Are you in a toxic family dynamic without even knowing it? Where I grew up it was common for girls to be raised to care for “The Other Person First.” Any other person. It didn’t matter whether the person you were supposed to care for was mean to you or hurt you. You had to be nice. It was the law.

That is the core of the toxic family dynamic. Being nice and compliant no matter what. Even in the nicest families, being thoughtful and kind to others and not getting anything in return is a soul killer. Of course there is a difference between not being recognized or heard and actually being emotionally of physically abused. If no one listens to you, you don’t have a voice, and that can make you feel unworthy and unimportant. Abuse means you need to figure out how to get help and heal.

In a toxic family dynamic you can’t make healthy choices for yourself

Were you raised with the unwritten law that you shouldn’t complain, argue, or use critical thinking to assess what is happening around you? If that was the family role assigned to you, it’s a tough law to follow especially if there are substance users in your life. This law of keeping quiet and picking up the slack of whatever needs to be done teaches you that your needs, wants, and feelings don’t count for much.

If someone asked me how I was in the old days when there was active substance use in my daily life, I always said “fine.” My saying I was fine became a habit. I said it even when I wasn’t fine. And with active addiction in your life, you are never fine. Now that my family is in recovery,  I still say I’m fine, but now I’m not smothering the truth. I really am fine because I can tell the truth. I have boundaries, and no one can push me around.

The toxic family dynamic includes bullying

There can be bullying and manipulation in families without addiction, of course. There is often a designated good girl, or boy, who picks up the check and the burdens in childhood and over the years. In families with addiction, however, relationships get distorted even more.

Substance use makes matters worse

Imagine a lifetime of guilt trips tripled. As the lives of active users get more difficult to manage, their expectations for help from their loved ones grow.  It’s not because loved ones are mean or selfish, or want to hurt their loved ones. Asking others to take care of them is part of the disease. Life is falling apart. It’s natural to turn to the people who serve as rocks and salvation.

Those who might have been just plain old caretakers in run-of-the-mill complicated families can get lost in a perpetual dance of give and get taken when addiction becomes the new norm. Again, no judgment about people who struggle with addictions. Everyone plays a role in this toxic family dynamic, and it’s hard to stop the cycle.

Changing the toxic family dynamic is possible when you realize you can say no

For a long time, all I wanted was peace. Just a few days of no arguments, of not being afraid of something else going wrong. You may recognize the phenomenon of longing for peace. You may also recognize the phenomenon that your help doesn’t seem to work, no matter how much you do. Turns out you just can’t fix anyone else’s problems. This is true in so-called “normal” families, too.

A healthy family dynamic means letting go of feeling responsible

A mother’s good intentions are not enough to help a teen have ambition or love life or stop doing dangerous things or stay in school. Love is not enough. Love is not enough to save marriages or stop loved ones from hurting themselves or even keep precarious relationships alive. With lots of help, I had to admit that was true. And I had to back off to let happen whatever would happen. I’m not God, after all, and don’t have the power to make everything all right again.

The truth is everyone needs the opportunity to fix him or herself. It may not seem like you’re giving a valuable gift when you set boundaries and lose loved ones, but it can work. Learning to care for myself without guilt, however, was altogether too hard a concept at first. I had always tried to do what was best for others. Now what?

Changing the toxic family dynamic

In the cops they say what goes around, comes around. For me, the surprise of recovery came when I started feeling the peace, but realized that I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted anymore. Worse, I felt guilty even thinking about what I might need or want. It didn’t seem fair to think of me when others were struggling. The toxic family dynamic happens when you only think of others. Then you feel resentment when they don’t love you back the way you want to be loved. I had to learn to ask for what I wanted, and be clear about it.

When You’re Happy Your Needs Are Satisfied

I need a rest. Or I need someone else to cook dinner. Or I need a quiet time. Or I can’t talk to you now, pick you up from wherever you are, see to each any every one of your needs. When you can say these things, you will become you, even if you don’t know who you are now. With the miracle of letting go of feelings of obligation toward everyone, others begin to change around you. It helps to believe in the change you want to see. But know that there may be some resistance (even a lot at first). Ignore it. You’ll be fine.

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Leslie Glass

Leslie Glass became a recovery advocate and co-founder of Reach Out Recovery in 2011, encouraged by her daughter Lindsey who had struggled with substances as a teen and young adult. Learning how to manage the family disease of addiction with no roadmap to follow inspired the mother and daughter to create Reach Out Recovery's website to help others experiencing the same life-threatening problems. Together they produced the the 2016 ASAM Media Award winning documentary, The Secret World of Recovery, and the teen prevention documentary, The Silent Majority, distributed by American Public Television. In her career, Leslie has worked in advertising, publishing, and magazines as a writer of both fiction and non fiction. She is the author of 9 bestselling crime novels, featuring NYPD Dt.Sgt. April Woo. Leslie has has served as a Public Member of the Middle States Commission of Higher Education and as a Trustee of the New York City Police Foundation. For from 1990 to 2017, Leslie was the Trustee of the Leslie Glass Foundation. Leslie is a proud member of Rotary International.


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