When I write about toxic parents and family members — how to identify them, how to avoid them, how to make sense of the problems you struggle with because of your upbringing with them — I draw extensively from my own experience of growing up with a cruel, angry, and unstable single mother. Even though we haven't spoken in a long time, my experience with her has left me still, at 33, something of a trainwreck. (The neurotic, easily-triggered kind, not the cool Amy Schumer kind.) Despite all of that, being raised in a toxic environment is part of my life story, and lately, I've started trying to take steps to feel greater ownership over that chapter of my life.
Now, I don't think anyone who grew up in a toxic home should "focus on the positive" or "just look on the bright side" — that's counterproductive bullshit. Your life is your life, and you're entitled to feel any way you want about your experiences. No one should ever tell anyone to "look on the bright side" of a childhood filled with neglect or abuse — especially because that usually just means suppressing your true feelings. Childhood abuse has real mental and physical health consequences for survivors; a 2013 study found that those of us who experienced extreme stress in childhood, often due to parental abuse, had higher rates of mental and physical health problems, as well as addiction issues, as adults. All of our lives would have been better without growing up around toxicity — there's no argument there.
But I've recently realized that some of the personal traits I like most in myself were developed in reaction to being raised in a toxic environment — and realizing this has helped me change how I look at myself. I am making tentative steps towards looking at myself and seeing things beyond just a pile of wounds that need to be mended; I'm allowing myself to see positive traits, even if they began developing in sh*tty circumstances.
I am sharing five beneficial traits that I developed while learning to cope with my toxic mother not to pressure you to do the same, or make you feel like there has to be an upside to your suffering. I'm just putting it out there in case, like me, you feel that you've developed some important skills from coping with your trauma, and are struggling to make sense of them.
1. I Now Have Boundaries For Days
My mother's problems, like those of many toxic parents, have a lot to do with boundaries — she doesn't see them, she doesn't respect them, and if you make them known to her, she'll accuse you of conspiring against her, as if trying to have privacy was a war crime.
As you can probably imagine, this made life with her tough; but once I moved out, started moving on, and began to move my mother out of my life, I realized that I had become amazing at developing boundaries. It didn't come to me instantly, of course; I had to study self-help books and talk to my therapist in order to develop this skill that everyone else seemed to be born with. But I took to it with a convert's fervor, and in a few brief years, I was suddenly the MVP of boundaries. I stood my ground at work; I didn't let friends guilt or cajole me into things; I stopped doing things I had no interest in doing, just because someone else asked me to.
I'm not perfect, by any means — but I believe my enthusiasm for and ability to set up boundaries ties directly to my experiences with my mother, and the therapy I did to recover from my childhood. And you know what? Boundaries are pretty damn cool, and I'm stoked about mine.
2. I Am Proud Of My Strength
It takes a lot of strength to look at your relationship with your parent and say, "This is too f*cked up to go on." Not that I made a clear-eyed assessment of my toxic relationship with my mother because I'm, like, a philosopher queen or something — in reality, I cut off contact with her because every time we interacted, I would immediately go out and insert a bachelorette party's worth of booze directly into my face, and I was afraid that this habit would eventually ruin/end my life.
But that doesn't change the fact that I'm proud of myself for having the strength to realize that I didn't deserve to be part of that kind of hurtful, destructive relationship. No matter where you are in your personal journey with your toxic family members, you're strong, too. You're incredibly strong for having made it through life with your toxic family, whether you are still in touch or have cut ties. You don't have to figure out how to be strong; you're already strong, simply by virtue of living through it.
3. I Know Exactly How I Don't Want To Act
Yes, obviously, it's better to learn how to treat people well by growing up around parents who model respectful, caring behavior. But just because you didn't get to experience kind, thoughtful parents, doesn't mean you're doomed to repeat their penchant for getting into screaming fights with strangers at the DMV/coffee shop/your older sister's wedding/the presidential inauguration.
Being exposed to rude, horrible, or cruel behavior up close can give you a solid grounding in how to act responsibly and respectfully to others — because you can just do the exact opposite of what your toxic parent would do.
4. I Try To Be Sensitive To Other People's Feelings
Wayne Muller is a spiritual writer. I'm not a very spiritual person. But his book about adult survivors of childhood abuse, Legacy of the Heart , had some sections that really resonated with me, including this one:
A painful childhood invariably focuses our attention on the inner life. In response to childhood hurt, we learn to cultivate a heightened awareness, and sharpen our capacity to discern how things move and change in our environment. Childhood pain encourages us to watch things more closely, to listen more carefully, to attend to the subtle imbalances that arise within and around us. We develop an exquisite ability to feel the feelings of others, and we become exceptionally mindful of every conflict, every flicker of hope or despair, every piece of information that may hold some teaching for us.
This is a technique that I (and many other children of toxic families) developed out of fear, while trying to discern our parent's unpredictable mood swings. But as an adult, I've been happy about my sensitivity to the emotions of others.
Sure, sometimes it mates with my generalized anxiety to create some truly loathsome paranoia about how everyone OBVIOUSLY hates me. But other times, it's what has been able to help me detect that a friend isn't feeling their best or needs extra support. I think of it kind of like an Alex Mack-type situation — yes, I did get hit by a pile of unstable chemicals, and that was very uncool, but hey, now I can turn into a puddle whenever I want, dude!
5. I'm Less Fearful Every Day
When I was younger (both before and immediately after I cut off contact with my mom), I felt afraid of everything — from a stranger who frowned at me on the subway to a weird-shaped shadow in my room at night. I thought the world was a dangerous place full of people waiting to hurt me, just like my mom had always said.
As I went through therapy and began to untangle all the life lessons my mother had taught me, I realized I had been taught to fear all the wrong things: the disapproval of strangers; the idea that if I wasn't perfect, I'd lose the conditional love of my family. I became less and less fearful, and more capable of reaching for my dreams. If people didn't like me, f*ck 'em. In fact, "if they don't like it, f*ck 'em" became my motto as I went deeper and deeper into recovery. I became less and less dependent on the approval of others.
The more I let myself build up that feeling that there was safety in the world — with my boyfriend, my friends, my work, or just my own self — the more I felt my fear drop away. Ten years ago, I would burst into tears if I had to ask a sales associate at the grocery store where the granola was; today, I spend nearly all of my time writing about my vagina on the Internet. It's a big leap forward, right?
Again, none of this is being said to invalidate anyone else's experience recovering from life with a toxic family member or to downplay the serious impact of abuse; everyone's life is different, and I'm sure many of you look back on the entirety of your time with a toxic parent and only see destruction. You are under no obligation to "look at the bright side" of abuse. But if you are recovering, and see only failings when you look at yourself, I want you to know that there's so much more. You're not a mess or a wreck or a waste because your family treated you poorly.
Images: Yaoqi Lai/ Unsplash; Giphy