How to Handle Toxic Parents
Toxic people in your life can range from draining, to hurtful, to downright abusive, and many things in between. Often you won’t know that they are toxic right away–possibly even years!
What may affect you the most is when one or both of your parents are toxic people. Toxic parents can cause all kinds of emotional problems that can last a lifetime if you’re not equipped to recognize their toxicity, much less stand up for yourself.
Some believe that parental love is biologically wired into our systems; that humans have evolved this strong bond as an instinct in order to survive because we spend so many years in childhood development where we literally cannot live on our own. If you look at toxic parents in this manner, it should be simple to cut ties once you realize that you do not need them to survive, especially if they are more harmful than helpful to you at this point.
That said, we have a lot of programming that makes letting go difficult.
From a religious perspective, the three major Abrahamic religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All derived from Judaism, which contains the strong edict that you must honor your parents. According to Chabad.org, what constitutes honor is:
One must provide them with food and drink, clothing and garments, to conduct them home and take them out, and rise before them. And one must provide them with all their needs cheerfully: even if one should feed them daily the most delectable foods but does so with ill grace, one incurs Divine punishment. And conversely, if one makes his father do hard labor but the intention is good, viz. to save him from a worse fate — and he appeases his father by showing him that his intention is good — one inherits the world to come.
Also, one must perform for parents all such services as a servant performs for his master; and one is duty bound to render personal services even at personal expense.
To what lengths should the duty of honoring parents go? Even were they to take his purse full of gold, and cast it into the sea in his presence, he must not shame them, manifest grief in their presence, or display any anger, but accept the Divine decree without demur! [Shulchan Aruch, ibid, 240:4ff.]
(It sounds a bit like the religions were written by older fathers to ensure their own survival in old age, doesn’t it?)
But from a spiritual-but-not-religious perspective, we must seek what is truly best for us while we seek to harm no one else. Is it truly best for you to remain virtually enslaved by biological parents just because of ancient rules, no matter what the emotional or physical cost to you? Should you sacrifice your well-being just because they birthed and raised you to adulthood without your premature death, but continue to diminish, demean or harm you physically or emotionally?
From my perspective, this is a completely personal and individualized choice that has no easy answer. Only you can decide how harmful other people’s toxic behavior is to you. In my own case, with some toxic people I can limit my contact and establish my boundaries without ill effects to me. With others, it simply is not possible, because the minute I give any inch of acceptance to the toxic person, they immediately attack. I have come to know that some people in my life, including one of my own parents, are borderline sociopaths or psychopaths, incapable of non-violent, peaceful or loving human relationships.
Most importantly, I have learned that I can only help heal these toxic people if they ask me to, not if they don’t. I cannot make any requests on their behalf other than protection from them, because that would interfere with their free will.
Similarly, I believe that you cannot forgive someone who has not asked for your forgiveness with a sincere and open heart.
“They” say that forgiveness is divine, and that it is required. And that you can and should forgive toxic parents without forgetting or allowing abuse to continue. Forgiveness is a judge-y and loaded word. The people preaching forgiveness seem to have the least forgiveness and most judgment and blame of others who choose not to forgive. It is truly impossible for any of us to understand what another person has gone through or what their experience is, even though we really would do well to try. Compassion for yourself and others almost always brings the most peace in my experience.
Furthermore, who is “they” anyway? Our collective society? That collective societal wisdom hasn’t really worked out that well on this planet so far, now has it? Wars, murders, rapes, thefts and all manner of suffering continue. Perhaps “they” are not really all that wise, and perhaps you should not take “their” advice at all, whoever “they” are.
If you seek answers, I can assist you in finding your own answers for yourself. It is a very personal journey, and I remain in the background and by your side. Spiritual shifts are absolutely amazing and inspiring, and I am in continual awe of the power each of us can access if we only request help.