“I think there are roads that lead us to each other. But in my family, there were no roads – just underground tunnels. I think we all got lost in those underground tunnels. No, not lost. We just lived there.”
— Benjamin Alire Sáenz
There’s nothing quite like family.
Families can be a source of so much joy and meaning, but they can also be a place of conflict and pain.
For those who grew up in a toxic family environment, it’s easy to look back and blame that for what’s gone wrong in your life.
I want to suggest a completely different approach.
Here are 15 signs to recognize that you’ve been dragged through the family drama fun park, along with practical and effective solutions.
15 signs you grew up in a toxic family (and what to do about it)
1) Your romantic relationships are a total disaster
Many of us have challenges with relationships.
But one of the top signs you grew up in a toxic family is that your relationships are especially messed up.
Cataclysmic, disappointing, distressing, just…awful!
You can’t seem to meet the right person and then as soon as you do it goes haywire or you or they lose interest.
You’ve gone to more therapy than you can shake a stick at but love is still a mystery.
You keep taking on partners who expect you to care for them and it feels familiar but also really bad.
What exactly is going on? Actually, it’s called being “parentified”.
As the Chelsea Psychology Clinic writes on their website, often people who grew up in an unhealthy family atmosphere have trouble maintaining romantic relationships.
“There was role-reversal; you grew up ‘too soon’ and were expected to bear adult responsibilities. For example: providing emotional support to a parent, taking on excessive chores and responsibilities around the house or caring for your siblings.
“If you were parentified as a child, you run the risk of playing a ‘caretaker’ role in your adult relationships, prioritising others’ needs over your own.”
The best solution to this is to begin realizing that you’ll never make everyone happy and you deserve to be loved.
Don’t try to “fix” or reparent anyone. Do everything you can to become a functioning adult.
2) You’re a chronic people pleaser – even when it hurts you
There are many signs you grew up in a toxic family, but one of the hardest to deal with is being a people pleaser.
If you grew up in a home where a lot was expected of you and “sit down and shut up” was the rule of the day, then you tend to think lowly of yourself.
You do your best to please others because it’s how you were raised.
Therapist Melanie Evans writes:
“Because you were not able to implement your own boundaries or leave, there was no other option other than to try to read other people and behave in ways to try to stop them hurting you.
“You may have tried to make yourself invisible. Maybe you attempted to appease them.
“Possibly you left as soon as you could and then found yourself in similar situations.”
If you’re a real people pleaser, try out the power of no. Say no to a few things you really don’t want to do.
The world won’t end, you’ll see. Build from there and begin to assert yourself.
You’re not a cog in someone else’s machine, you’re an independent human being! (Hey, it rhymes).
3) You tend to crave the approval of others
Growing up in a toxic environment makes you hypersensitive about the opinions of others.
You tend to seek validation outside yourself and crave the approval of others, even strangers.
You could be working hard on a project and doing great, but someone tells you it’s weird or bad and you stop and doubt everything about it from start to finish.
When you grow up without enough positive reinforcement it’s easy to feel a lack of it in your day-to-day life.
The best way to approach this is to begin the process of finding inner peace.
You can start right now without any big dramatic steps. It’s simply about learning to find the peace and surety within yourself instead of seeking it outside.
4) You don’t trust your own judgment on things
Growing up in a toxic family can be a lot like being gaslit in slow-motion for your whole childhood.
Gaslighting is when somebody tells you you’re seeing things all wrong and the bad behaviors they’re doing are actually your illusion or your fault.
As an adult, it might be easy to brush off someone who tries to gaslight you. But if your parents or siblings did it to you growing up it has a lot more staying power.
Unfortunately, it can cause you to doubt your own judgment on everything from your job to your beliefs to what you eat for breakfast in the morning.
This sucks, but it doesn’t have to be forever! Now that you’ve noticed old patterns reasserting themselves you can break free.
Eat what you want for breakfast, not what mom made you eat.
Keep pursuing your dream of being a world-famous architect or dating the woman you always loved but dad told you was a floozy.
That’s for you to decide. You’re an adult human.
5) You have trouble respecting the boundaries of others
Growing up in a toxic family often means a real lack of boundaries.
People shout across to get to another family member in another room, a sibling pushes open the bathroom door even when you’re inside, and so on…
It can create a lack of instincts for privacy which has spillover results in the “real world.”
You may tend to overstep personal and professional boundaries that others find obvious because you are used to being in an aggressive, dog-eat-dog environment.
For example, you may just suddenly say you’re hungry in the middle of a busy work meeting and stop listening to the presentation.
You grew up around a family where everyone had to fight and vocalize for every scrap of attention and sustenance and it shows.
“Toxic families tend to lack boundaries, which means that family members often invade privacy and overshare information with one another.
“In some ways, it can be hard to distinguish where you end, and another family member begins.”
Reestablishing boundaries can be difficult, but try to observe the behavior of others with more concern for privacy and space.
Notice their body language, speech, and the way they treat others. Then try to do likewise.
6) You get easily trapped in codependent, toxic relationships
As I was saying, relationships are extra hard for those who grew up in neglectful, abusive, or toxic homes.
One of the top signs you grew up in a toxic family is codependency.
If you had parents who were too strict on you and lowered your self-esteem beyond recognition, then you may look for a “savior” to help you.
You need “fixing” and are nothing without the love of a “perfect” other person.
If your parents buttered you up or were helicopter parents making you feel enormous pressure and egotism, then you may feel like others need to be fixed by you.
You get into “parentified” relationships of the kind I spoke about in point one. Both codependent roles lead down a sad road.
I would recommend that instead of that you work on healing the wounds of the past and realizing that no situation, person, or object can make you “happy.”
Begin focusing on being busy and contributing rather than analyzing and receiving.
7) You don’t value or respect your own emotions enough
Your emotions are valid.
If you grew up suppressing them or being told they made you “weak” or “wrong,” then you tend to become an adult who pushes down your feelings.
Maybe you overeat or are addicted to someone or something in order to escape the pain and the unexpressed emotion.
Either way, there’s a lack of respect going on that’s carried over from childhood.
The key here is to realize that all your emotions are valid, even anger.
In fact, your anger can become your biggest ally if you know how to use it right.
8) You expect way too much of yourself all the time
It’s good to have high standards, but when you grew up in an overly demanding family atmosphere your expectations for yourself are Olympian.
Even the smallest mistake crushes you.
Nobody can live with that kind of pressure and it’s super unhealthy mentally and physically. You can’t expect yourself to just be a superstar at all times.
Remember that you’re not defined by the way you grew up or the past, but by what you do with it now.
Allow yourself to “fail” a little bit sometimes. You’ll bounce back and be all the stronger for it soon enough.
9) You get easily exhausted but feel scared to ask for time alone
One of the hallmark signs you grew up in a toxic family is a feeling of exhaustion in group settings.
This can come from a negative experience growing up or around your family in general.
“Do you feel totally exhausted every time you interact with a particular family member?
“We’re not talking about feeling like you need to be by yourself for a little while, something that can happen even with people we love being around (introverts in particular can find interactions draining).”
If you’re dealing with this and also have a difficult time asserting yourself it can be hard to take a time out. Do it anyway.
Go on vacation or take a week off work and binge on your favorite show eight hours a day. Hell, binge 12 hours a day.
Do what you have to do to take time off and not feel guilty about it.
10) Your sense of self is lacking and you feel dependent on others
Growing up in an environment where you’re defined by your subservient role in a family gives you issues later on.
You may feel unsure who you really are, especially if your parents and siblings who reinforced your role are dead or far away.
You begin to look to others to tell you who you are.
You’re particularly vulnerable to dangerous cults and dishonest gurus.
“Parents who were highly involved in your life and didn’t allow room for growth may have also failed to meet your basic needs by preventing this development.
“Personal space, both physical and emotional, helps children develop. Eventually, you need independence and the chance to form a sense of self.”
So how do you build up a sense of self?
Get in your body, meditate on your beliefs and begin practicing breathwork.
You’ll notice huge changes and a firmer sense of self-identity.
11) You’re used to being manipulated and manipulating others
Toxic families have one trait that’s extremely common: manipulation.
Emotional, financial, physical, you name it…
If you don’t do X, dad won’t do Y; if your sister is upset at you it means you haven’t been working hard enough at school.
And so on and so forth. This sadly carries on later into life for many children of toxic families.
Journalist Lilian O’Brien writes:
“Manipulation is something that is very common with toxic families. Someone in the family always wants to get their way no matter what. This can cause many issues for other family members.
“When someone manipulates others to want something that they want it is abuse and it can leave lasting impressions on that person.”
Life is not a transaction, and you should not manipulate people. Easier said than done, but the best day to start is today.
12) Failure makes you go berserk and beat yourself up
When you grew up in a toxic family your expectations of yourself are sky high and you hate failing.
It’s not just the outer issue for you, after all: it’s the remembrance of those horrible emotions of having let those closest to you down.
It’s emotional, personal, and visceral. Which is why it can lead to insane meltdowns.
“Kids raised in a toxic environment might constantly feel like they are always not good enough or even worthless. Their parents might have always made excessive demands on them and blamed them if they didn’t meet their expectations.
“Basically, they have developed low self-esteem and have a lack of self-care. That’s why the smallest mistake or failure can freak them out and lead to a tantrum.”
Remember that we all fail and that learning from failure is a key to real success.
13) You’re full of shame and believe you’re low value
Your beliefs about yourself matter a lot. If they were molded negatively in childhood it can be especially hard to escape that downward trajectory.
As JR Thorpe and Jay Polish observe:
“Freak out when you miss a deadline or have your novel gently turned down by an agent?
“Children of toxic parents may experience more extreme shame and hurt than people whose parents were more outwardly loving.”
Shame is hard to deal with. But pushing it down is even worse.
Explore those emotions on a deep, instinctive level and don’t hide from them.
Let the shame wash through you and examine its roots. Often a feeling of unworthiness or memories of childhood mistreatment come up.
That’s in your past and it does not define your worth. Let it wash through you.
14) You tend to get jealous and easily dragged into conflicts
Jealousy is a hard emotion.
Growing up in a toxic family makes it even more common because you may have been set against your siblings or played off between your parents.
This can bleed over into adulthood where you have repeats of similarly difficult times in your personal and work life.
Why does that guy get everything I want? Why does that woman get promoted and I get shelved?
The resentment builds up. But you need to let it go.
Take a go at a punching bag and let your anger fuel something productive. The childhood patterns you inherited do not define you for life.
You are in control.
15) You’re emotionally unavailable in many ways
When you’re saddled with the weight of the past you can be unavailable in the present.
That makes it hard to be an open, responsive person in all the ways that functioning members of society should be.
You may seem detached, preoccupied, or overintense. You may start to suffer from depression or anxiety.
These are all unfortunate, and your upbringing may well be partly to blame. But going beyond blame will empower you far more.
Seeing that we’re all broken and that the only power you now have is not in blame but in rebuilding yourself piece by piece will give you a much greater feeling of growth and optimism.
You’re not crazy
As counsellor Dave Lechnyr puts it:
“People who grow up in a chaotic, unpredictable and unhealthy family tend to have extremely similar traits and unhealthy coping patterns.
“Realizing what’s wrong is an important first step, but that’s what it is: Just the first step.”
You’re not crazy, just damaged.
Guess who else is damaged? Almost every single person you see around you is damaged in some way.
I’m not trying to downplay the awful experience of growing up in a toxic family, but it’s important not to become extremely dramatic about it or believe that the experience has crippled you for life.
You still have potential, you are still a valid human being, and you still have all the tools within yourself to rise above and become a functioning adult.
It’s crucial to remember this because we live in a self-help society that’s become very fashionable for re-victimizing victims and making them feel helpless.
That simply doesn’t help anybody.
Leaving the past in the past?
Family will always be a part of each of us no matter what. Even if you have the worst family in the world, their blood runs through your veins.
As the Out of the Box course shows us, ancient shamanic tradition has always understood the importance of heredity and family ties.
Even if you can’t stand your family, you did come from them, and there are lessons you can learn even in your dislike of their beliefs, behavior and methods.
Try to reestablish or maintain ties with anyone in your family possible.
Life’s short, and no matter how horrible the past was, even just a basic cordial relation or a Christmas card or two per year can be better than nothing.
Family environment shapes all of us for better or worse in so many ways.
But instead of letting that be your excuse, let it be the bedrock of your determination.
Your family wasn’t perfect – maybe it was even very horrific and toxic like the items above – but chances are you experienced things you couldn’t have anywhere else.
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