Toxic families are those where there is mental, emotional, physical or sexual abuse. I am going to assume that because you are reading this, you have already decided that your family is toxic, you are having problems because of it and that you want help, to either make sense of what is going on or to know what to do about it. Or probably both!
In toxic families there are different situations, each with it's own considerations. A parent, or both parents, may be toxic. A child may be toxic. One or more relatives may be toxic. And there may be combinations of these situations, for example, a father and a sister may be toxic. By toxic here, I obviously mean abusive and controlling.
Before we get into the differences in these situations, I want to explore the nature of abusers and some general rules when dealing with them. I will introduce lots of ideas in this article and I provide you links to other articles so you can gather more in-depth information about each idea.
Whenever there is repeated physical or sexual abuse, there is typically psychological abuse first. The abuser has to have some kind of influence and control over the victim to keep them in the abusive situation, otherwise the victim would just up and leave after the first injurious episode.
Psychological abuse has many effects on the victim as we shall see later. One effect is that the victim often has difficulty recognizing the level of abuse that they are being subjected to. They literally don't know how bad their situation is while they are in the middle of it.
When a victim does begin to realize that things are not right, it's usual that they go looking for information to try and understand what is going on. They may consider their abuser to be a controlling mother, a bullying brother, a strict father, an abusive uncle or an emotionally unavailable parent. These terms may be accurate but they may not give the full picture.
Several studies have found a very high incidence of personality disorders among abusers. In one study of court ordered therapy for spousal abuse, upwards of 80% of abusers were found to have a personality disorder. In other words, they were psychopaths or narcissists. If your toxic family member is a psychopath or a narcissist, this is very different from someone who is a bit controlling. It changes everything.
Because people don't often realize what psychopathy or narcissism is about, they don't initially consider that their family member may fit this profile. But if they do fall into this category, you need to pay attention because the rules are different with these people.
A psychopath is basically someone who does not have a conscience. They do not experience, guilt, fear, remorse, shame, embarrassment, empathy or love. They do not feel bad about anything they do. They have a huge sense of entitlement because they believe they are superior to others. Their relationships are based on manipulating others for their own benefit.
This may be a lot to take in, especially if you have not considered this idea before.
Many people have an idea of what a psychopath or a narcissist is, and their family members don't usually fit that image. But don't dismiss this idea too quickly.
It can be hard to see how a family member could be a psychopath, despite all the abusive behavior, but that's what happens with psychological abuse. So even if it doesn't seem possible right now, it's still worth exploring the possibility instead of dismissing the idea straight away. You really need to know what exactly you are dealing with.
The toxic elements of toxic families are very often psychopaths and narcissists and dealing with these types requires a different set of rules. If you try and manage the situation using the normal, polite rules of society, you will lose. It's that simple, because they most certainly are not using these rules. Remember the disorder is called antisocial personality disorder for a reason!
Here are some things you have to keep in mind about your psychopathic, toxic family members.
- They want to control for the sake of controlling. Any excuse or justification you have for their abusive behavior may be completely wrong. These people routinely use exploitation and coercion in their personal relationships.
- They are manipulative. They may be very good actors, charming, friendly and so on in order to manipulate people's impressions of themselves outside the home. Behind closed doors they may be dictators.
- They are deceitful. They will lie, cheat, con, and otherwise trick people to get what they want. They will lie even when it would be better to tell the truth.
- They are callous. They have no concern for others. None! There is no remorse for any harm they do to others. They do not feel bad, ever, for anything they do.
- They are hostile. There is often a vicious temper that flares up at the slightest provocation.
- They have no sense of responsibility. They break promises, undo agreements, go back on their word and are loyal to no-one except themselves. Their apologies are as valid as their promises.
- They are impulsive. They often act on the spur of the moment with little or no regard for future consequences.
- They are risk takers. Often doing things that may be dangerous for themselves or others, simply because they are bored.
- They have one set of rules for themselves and a different set for everyone else. These rules are apt to change without notice.
- They can be very unpredictable.
- They do not change. No matter how often they say they will change, or how convincingly they sound about it, they will not.
- Just because they are a member of your family does not mean that they love you. Psychopaths are incapable of love.
Each of these items is very significant. Together, these toxic traits add up to something that can make your life a waking nightmare. So what specific effects do these toxic people have on the other members in toxic families?
Psychopaths want to dominate others. They want to control every aspect of their victim's lives. They will change beliefs, manipulate thinking and decision making, manage behaviors and cause emotional havoc in their victims. They make themselves the center of the universe for others.
They take over people's lives. They do this by changing people at their core, they change their personalities.
All the abuse, the insults, humiliation, criticism and bad behavior is designed to break down or unfreeze the personality of the victim. The abuser then trains the victim to think and act in a certain way and this new way is then frozen in place, using rewards, punishments and more emotional manipulation.
You can read more about how the abuse creates the changes in the victims in this article on narcissistic boyfriends. I know the article is about boyfriend/girlfriend relationships, but the same dynamics play out in psychopathic. toxic family relationships, too.
The abusers impose a false personality, or pseudopersonality, on their victims. This pseudopersonality dominates the real personality but never destroys it.
This pseudopersonality is designed to treat the psychopath as special, to take care of the psychopath. It is programmed to be dependent on the psychopath. The pseudopersonality will even defend the abusers.
The pseudopersonality is controlled by the psychopaths using a lot of fear and guilt. Everyone tip-toes around the toxic people, right? Afraid of upsetting them and setting them off... afraid of eliciting that vicious temper. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of a tongue lashing or the back of a hand.
The abuser knows how to press everybody's buttons. They can make you feel bad in an instant, even with a look, or a tone of voice. And they do it for the least little thing! In toxic families, the members often feel that they are on an emotional roller-coaster the whole time.
In summary, the important things that you need to keep in mind so far are:
All these things apply whether the toxic family member is a parent, a child or a relative.
The first thing to remember with a psychopathic husband or wife is that the spouse has been manipulated and abused from day one. They have a pseudopersonality in place. They may not realize how abusive their partner is and for this reason they go ahead and agree to have children (or they are tricked into it!!).
The idea that the spouse of an abuser is an 'enabler' often indicates a lack of understanding of mind control on the part of the speaker. The spouse of a psychopath is very much under their control and goes along with the abuser because they are programmed to do so. They are powerless to do anything else. People do not willingly help abusers to abuse others. They are tricked into it. Unless, of course, the spouse is also a psychopath!
Any children born into such toxic families are automatically in a bad situation. Not only do they have a pseudopersonality imposed on them, but their own personality is never allowed to develop and grow. This produces it's own set of problems, not just as they are growing up but also when they realize the nature of the family and they set out to recover from the damage done to them.
A psychopathic parent will abuse their children in all sorts of ways. There are constant criticisms, insults, belittling, humiliation and all sorts of other verbal abuse. They may expect the children to act as parents to the abusers and listen to and sort out all the problems. They keep siblings pitted against each other, lying and spreading rumors about everyone so no-one except the abuser knows what the hell is going on. This gives the psychopath a power advantage over everyone else.
A psychopathic parent may have little or no interest in the children or they may micromanage the child's life. Either one is abusive and there are often different issues to be dealt with in each case. For example, a child who is neglected or abandoned commonly develops the idea that there is something wrong with them and that's the reason the parent left. Children who are micromanaged also believe that they are defective in some way because they were repeatedly told this by their abusive parent.
Narcissistic and psychopathic parents install all sorts of ideas in the children and these have the result of keeping the children trapped in toxic families. You can read about these beliefs and the myths and facts behind them here.
A toxic mother can have very profound effects on the children because of the inherent dependency of the child initially, the time they spend with the child and the techniques used to control and manipulate. You can read more about how controlling mothers do damage here.
A diagnosis of psychopath is not used until a person is 18 years of age, the idea being that a child may change as they grow and childhood antisocial behaviors may no longer be present in the late teens.
Conduct disorder is the term currently used for children. A subset of these children exhibit callous and unemotional traits and these are the ones who often go on to be diagnosed as psychopaths later in life. You can read more details about the subtleties of these things.
Having such a child in a family is horrific. They are manipulative from an early age. They will torment and torture siblings, animals and the parents. They do not stick to the rules. They don't care about punishments. It's almost impossible to control them.
Years ago many were sent to seminaries for the discipline and for religion to sort them out. We all know how that turned out!
These children damage property, steal things, cause trouble in school and they are a constant source of anger, shame, fear and guilt for the parents. There is often literally no way to manage them and the parents live their lives running from one crisis to another for years.
They often set out to damage the relationships between their siblings and the parents. They impose pseudopersonalities on the siblings, too, so that later in life even the siblings can end up in abusive relationships.
This idea of splitting families is very frequent with manipulators and it is very common that in toxic families there is a divide. Sometimes it occurs because the psychopath deliberately sets it up. He or she will set up different camps and cause arguments and disagreements between the groups to keep them divided or by running smear campaigns against one or more members.
Other times it happens because some family members can see that the toxic person is toxic but the others, who are very much under the influence of the psychopath, cannot see the nastiness. They have been so fooled by the psychopath that they believe that the psychopath is a good person, they cannot actually see the abusive side. They will defend the abuser even to the point of separating and not communicating with other family members.
Even an uncle or an aunt, or a brother-in-law, someone who marries into a family can have devastating effects on a family. The psychopath, who may be a very good actor, can insert themselves into a family to such a degree that they take over. They become the center around which a family organizes itself.
They, too, can split families, between those who can see the controlling nature and those who cannot. They may take a family member away and isolate them from their family. There are many cases where a psychopath comes in, marries a member, isolates them from the family and stays in the family themselves! Even after a divorce, the psychopath will paint such a dark picture of their ex that the ex has no contact with their own family while the psychopath maintains 'good' relationships within the family.
And then, of course, there are the cases where an uncle, a grandfather or some such character is actually sexually abusing the young ones in the family, often for years. Once again, many of these types fit the profile of a psychopath or narcissist and they are using mind control techniques to manage the situation.
While there is no certainty about why people are psychopaths, it is common for there to be clusters in families. When people go searching in a psychopath's family, it is common to find that other members, siblings, uncles, aunts, grandparents, grandparents parents also fit the profile.
When there is more than one psychopath or narcissist in a family, the damage they do is multiples greater than when there is only one. Having two psychopaths abusing someone in a home at the same time is devastating. Sometimes they will both be abusive. Sometimes the victim can see that one is abusive but is fooled by the second, thinking that the second is actually helping them. This is no good at all for the victim.
In situations like this, there is often a scapegoat in the family who is blamed for anything and everything. Needless to say, this person suffers enormously.
Because of the nature of mind control and psychopathy, it's actually very difficult to see what is going on when you are in the middle of it. Recognizing that a partner or a friend is a psychopath is a big job.
Recognizing that a family member is a psychopath is an even bigger task. Growing up in a family with an abuser means that the abuser and the abuse is 'normal' for you. You know what it's like, you manage it every day, you have survived it. It's commonplace for you to experience such things. For all intents and purposes, it's the way life is.
If someone is 25 when they are recruited into a cult they have 25 years of experience before the cult. When they leave, they have those 25 years of normality to use as a reference. This makes it easy to compare and contrast both periods of time. People born into toxic families do not have a 'before' with which they can compare the years of abuse. They often have to learn that many of the behaviors that they are so used to are actually abusive and unacceptable.
As I have mentioned before, nor do they have years of personality development before the abuse with which to compare their pseudopersonality. When it comes to undoing the pseudopersonality, they also have to build their own personality, without knowing very much about it. This is an added layer of complexity for people who were born into toxic families or cults.
On the topic of cults, toxic families function in the same way as cults. It's just a cult of 3 or 4 or 5 people instead of 500 or 5000. A psychopathic family member will be using the same techniques as a psychopathic cult leader and creating the same effects. The smaller number of members in toxic families means that the leader has more time to manipulate each, so the damage done can be more profound!
Having a pseudopersonality makes you an easy mark for other predators. The psychopaths can spot a pseudopersonality a mile off and they will target you. This is why people often feel that they are attracting narcissists and psychopaths. You really need to undo the damage done to you to break that cycle.
So let's have a look at the next part, how to deal with toxic families.
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