well. There is so much family they have been cheated out of getting to know and they have grown up with two parents who experienced trauma at the hands of a cult which has certainly affected our attachment with them.
3: Exclusive Brethren
1: Mum and Dad, 3 brothers and 1 sister and all their many children, Grandmother, Aunts and Uncles, many, many cousins and now great nephews and nieces.
2: My children have had no grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and no reference to the older generation of relatives and their younger relatives. Personally I lost my entire culture, friends, family and reference to life and living.
3: Exclusive Brethren / PBCC
1 I was separated from my extended family, father, step siblings, 2 grandparents, and cousins from around 1960. I was separated from my siblings and my mother in 1976. 2. Severe isolation when I first left. I had no friends, no support group. It was like moving to a foreign country without going anywhere. 3 Jehovah’s Witnesses
1. My dad, my five brothers and sisters, my eight kids since 2013. There is been absolutely no contact except occasionally from my older brother.
2. For me, I spent a total of four months in a mental rehabilitation hospital because of nervous breakdowns and 2 attempted suicides.
1: As of Oct 2017 my only daughter. Since then my 2 sons have returned to me & my youngest son who left the organization with me.
2: My youngest willing to take his life knowing he would lose his family.
Teresa Garcia Espinoza
1: Mother, Father, two brothers, aunties and uncles.
2: When parents died, no word of this to me – times changed and was allowed to see my younger brother just before he passed .. my children have grown up not knowing their grandparents, uncles and aunties, and their cousins. Had to make a new life with new friends, always held hope parents would see the light and leave, but no …..
3: Of course – Exclusive Brethren.
1: My two children, ages 3 and 4.
2: The effect was tearing my heart out and the effect on then was they did not have a mother and we are still estranged 35 years later.
3: I was Mormon.
1. Separated from my father, some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins in 1982.
2. The JW ex refused to work and entertained the brothers while I worked in a sewing factory, a true sweat shop. The ex punched me in the face, then the brothers told me it was my duty to go back to the marriage . The brothers monetarily supported custody battles while the kids and I lived in public housing. 10 years of fighting the ex and the JW team. My father is widowed, in his 90s and lives alone. His claims the congregation in Central PA is tending to his needs. He’s rail thin, can hardly walk, and they hold the meetings at his house. He plows the snow for their ease of passage to his front door using his old tractor. I’m not sure how he climbs onto the thing. My only living sibling and I don’t speak, and my other sibling died from alcohol and drugs. I found my victory through education and my 3 children, all have college degrees, 2 with their Master’s. My life is beautiful!
1. My Parents (including three mothers), two mothers in law, 20 siblings, 12 siblings in law (is that a thing?), around 50 blood related nieces, 50 blood related nephews, and around 10,000 friends and community members.
2. The effect was that I felt alone, betrayed, and abandoned. My husband and I faced the “wicked” Outside World and had to try to figure out things other people know already.
3. I was FLDS. Mormon fundamentalist polygamy.
1: I knew what I would be facing, before I left. Lost my three children and two grandchildren.
2: It was my choice…therefore I live with it. I miss them dearly, however, because I was raised in a dissociated life no attatchements to anyone, this made it a little easier on me.
1. Told to keep distancing from none JW relatives until no relationship exists. And then shunned and lost my mother, 2 sisters, 1 grandmother. The only family I had left.
2. Family unit distroyed, causing severe mental health problems on both my JW family side and my side. My grandmother’s health deteriorating from stress. She will not make it to the summer. And I can’t even be with her. Even if shunning were to stop. There is alot of damage. No one will ever view each other the same.
3. The group I was in was Jehovah’s witnesses
1: Both parents,sister,niece,cousins,cousins children.
2: Family broken up, my 2 brothers xjws with me, rest against us, shunned and treated like dirt even when family tragedy happened. Depression,feelings of never being good enough, stress loneliness.
3: Jehovah’s Witness
1: Both parents, 2 sisters, 2 brothers in law, numerous nieces and nephews, and cousins.
2: 30 years of not being in each others’ lives – missing weddings, graduations, births, and other life events as well as basic family support.
3 – Jehovah’s Witnesses
1. My husband and I have lost a daughter, son in law, granddaughter and grandson. I was never really close to most Jws, so nothing lost there.
2. It’s been one of the most painful events in my life. Like 4 people died all at once. I rationalize that since we’re family maybe they will see us some. Was I wrong, it’s going into the 4th year.
What causes us to move on from traumatic experiences? Psychologists are finding it’s not always about bouncing back—sometimes we have to feel our whole world fall to pieces.
The Vietnam War veteran had enlisted when he was young, serving two combat tours and surviving multiple firefights. “To this day,” said psychologist Jack Tsai of the Yale School of Medicine, “his war memories are triggered by certain smells that remind him of Vietnam”: overgrown vegetation, the acrid stench of burning, or even sweat—like that which ran in rivulets down the faces of men fighting for their lives in the sweltering jungles—brought it all back. It was classic post-traumatic stress.
As Tsai was treating him (successfully) for PTSD, however, something unexpected emerged. The vet still described his Vietnam experiences as horrific, but he said the painful memories remind him of who he is. His experience typifies research psychologists’ new understanding of trauma: When people are least resilient—in the sense that they are knocked for a loop, do not bounce back quickly or at all, and suffer emotionally for months, if not years—they can eventually emerge from trauma stronger, more appreciative of life, more sympathetic to the suffering of others, and with different (arguably more enlightened) values and priorities.
By no stretch of the imagination would the vet be called resilient in the sense that research psychologists use the term: an ability to go on with life, essentially unchanged mentally and emotionally, in the wake of profound adversity. To the contrary, environmental triggers returned the vet’s troubled mind to the horrors of land mines and ambushes and friends blown apart. At the same time, the vet’s military experience (and his triumph over PTSD) makes him feel that he can accomplish anything. “Nothing bothers him too much, because everything pales in comparison to Vietnam,” said Tsai.
For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers.
This effect, post-traumatic growth, was so named in 1996 by psychologists Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina. It can take many forms, but all involve positive psychological changes: a greater sense of personal strength (“if I survived that, I can survive anything”), deeper spiritual awareness, greater appreciation of life, and recognition of previously unseen pathways and possibilities for one’s life. For many, post-traumatic growth brings closer relationships—as family and other loved ones are more cherished—and a stronger sense of connection to other sufferers.
Stronger Than Before
The concept that from great suffering can come great wisdom is both ancient and familiar. An oncologist friend of mine talks about patients who say cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to them, cutting through life’s usual trivia and making them value the truly important. President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan (1944–2008), said his battle with cancer made him see that “the simple joys of life are everywhere and are boundless.”
After a car crash in which my childhood friend Joyce lost her right leg at age 20, her months-long recovery and rehab left her with hours upon empty hours to think. “Stuff that used to be a big deal, like being popular, just isn’t anymore,” I remember her saying. “I care about making a difference [she became a schoolteacher], and I think I’m more empathetic. I feel that when someone is suffering I understand in my bones what she’s experiencing. Before, it was just, oh, poor her.” However, post-traumatic growth does not mean traumas are desirable, let alone that they should be downplayed when they befall others. As bestselling author Rabbi Harold Kushner said about the spiritual growth he experienced after the death of his 14-year-old son, “I would give up all of those gains in a second if I could have him back.”
Few lives are without suffering, crisis, and traumas, from extreme or rare ones, such as becoming a war refugee or being taken hostage, to common ones, such as bereavement, accidents, house fires, combat, or your own or a loved one’s serious or chronic illness. For years, psychology has assumed that the best inoculation against post-traumatic stress—as well as responses to trauma that fall well short of mental disorder—is resilience, the ability to pick up one’s life where it was before the trauma. Now that psychology has made post-traumatic growth a focus of research, what is emerging is a new understanding of the complicated relationship between trauma, resilience, PTSD, and post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic Growth vs. Resilience
Although the psychological concept of resilience dates back to the 1970s, scientists are still struggling to understand its origins. Some studies find it’s fostered in childhood by a strong relationship with a parent or other adult, and the belief that your fate is in your own hands (a sense of agency). But the opposite belief, that “God is in control and everything happens for a reason,” may contribute to resilience, too, said UNC’s Calhoun. A 2016 review of people who survived atrocities and war in nine countries from South Sudan and Uganda to Bosnia and Burundi found that resilience varied by culture. Strong emotional connections to others fostered resilience among survivors in some societies but not others, and a sense of agency actually backfired among some: If you believe your fate is in your hands and then see your family cut down by a sniper in Sarajevo, you feel not only grief but also crushing guilt.
In the absence of resilience, post-traumatic growth—a very different response to trauma—might emerge instead. “Post-traumatic growth means you’ve been broken—but you put yourself back together” in a stronger, more meaningful way, Tsai said. This may come as a surprise to those who think of resilience as the ability to learn, change, and gain strength in the face of adversity. Among research psychologists, however, resilience is about bouncing back with relative ease to where you were before, not necessarily bouncing forward to a stronger place. By this understanding, without the breaking, there cannot be putting back together, so people with strong coping capacities will be less challenged by trauma and therefore less likely to experience post-traumatic growth.
In the absence of resilience, post-traumatic growth—a very different response to trauma—might emerge instead.
For post-traumatic growth to occur, the breaking need not be so extreme as to constitute PTSD, as was the case for the Vietnam War vet. Tsai and his colleagues found that among the 1,057 US military veterans they studied, the average number of lifetime traumas (such as bereavement, natural disaster, illness, and accidents, as well as military traumas) was 5.7. Only 1 in 10 had PTSD, yet 59% of the vets had experienced post-traumatic growth. And the strongest predictor of whether someone would avoid PTSD after additional trauma was whether they had experienced post-traumatic growth after an earlier one, Tsai and his colleagues reported in the Journal of Affective Disorders. It was the first study to examine whether previous post-traumatic growth can protect against PTSD if trauma strikes again. The findings suggest post-traumatic growth might in fact boost resilience.
Post-traumatic growth—unlike resilience—is not a return to baseline. It is the product of reassembling your “general set of beliefs about the world/universe and your place in it,” said Calhoun: You question the benevolence, predictability, and control ability of the world, your sense of self, the path you expected life to follow. From the shards of previous beliefs, you create wholly new worldviews, and can perhaps emerge a stronger person than you were before.
What is Trauma?
Among psychiatrists, what constitutes “trauma” is controversial. Some define trauma based on the nature of the event: Psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, for instance, says a traumatic experience must be outside the range of what humans normally encounter. Others define trauma based on how people respond to an experience: Intense fear, helplessness, horror, or distress would be symptoms of trauma.
A circular definition —“trauma is something that leaves you traumatized”—is obviously not ideal. Nor is “outside the range of normal experience” a reliable measure: Tragically, many experiences that once were outside that range no longer are, such as natural disasters, mass shootings, or wartime horrors.
Scholars are therefore trying to do better. An emerging definition holds that trauma challenges a person’s “assumptive world”: her belief in how people behave, how the world works, and how her life would unfold. By this understanding, trauma needn’t threaten life or health, nor cause post-traumatic stress disorder. But it must make you question your bedrock assumptions, such as that the world is fair, that terrible things do not befall good people, that there are limits to humans’ capacity for inhumanity, that things will always work out, or that the old die before the young. By that definition, few of us make it through this life without experiencing trauma.
Toxic shame is one of the most common debilitating feelings that people struggle with.
Toxic shame is a term that refers to a chronic feeling or emotional state of feeling bad, worthless, inferior, and fundamentally flawed. It is called toxic because it is unjust, whereas healthy shame is when we do something morally wrong, such as aggressing against others.
The origins of toxic shame
Toxic shame has its roots in trauma. Trauma is a word that people either don’t think much about or they associate it with something extreme, like broken bones or severe sexual abuse. While these things are indeed very traumatic, there are a lot of traumatic experiences that people don’t recognize as trauma. That’s why many people struggle to understand how things like childhood neglect can be a form of abuse and trauma.
In most cases, it is trauma a person experienced in their childhood and adolescence. Moreover, this trauma was experienced in a repeated fashion and wasn’t processed as such nor healed. So the person was conditioned into routinely feeling ashamed when there was nothing or very little to be ashamed of.
Regarding toxic shame specifically, it develops because an individual’s primary caregivers or other important figures routinely shamed, or punished them either passively or actively. Such a person internalized those hurtful and untrue words and behaviors, and it became their understanding of who they are as a person.
Toxic shame beliefs and emotional states
Some common beliefs a person suffering from toxic shame may have include:
I am unlovable; I don’t matter; everything is my fault; I can’t do anything right; I don’t deserve good things; I was a bad child; I deserve to be treated the way others treat me; I’m a bad person; my needs and wants are not important; nobody likes me; I can’t be myself around others; I have to hide my true emotions and thoughts; I’m never good enough.
It is common for a shame-ridden person to also suffer from chronic anxiety and low self-esteem. Some people cope by hurting or not taking care of themselves, while some hurt other people and become highly antisocial and narcissistic.
Toxic shame is often accompanied by toxic guilt, where the person feels unjust responsibility and guilt. So the person not only feels ashamed, but also guilty for things they are not actually responsible for. They also feel responsible for other people’s emotions, and feel ashamed and guilty when other people are unhappy, especially if it’s in some way related to them.
It’s common that shame-ridden people lack a sense of self and are dominated by their false-self, which is a combination of adaptation techniques and coping mechanisms that they developed to deal with their unresolved trauma. As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma:
“This early erasure of self often develops into an internalized practice of self-erasure in later life, or various other emotional problems like the inability to name emotions, the presence of guilt or shame about feeling emotion, or a general numbness surrounding emotion.”
Toxic shame behaviors
Lack of healthy self-love. Because such a person usually suffers from low self-esteem and overt or covert self-loathing, these things manifest themselves in poor self-care, self-harm, lack of empathy, inadequate social skills, and more.
Emptiness. The person also feels chronic emptiness, loneliness, and a lack of motivation. They don’t want to do anything, don’t have any active goals, and do things only to distract themselves from how they feel.
Perfectionism. A lot of people who struggle with toxic shame are also highly perfectionistic because as children they were held to unrealistic standards and punished and shamed for failing to meet them.
Narcissism. On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who develop grandiose fantasies about how they will become rich, famous, powerful, and conquer the world, believing it will make those painful feelings go away, which is not what happens even if they succeed.
Unhealthy relationships. Many people suffering from toxic shame have unhealthy relationships because they don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like. Or they are incapable of building and maintaining one.
Usually they settle for a “good enough” relationship, where both parties are highly unhappy but are too weak, in their own way, to pursue true happiness. Sometimes, again, it’s because they believe they don’t deserve anything better. Also, the relationship is a decent way to cope with all the unbearable painful feelings that come up when the person is alone.
Susceptibility to manipulation. Since they are ridden with toxic shame, guilt, loneliness, and inadequacy, manipulators can push those exact buttons to make them feel those exact emotions and then they will do what the manipulators want to get rid of that painful emotion.
“Why are you hurting me?” “Don’t you want to be a part of us instead of being a lonely loser?” “This product will finally make you look beautiful.” “It’s all your fault.” There are many examples of things abusers and manipulators say.
Summary and final words
Children who experience trauma often feel shame. Since this shame is usually unidentified and unaddressed, the child grows into an adult who suffers from a chronic shame.
Toxic shame is closely related to other emotional states and beliefs, including low self-esteem, self-loathing, chronic guilt, unresolved anger, and never feeling good enough.
Consequently, these mental states result in unhealthy behavior, including acting out, hurting others, feeling responsible for others, self-erasing, having toxic relationships, poor self-care, poor boundaries, being overly sensitive to other people’s perception of them, being susceptible to manipulation and exploitation, and many others.
All these painful, unprocessed emotions actually belong in the context of their childhood environment where they were initially hurt and violated, but they are currently unable to make that connection and resolve it, so they deal with them in the ways they learned: actively or passively hurting themselves or others, or both.
Mother’s Day is Sunday. Will you be celebrating, hibernating, or going through the motions? For so many people for so many reasons, Mother’s Day is not always a day of celebration.
A couple of years ago, about this time of year, I was talking with a pastor friend of mine. I mentioned how hard Mother’s Day is for women who are struggling with infertility and for birth mothers who have placed a child for adoption. I suppose I thought I might be helping to educate her on the complexities of this day of celebrating motherhood. It turns out that she needed no education on these complexities.
My pastor friend sighed and surprised me by saying that Mother’s Day is a nightmare for the church and that she was always thankful when it was over.
It’s not just the infertile who find this day painful, but also anyone who has lost a child or is estranged from a child.
Women whose children are struggling with addiction or are in jail often find Mother’s Day sad too since some feel like failures as a mother.
Single women who want to be a mom and feel time passing them by feel their loss more intensely on this day set aside to celebrate the joys of motherhood.
Moms who have placed their children through adoption may feel their empty arms more intensely on Mother’s Day.
And then there is the view from the other side of the mother/child relationship: women who have lost their mothers or are estranged from their mothers may dread this day that reminds them of their loss.
Suffering Silently Through Mother’s Day
I thought of how myopic I’ve been. As a daughter, I liked having a day to honor my mother. As a mom, I liked having a day where my kids and husband honor me. As someone immersed in the world of infertility and adoption, I was aware of how Mother’s Day affects the infertile and birthmothers. If I had taken the time to think it through, I would have realized of course, that they aren’t alone in their suffering, but honestly, I hadn’t taken this time.
So many who suffer through Mother’s Day are invisible. Other than your close friends, you don’t know who has had three miscarriages, or hasn’t spoken to her mother in years, or doesn’t hear from her grown son other than once a year, or who placed a child for adoption years before. But then pain is often invisible unless you’re the one feeling it, isn’t it?
So as you sit in church this Sunday or at a restaurant surrounded by your family at your celebration lunch, look around you. Really look at the people who are there and recognize that not all are celebrating. Also notice who isn’t there; who is holed up at home watching a Law & Order marathon with a gallon of Ben & Jerry’s because it is simply too painful to participate.
It seems the deeper I journey into the healing and recovery process, the more I find that much of our cultural and conventional wisdom does not help trauma survivors. All the trite platitudes and sayings that might help someone having a garden-variety bad day can actually become giant triggers for someone living with trauma.
Let’s assume everyone wants to live a healthy, pain-free, abundant and productive life. There are hundreds of motivational books and centered on “fake it ’til you make it” principles, which encourage people to “think positive,” “let it go,” “don’t sweat the small stuff,” etc. They may have helped some people. Judging by book sales, they have probably helped many. Yet, for many trauma survivors searching for relief, these books and motivational coaches don’t help. In fact, many, like me, feel more depressed, broken and impossibly disconnected after reading them. Here’s why.
Trauma survivors are often highly motivated people. Many are conditioned to be hyperaware and hypervigilant out of survival. They are often overly critical of themselves because they were held to impossible standards by their abusers, and their attempts to please them often went sour. Some become overachievers, yet never feel like what they achieve is enough. Because nothing is ever good enough to appease an abuser, some survivors give up trying, becoming the self-fulfilling prophecy of whatever their abusers told them they were. Many survivors internalize that they are “lazy” when it’s not a lack of motivation that keeps them from their goals, it’s trauma. Trauma causes the nervous system to fight, flee or freeze, and for many survivors, their bodies are either stuck in one of these, or alternate between the three. Holding this pattern together is a web of toxic shame that is extremely difficult to break. Think of a race car stuck in first gear, with a foot on the gas and a foot on the break. That’s how many survivors get around.
To a survivor, telling them to “think positive” sounds cruel. I mean, that’s exactly the problem for anyone recovering from psychological and emotional abuse. Their thoughts were hijacked by someone else, and now they are fighting for their sanity to get their own thoughts back. And it’s not just their brain that was taken over. Emotional trauma gets hardwired into the physical body. Not only does it cause mental anguish, it creates a lot of physical pain, which can sometimes morph into serious long-term disease. Doctors and scientists are currently making great strides in connecting the dots between trauma and disease, but the general public is years behind in understanding and accepting this reality.
Research finds that rejection affects intelligence, reason, and more.
Source: Johan Larson/Shutterstock
We know that rejection really hurts, but it can also inflict damage to our psychological well-being that goes beyond emotional pain. Here are 10 lesser known facts that describe the effects rejection has on our emotions, thinking, and behavior.
Let’s begin by examining why rejection hurts as much as it does:
1. Rejection piggybacks on physical pain pathways in the brain. fMRI studies show that the same areas of the brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. This is why rejection hurts so much (neurologically speaking). In fact our brains respond so similarly to rejection and physical pain that…
2. Tylenol reduces the emotional pain rejection elicits. In a study testing the hypothesis that rejection mimics physical pain, researchers gave some participants acetaminophen (Tylenol) before asking them to recall a painful rejection experience. The people who received Tylenol reported significantly less emotional pain than subjects who took a sugar pill. Psychologists assume that the reason for the strong link between rejection and physical pain is that…
3. Rejection served a vital function in our evolutionary past. In our hunter/gatherer past, being ostracized from our tribes was akin to a death sentence, as we were unlikely to survive for long alone. Evolutionary psychologists assume the brain developed an early warning system to alert us when we were at risk for ostracism. Because it was so important to get our attention, those who experienced rejection as more painful (i.e., because rejection mimicked physical pain in their brain) gained an evolutionary advantage—they were more likely to correct their behavior and consequently, more likely to remain in the tribe. Which probably also explains why…
4. We can relive and re-experience social pain more vividly than we can physical pain. Try recalling an experience in which you felt significant physical pain and your brain pathways will respond, “Meh.” In other words, that memory alone won’t elicit physical pain. But try reliving a painful rejection (actually, don’t—just take my word for it), and you will be flooded with many of the same feelings you had at the time (and your brain will respond much as it did at the time, too). Our brain prioritizes rejection experiences because we are social animals who live in “tribes.” This leads to an aspect about rejection we often overlook…
5. Rejection destabilizes our “Need to Belong.” We all have a fundamental need to belong to a group. When we get rejected, this need becomes destabilized and the disconnection we feel adds to our emotional pain. Reconnecting with those who love us, or reaching out to members of groups to which we feel strong affinity and who value and accept us, has been found to soothe emotional pain after a rejection. Feeling alone and disconnected after a rejection, however, has an often overlooked impact on our behavior…
6. Rejection creates surges of anger and aggression. In 2001, the Surgeon General of the U.S. issued a report stating that rejection was a greater risk for adolescent violence than drugs, poverty, or gang membership. Countless studies have demonstrated that even mild rejections lead people to take out their aggression on innocent bystanders. School shootings, violence against women, and fired workers going “postal” are other examples of the strong link between rejection and aggression. However, much of that aggression elicited by rejection is also turned inward…
Suicide is newsworthy because life is precious. In 1993, a 6-year old girl living in Florida stepped in front of a train. She left a note saying that she “wanted to be with her mother” who recently died from a terminal illness.
This is the power of the human mind. A small girl thinks of the past and imagines a future that is so bleak, so devoid of meaningful moments without her mom, that she takes her own life. The same mental tools that distinguish us from other animals, the same mental tools that allow us to solve problems and produce creative works that give us symbolic immortality are the same tools that allow a 6-year old to contemplate a future that is terrible enough to physically leap into an oncoming train. If a 6-year old has the cognitive capacity to kill herself, then we need to step up our efforts to understand and prevent it from happening.
Understanding why people commit suicide and what is causing the need for such drastic measures may help you prevent a suicide attempt before it happens.
Bullying and Suicide
Bullying is ongoing aggressive or abusive behavior from one person or a group of people who harm and threaten another either physically or emotionally or both. Bullies come in many varieties and are not always physical in peer groups. Sometimes the popular or older adults band together to ostracize the person. Maybe they were once friends. They will pick on the person or ridicule them over social media such as Facebook and Twitter with harsh words and criticisms aimed at making them feel bad about themselves.