How to Care for Your Mental Wellbeing in a Toxic Family (When You Can’t Move Out)
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
Written by Thaddeus, Untoxify Me
I am from a toxic family.
My parents, especially my mother, are verbally and emotionally abusive.
“I wish I didn’t give birth to you”
“Because of you…”
“I wish I had <cousin's name> as my son”
These phrases had been directed at me so frequently since childhood that I still remember them today.
I recall childhood as a time spent always trying to please my parents. I did not want to make them angry or upset, because they would make me feel guilty by bringing up traditional Asian values about parent-child dynamics.
Even if I was not involved in issues between them, I felt guilty and partially to blame whenever arguments happened between my parents. Isn’t it important in the Asian culture for every family member to maintain a harmonious family unit? It felt like my responsibility to maintain peace and happiness. This combination of traditional family values and a toxic family background led to a lot of stress, guilt and helplessness.
Despite this toxicity, I couldn’t move out. Like many others my age (early 20s), I do not have the financial means to buy or rent even a room of my own. None of my relatives also wanted to house me long-term.
I felt trapped. Perhaps others my age in a similar situation might be feeling the same way. How do you seek wellness and solace in a toxic environment you cannot break out of?
Today, I am in a better place, both mentally and emotionally. I still live with my parents, but don’t see them as often as I used to. Most importantly, I’ve built my way out of my circumstances and to create an independent life I find meaningful and exciting to live.
In this process of recovery and healing, I’ve found 4 tips to be helpful in transitioning out of this toxic familial background.
These are what I wished my younger self knew in order to cope in an unresolvable situation he could not escape from.
4 Tips on How to Care for Your Mental Wellbeing While in a Toxic Family
1. Stay Out of the House
Moving out is the most common piece of advice anyone will give you when you share about your toxic family background.
Unfortunately, moving out is easier said than done. Most of us victims have thought about this option. This option also leads to follow-up questions we struggle to answer:
How much can I afford for rent each month?
How do I make this amount consistently each month, while having enough money to eat and pay my other expenses?
Who will take care of my siblings in my current household if I move out?
How will my parents react when I break the news?
If I don’t break the news and simply leave, will my parents call the police, who will bring me home to an even worse fate?
Victims choose to stay put despite their circumstances because of a variety of reasons. These questions also become even more difficult to answer if you are still a student or a young adult with little financial means.
I’ve found staying out of the house to be a helpful alternative to moving out.
You can’t leave home permanently or afford your own house, but you can stay out of it and return only to sleep.
I’ve found these places especially helpful when I decided to stay out of my house:
Your Friends’ Houses
Coworking Spaces (on a pay-per-use basis)
2. Choose Your Network Wisely
When you’re outside, it’s important to choose the people in your life wisely.
Be open to meeting new people from a variety of backgrounds. I’ve found it helpful to seek and learn from people who have been in similar situations as myself, but managed to get out of it. These people serve as inspiration and reminders that it is possible to grow towards greener pastures, and that I have the ability to take responsibility over my outcomes.
If possible, try to find mentors. Based on my experience, I’ve found that the best mentors are those who believe in you, support you and encourage your growth. Great personal mentors are difficult to find, so you might also consider looking out for people who you wish to emulate.
These suggestions are easier said than done. As victims, it’s easy to complain about our situation and loathe ourselves. It’s easy to feel self-pity.
This behaviour is valid, especially if you’ve been in a toxic environment for a long time. Victims never choose to be born in such an environment, so it’s natural to feel defeated and helpless.
In fact, it’s healthier to express these behaviours, instead of suppressing them within.
However, be mindful that like-minded people congregate. Wallowing in this behaviour for too long could also attract other people with similar behaviours like moths to a flame.
If you aren’t careful, associating yourself with too many self-loathing people who refuse to improve themselves will swallow you whole too.
Thus be mindful of who you associate with. Build a supportive community of people who encourage you to grow out of your troubled past. Find mentors who encourage your growth, and learn from people who you admire.
I know that building a network or making friends amidst COVID-19 can be difficult. Here are some strategies I’ve found helpful:
Join school CCAs, clubs and interest groups.
Meet like-minded people who share similar hobbies or interests through online groups, forums etc.
Sign up for events, talks and virtual meetups that I found interesting.
3. Develop Self-Awareness
As a child of a toxic family, I am also a victim of Parentification.
Parentification is a process where the child adopts the role of the parent, usually due to a variety of reasons.
While this isn’t a normal upbringing or childhood, the silver lining is that victims of parentification get the opportunity to “become” your own parent, even to yourself.
This led me to develop a deeper self-awareness about my behaviour. I learnt what drives me, what tires me out, and what excites me. I learnt to understand my needs and desires better.
Admittedly, developing self-awareness is a very lengthy process. I had taken years to understand myself, and still am discovering more about myself until today.
Self-discovery is a long and unending process. But here are some steps I’ve found helpful along the way:
Take some time each day or week to reflect. Reflect about reactions to certain events that had happened that day/week, and ask myself why I had reacted that way.
Befriend myself. Recognise what drives me, what tires me out, what I enjoy, and what I dislike.
Practise mindfulness, especially when I am feeling stressed or frustrated. While uncomfortable, these feelings help us shed the most light into our behaviours, values and character.
I do not condone nor encourage parentification. But if we victims find ourselves in such a situation, it might be more helpful to view our circumstances from an optimistic perspective and develop self-awareness.
An easier alternative would be to lament about how terrible our lives are without taking any action, but I’ve found that the tougher method led to more positive and longer-lasting results.
4. Embrace a Growth Mindset
A “glass half-full” mindset is probably one of the most impactful takeaways from my experience that changed the trajectory of my life.
Upon deeper introspection, I realise that my parents behave this way because of their own toxic childhood. Not only does this behaviour reflect the intergenerational nature of toxic families, but it also highlights their fixed mindsets.
I knew that I did not want to be like them. I didn’t want to spend the next 80 years of my life living in this self-imposed prison.
Thus I had to change my outlook on life, and adopt a growth mindset instead.
This is the single most important step I encourage victims of toxic families to take. It will also probably be the most difficult step in this list. We victims have no say in the backgrounds we had come from, but we can shape the outcomes of our lives. Take this as an opportunity to become the captain of our ships.
Some steps I’ve found helpful to develop a growth mindset include:
1. Listening to motivational and inspiring podcasts that I enjoy. Mine are:
Think Fast, Talk Smart Podcast by Stanford GSB
Gary Vaynerchuk’s Podcasts (as cliche as that sounds!)
2. Pursue hobbies I enjoy and strive to learn more about them.
I enjoy running and meal prep, so I kept trying to run longer distances by pushing myself, and learning to cook new recipes.
3. Develop curiosity about a topic that I find interesting.
These tips helped me to maintain my well-being even when stuck in a situation I couldn’t do anything about.
Remember - even if you cannot move out, you have it within you to take action over the outcome of your life.
While it can feel extremely difficult (especially at the start), I’ve found it helpful to avoid blaming and self-loathing too much, and learning to take responsibility over the outcomes of our lives.
This will probably be extremely difficult given the years of trauma and “unfairness” that life has thrust you into. It’s easy to give in, but it’s more rewarding to develop the self-awareness and untoxify yourself out of the situation by rebuilding yourself up.
The journey will not be easy, but the rewards you gain along the path are worth it.
Note: Everyone’s life experiences and circumstances are vastly different. These tips are not meant to be one-size-fits-all, but have worked for me. More often than not, the process of growth and moving out of a toxic environment requires trial-and-error. Don’t let failure discourage you. You have it in you :)
About the Contributor
Thaddeus is the founder of Untoxify Me, a nonprofit resource hub helping victims of toxic families heal, seek help and rebuild themselves. Check them out at https://untoxify.me/