Aftermath – the dark side of confronting toxic parents

Jack was 39 years old when he decided enough was enough. He’d been bullied all his life. He was “too short” and “too fat” at school. He was in a loveless relationship for 15 years to a woman who cheated repeatedly. (They tried marriage guidance but apparently it was “all his fault”). At work, his boss would criticise and micro-manage. And, perhaps worst of all, his life choices were only ever good enough if he won his parents’ approval or sought their permission. He was under constant pressure, drinking heavily and gaining weight. Fast. 

One day he woke up and wanted a different life. So he asked his wife to leave, changed his job and prepared himself for the biggest conversation of all – to tell his toxic parents that he would no longer tolerate the emotional neglect and psychological abuse he had suffered from them for years.  His mother in particular, he described as a terrifying narcissist; a passive-aggressive, surly bigot.  She made no secret of telling him what she thought of the women in his life and would gossip for hours about people she would say she liked to their face but secretly hated behind their back.  She had something to say about everyone, had an opinion about everything and woe betide anyone who didn’t agree with her. Her idea of unconditional love was doing things her way or no way and she could shed crocodile tears at the drop of a hat. 

Like many clients I am aware of, including those affected by domestic abuse,  what made  Jack’s story so painful for him is not just that he had been suffering in silence for so long, or that his parents seemed blissfully unaware of his emotional pain. It was what came next when he found the courage to confront them: his mum and dad sided with each other and they set out on a path of trying to discredit and destroy him. They would deny actual events that had happened (known as gaslighting), make accusations of their own (with no substance) or ignore him and his concerns if he tried to reach out. It reminded me very much of typical perpetrator behaviour in a domestic abuse situation

One would have expected if not hoped that, when confronted, the parent least responsible would have taken their son remorsefully into their heart, promised to protect him and keep him safe from the bully or abuser who had neglected his feelings for years, and reassure him that this would not be allowed to continue. Surely, even at 39 years old, a child is still a child to their parent. But in Jack’s case, like many others, he was left out in the cold. 

One would have expected if not hoped that, when confronted, the parent least responsible would have taken their son remorsefully into their heart, promised to protect him and keep him safe from the bully or abuser who had neglected his feelings for years, and reassure him that this would not be allowed to continue. Surely, even at 39 years old, a child is still a child to their parent. But in Jack’s case, like many others, he was left out in the cold. 

Thankfully for Jack he managed to build a new life for himself, with the help of friends and someone to talk to, he was able to make peace with his past and walk away with dignity from those who’d hurt him time and again.  He lost weight, his confidence grew and he is now looking for ways to help others from the experiences he’s had.  He began to believe in himself, and started to realise, with help, that he had a right to say how he feels. But it’s not always easy when you don’t have someone to talk with or when you start to doubt your own value – or mind – when people you once looked up to let you down. 

There have been a lot of articles recently about narcissists and toxic family members but rarely is it acknowledged that for those who dare to challenge the people responsible for causing their hurt, that they may have to deal with this type of aftermath: of rejection from people meant to love them unconditionally.  One thing Jack would tell you now though, if you asked him was it worth it, challenging his parents’ behaviour knowing they’d reject him?  He would say absolutely, he’s happier now than he’s ever been. 

As I often do, I have quoted Desiderata, for those who question their value in the world: you have a right to be here. 

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.  Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.

But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.  And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

If you or someone you know is being affected by the behaviour of others, you could encourage them to keep talking and reassure them they deserve to be heard and be happy. Encourage them to speak to their GP, the Samaritans or, in cases of domestic abuse, organisations like Refuge may be able to help. 

Please feel free to share your stories of toxic parents here. 

Footnote: the details of this story have been changed to protect the individual mentioned, the content and context is produced with permission. 

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