How I’m Healing from the Pain of Growing up in a Dysfunctional Family


“Don’t try to understand everything, because sometimes it’s not meant to be understood, but accepted.” ~Unknown

As a child, I never had the opportunity to develop a sense of self. I had a father who was a drug addict. A mother who was abused by my father. And later, we had my mom’s possessive and controlling boyfriend. It was tough finding a consistent role model in the mix.

I was one of four kids and we grew up in a trailer, sharing one bunk bed among us all. As children, we often would brutally fight with each other. We all wanted our own space and sense of self, but there wasn’t enough to go around.

With our mom working so much, her boyfriend would watch us. He seemed to enjoy punishing us. I remember feeling so afraid. I didn’t want to do anything wrong. I wanted to have his love because it felt like the only way to be safe. I never felt good enough, not to my mom, dad, or the boyfriend.

Starting in my teen years, codependency started really kicking in, and I wanted my mom for everything. I unknowingly was part of her triangulation between me and my sister. We both craved her love and wanted to have her favoritism.

As a wild child, my sister was stuck with my mom’s negative self-projections, I received the positive. As the years progressed, these roles flipped, and I suffered a sense of rejection and confusion as to what I had done wrong.

Life was hard and I couldn’t live with the fear and shame, so I learned to unplug from my feelings. At the same time, these unprocessed feelings would cause outbursts of anger. I started feeling entitled to anger. It felt like life had kicked me so hard as a child, why wasn’t it getting easier? Why was it getting worse?

My learned dysfunction kept me yearning for connection but fearing it and pushing people away at the same time. I wasn’t capable of trusting others in a healthy way. With each loss, I took on more shame and perceived failure.

As I struggled through life, I was oblivious to the amounts of shame my family dynamic had me carrying. My mother’s triangulation and manipulation created an environment where she was justified in lashing out with no accountability. Everyone else was to blame for her poor reactions to situations.

As my mom and sister became a team, I became the problem who needed to learn how to accept and love them unconditionally. There was nothing wrong with them treating other people poorly. It was okay for them to deceitfully hide family secrets (e.g.: Mom drove home drunk from the bar and doesn’t remember getting home), because I wouldn’t agree, so they were justified.

I felt like I was on an island, broken and unable to figure out what was wrong and how to fix myself because the “rules” of justification changed so swiftly, and always in their favor.

Having no sense of self and being completely enmeshed with my mom and sister, I felt beyond broken each time I was accused of not being able to love unconditionally. I was worthless and a disgusting human being who was incapable of even a basic emotion that everyone else had.

It took a lot for me to see that love for my mom was making me feel close only when she was going through tough times, making me part of her someday club (our motto: “someday” will never happen for us).

My sister learned to use her money to express her love. She would take me to dinner and give me her quality hand-me-down clothes. While I was grateful, it also became justification for her to do crummy things toward me, usually when she had been drinking.

While sober, if she had a problem, she’d choose to “forgive.” The only problem is that she hadn’t really forgiven me because one night while everyone was having fun, I might get tired or I didn’t think a joke was funny or I looked at her the wrong way, and it would all come flooding out—every stored feeling she had been holding back for days or weeks.

If either my mom or sister hurt me, the expectation was that I should just get over it. There was no need for them to take accountability because “we are human” and “I am happy with who I am.”

I wanted to be loved and accepted but couldn’t ever really find my place within my family because the dynamics were so volatile. I was suffocating in the conflicting feelings. I felt angry but ashamed. I was unhappy and felt worthless.

When I hit bottom and I couldn’t see one thing in my life that gave me worth, I knew that I needed to make changes. I reached out and got help from a therapist and joined a local support group.

As I am separating from the dysfunctional patterns, the things that have helped me are:

1. Ask for help.

Dysfunctional family dynamics often create shame around the idea of talking to others. It’s seen as exposing family secrets and going against the unit. Nobody should suffer due to things out of their control. Reaching out helps you find the compassionate outlet you deserve and need.

I have been in therapy for about two years now. It has been the only time of my life where I have been able to experience consistent, reliable, and healthy direction. It has supported me in learning how to have self-compassion and make healthy, but tough choices.

I didn’t want to accept the reality that my mom and sister will likely never truly see me for me. My role as a scapegoat is brutally necessary for the emotional “economics” that occur within my family.

Therapy helped support me in my choice to find myself outside of my family of origin. There was much pain in going from seeing my family every weekend to now living a life outside of them. It required radical acceptance and the knowledge that I am unable to change anyone but myself.

I was lucky to have a kind, compassionate, reliable therapist to guide me as I dealt with each of the emotions that came up during this time.

2. Accept others as they are.

As a scapegoat in a dysfunctional family unit, I have learned to accept my situation for what it is. I have to set my expectations for what others are capable of giving.

We have no control over others or their view of the world. All we can do is accept a situation for what it is and assess if it is healthy for us. Once I accepted that my mom and sister do not really see the family dynamic as dysfunctional, I was able to free myself of the anger and need for control. They are blind to the ways they protect themselves emotionally and unwilling to have an open mind about it.

There is sadness, but I see that the relationship dynamic causes so much pain for me, and I cannot fix this on my own. While I am compassionate toward the pain they must be carrying, I see that I cannot continue a relationship that is built on dysfunctional habits.

3. Know your worth.

As an enmeshed individual, my worth was defined by external sources. I wanted my mom, sister, brothers, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances to validate me as a good, worthy person. I desperately needed to feel like others liked me enough to feel I had worth.

I now know that we all have worth, and it’s our individual responsibility to maintain this worth from within.

I have a tough inner critic, so having a consistent mindfulness practice has helped me establish my worth. It is hard to find worth when you are caught up in your own head, believing the negative thoughts going through it. Mindfulness helps me turn away from these thoughts and label them as just that, thoughts.

The more we tune out our negative self-talk, the more we can acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them without sinking into a low and getting down on ourselves. With this brings the awareness that our mistakes do not diminish our worth. Our worth is inherent. A mistake is just a mistake.

4. Learn what healthy love looks like.

Our family of origin doesn’t always teach us what healthy love looks and feels like.

In dysfunctional families, each person loves based on their limited capacity to process their own emotions. When someone has to keep reminding you that you are unconditionally loved, ask yourself, how do I feel right now? For me, I felt hated and restricted to being what was easy for my mom and sister.

Love should connect you with your inner joy. We all feel down at times and cannot rely on others to make us feel good about ourselves at all times. But I do feel that when someone loves you unconditionally, you shouldn’t feel lost. The joy of this love should be consistently present and help carry you through the tough times (e.g.: disagreements, hurt feelings, etc.).

When it comes to my mom and sister unconditionally loving me, I have had to accept that they love me the best and only way they know how while hiding from their shame. If they lash out, they are not able to carry the shame and embarrassment of their own actions. They cannot validate my feelings or experience in any way. They need me to carry this responsibility for them. This is not unconditional love.

As you move through the necessary steps to separate from learned family dysfunction, please remember that you didn’t learn these things by yourself and you will not unlearn them by yourself, nor should you.

Oftentimes things like depression or anxiety are a hurdle. Building a community is scary but necessary. This can be reaching out to a therapist or searching for support groups in your local community.

For years I struggled thinking that I could fix what was wrong with me on my own. It wasn’t until I reached out and got help that my mind was able to open up, process traumas, and make lasting changes.

About Eleanor Smith

Eleanor is hoping to encourage others to find self-compassion and personal growth towards a joyful life.

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