How to Heal From a Toxic Family Relationship

This is an excerpt from “But It’s Your Family…Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath” by Sherrie Campbell, a licensed counselor, psychologist and marriage and family therapist. In the book, coming April 2019, she explains what toxic family relationships are, how to move on effectively and how to explain to people outside of the relationship why you’ve distanced yourself. 

Family may seem like a simple concept to many, but more than anything it’s a concept heavily loaded and without a simple definition.

In its most simple terms, the definition of family is one of a legal or genetic bond that exists between people. Yet, for many people, family means much more that that. Family is the place where “home” is.

In this case, home is the originating place of unconditional love and support. If our family was healthy and we had a bad day, we couldn’t wait to get home to take respite in the love and comfort we received in our home and from what our family members had to offer us.

Illustration of man and woman looking away from each other in frustration. Toxic family pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
Unless we have done the work to educate ourselves on emotional abuse, we cannot and will not be able to explain our situation.

If we were raised in toxic family systems, the concept of home is quite different. Home equates to the creation of fear, anxiety, a lack of acceptance, a lack of unconditional love and support. Home as the place we least wanted to be.

Growing up in a toxic family is a hollow, confusing, maddening and lonely experience. When we are raised by toxic parents, we live in a unique kind of crazy where we feel more like things to manage and keep on a schedule rather than as human beings to love, nurture, and care for. We leave children feeling emotionally homeless. Having a healthy home and family life is the dream we never got to experience growing up. We may have even glanced into the windows of other homes an felt envy for what we never had.

[ICYMI: When Your Parents Don’t Like the Person You’re Marrying]

Why emotional abuse is so confusing

The most challenging aspect of psychological/emotional abuse is that it is deniable by our toxic family members and impossible to prove. Our family members don’t believe they are abusing us because, by definition, they view themselves as perfect, and perfect people don’t do imperfect things, such as emotionally manipulate their children.

We as their children don’t realize we’re being manipulated because we believe the lies our toxic family members tell us, convinced everything is our fault and that we are the one’s who are broken and destroying our family members.

Toxic family abuse is always two-fold. The first layer of abuse is the original poor treatment by our toxic family members, namely our parents. The second layer is their denial of the ways in which they treat and harm us, irrespective of the evidence as it manifests in our behavior and in our tragically low levels of self-worth. The sinister and obscure nature of their emotional abuse leaves us alone to pick up the pieces of our self-worth and all aspects of how we function in life, love and relationships.

When we try and explain our fears of love, life and people to others, we tend to come off sounding needy, desperate and paranoid. This is because psychological abuse is not equipped with a clear set of descriptive indicators that our toxic family members find undeniably true. Consequently, to them at least, we can rarely if ever prove what has happened to us. All of the descriptors are subjective and therefore debatable, just as our  toxic family members need for them to be.

Because emotional abuse is impossible to prove, we often have an incredibly difficult time putting into words what exactly has happened to us that is so bad. We know things were not or are not normal, but we don’t know why. Emotional abuse moves quickly. Just as we’re about to put our finger on it, it seems to slip away.

Without a clear set of concrete, provable, terms, may of us question if our abuse or neglect was real. Did it really happen? Or are we just making it up? We reason that if we were truly abused, our abuse should be easy to explain.

Learning when to walk away

To add to our challenge of validating our experience, the average person isn’t typically well educated or aware of emotional abuse, even when it is happening directly to him or her. Unless we have done the work to educate ourselves on emotional abuse, we cannot and will not be able to explain our situation. This allows the abusive treatment of our toxic family members to continue without interruption.

Our toxic family members are experts at concealing their abusive behaviors just slightly under the radar so that when we complain about the hurt they have made us feel, our complaints fall on deaf ears. This level of slyness allows our toxic family members to walk away looking innocent and unfairly accused while we appear emotionally unstable. This is the most infuriating part for us.

It is important to understand that loving someone doesn’t always mean having a relationship with that person, just like forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation. Reconciling, in many cases, only sets us up for more abuse.

A significant part of our healing will come in accepting that not reconciling with certain people is a part of life. There are some relationships that are so poisonous that they destroy our ability to be healthy and to function at our best.

When we put closure to these relationships, we give ourselves the space to love our toxic family members from a distance as fellow human beings where we do not wish harm upon them, we simply have the knowledge and experience to know it is unwise to remain connected with them.

Sherrie Campbell

Dr. Sherrie Campbell is the author of the new book “But It’s Your Family…Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath” and the best-seller “Success Equations: A Path to Living an Emotionally Wealthy Life.” She is a veteran psychologist, inspirational speaker and radio host. For more information, please visit, and connect with her on Facebook @sherriecampbellphd.