Moving on from family estrangement: how to turn up for ourselves.
Updated: Jul 9
There is no doubt that estranging myself from my parents was an act of self-love and self-protection. Conversely, the experience of living without these two key people in my life has been an almost constant challenge to my sense of self-worth and self-acceptance. I recognise too, that for those who were disowned, or who are in the process of reconciliation, our sense of self-worth can be battered if we are constantly re-rejected.
It's all my problem
Sometimes the issues that led to estrangement are positioned as just your problem or in some cases we are told they didn’t happen at all. If we internalise this view, we can feel there is something fundamentally wrong with us, because we just couldn’t take the other person’s behaviour. Or we feel that we are not worth listening to, not worth taking seriously, or worth fighting for. It’s here that we get stuck in shame.
The reality is that family won’t always change and grow with us as we learn to advocate for our needs. Sometimes family members are just far too consumed in their own pain, grief and misfortune in life to be able to care for others, whether they know that or not, and whether they really tried or didn’t give it a shot.
The first step for me was, therefore, to make the statement that, in spite of how I was treated and dismissed that it wasn’t about me. I am loveable and worthy of love.
The second step to self-love was working through the very consuming resentment and frustration that I had to do this self-parenting (and life) all by myself. Deep down, I’m sure many of us wish we did not have to be strong and brave, and deeply wished that the adults and in our lives had behaved differently. It hurts, it sucks, it is fundamentally unfair and sad. We really have to allow ourselves this rightful grief.
Yet in emerging from that grief, there is a path to finding trust in our own voice and ethical understanding of what is OK in a family relationship, or indeed any relationship. We can show up for ourselves and find a way to be that supportive, comforting, kind and forgiving parent. We can have the kind of parent we always yearned for and deserved, we just need to create and cultivate it inside over time.
The following paragraphs chart my journey to becoming that loving inner parent. How did I learn to stand in my own corner and get the hell out of my own way?
Speaking kindly to ourselves in times of challenge and difficulty
It sounds simple, but can be very hard to show self-kindness in the midst of difficulty and crisis. Often we have internalised the critical parent or sibling inside, who, even when we aren’t in contact with them, is still there, talking us down, beating us up psychologically for any perceived weakness. It’s that classic critical voice.
I certainly felt that if anything went wrong in my life, it was further evidence that my parents were right about me all along. I was flawed. If my relationship broke down, if I lost my job, if I had an argument with a friend, if an online date went badly, if I missed a bill, then it was that critical voice that would return. Am I just bad?
The reality is that everyone has misfortune, no human life is without highs and lows, losses and set backs. These difficulties are not unique to people who are estranged from family members, or who have survived trauma. They apply to everyone. I had to work to drop that idea that one day my parents would be proved right because I wasn’t perfect on my own.
I decided to show myself the same kindness I would show a friend who had been through a break up or lost a job. I certainly wouldn’t start relating these life hurdles to their upbringing and parental behaviours when they hit the rough, so why was I doing it to me?
Brene Brown and her books on shame helped me a lot here. The idea of talking to myself how I would talk to a friend was revolutionary. I recommend her books to anyone who wants to work on self-kindness.
For many of us, I don’t think that critical parent voice inside will ever go completely. It keeps us striving too. But we can work to notice it in times of challenge and misfortune and turn down the volume, and turn up the volume of our inner friend.
The one who would probably tell us that we are human, we tried our best in the circumstances and with the skills we had. And, the world throws us a curveball sometimes, fact. It’s not the problem that we face but how we react to it that defines us. And we can grow from it.
It has helped me to remember that nobody is a perfect human being, we are all imperfectly perfect. In short, allow yourself your humanity.
Trusting our inner voice
When we have been told that what we perceive is wrong, by those who are elder or in a position of authority, it erodes a sense of trust in ourselves. For many of us, it confuses us and separates us from our innate intelligence.
Our feelings are there to tell us about the world and to help us understand it, they serve to tell us when things are right and when things are wrong, where there is danger and where there is safety. To navigate life, we really need to find the space and time to listen to our feelings and honour them and let them guide us. They are the compass.
I spent many years dismissing my own feelings about situations after being told in my family that I had an inaccurate radar. I felt on the back foot in many a relationship as a result. I couldn’t trust myself. If something felt wrong, it was just me — I was too sensitive. That meant I allowed some pretty awful behaviours and I worked fully against my own intelligence.
Reclaiming my inner voice has been a very powerful move for me and my own self-worth. I have stopped second-guessing myself. I highly recommend the work of Glennon Doyle in this area, who is a huge advocate for tapping into what you know to be intrinsically true and trusting it.
The key is, if you feel something isn’t right, and that feeling isn’t fleeting, it probably isn’t right for you. It may seem right for someone else, who will advocate for it, but this is your life and you are not wrong about your life, your decisions and your feelings. That includes the decision to estrange, and remove yourself from toxic behaviour, if that’s what you did.
If you do one thing in 2020, trust yourself. I stole that from Glennon Doyle.
It’s absolutely OK to need more from a parent, sibling or other family member than they could give. It’s important to allow ourselves our needs, and for many of us they are far from unrealistic when it comes to what we expected from a family member.
For the longest time, I believed I was asking too much. I wasn’t — I was asking for some pretty entry-level aspects of parenting and family life. It’s OK to need those, and I forgave myself for it. Thinking that I was asking too much was, I realised, a shame trap, and a way to position myself and my needs as the problem.
On a side note, at the same time, I also forgave my parents for not being able to offer me that parenting. That’s not to say that I would then get back in touch. I believe forgiveness and reconciliation are often incorrectly linked. Forgiveness is, for me, like shedding the emotional weight of the trauma and leaving it behind, not saying it was OK all along.
Family estrangement and chosen family
On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I like to celebrate the mother and father figures who I was lucky enough to find in my life. Some of these people are not the age of my parents, although some of them are. They showed me what love looks like, what caring looks like, what emotional safety looks like, and helped me on my journey with life after estrangement. I feel blessed to have a chosen family that I feel I can rely on, open up to, and relax with. I know they will show up for me, and help me show up for myself.
It’s not to say that these relationships are always easy and don’t hold conflict, but we can communicate our needs and resolve them with each other without patterns of power, control, blame and shame. I am grateful to say that we can show up for each other authentically.
Scarcity Mindset: I'm not lucky to receive love
Importantly, these relationships are not all about me giving 100% of the time and feeling lucky to receive love. A transformation that I had to go through was to drop a lot of one-sided relationships, where I’d set up patterns of giving and not receiving. Giving was almost an impulse that I thought would buy me love in return, and it set me up fully for a fall every time. I wasn’t respecting myself, so people weren’t respecting me and the vibration was wrong.
Cutting out these relationships that weren’t serving me at all, if they couldn’t grow with me, was a big act of self-respect and self-love. By taking the wrong people out of your life, you find space for the right people to flourish with you.
Figuring out my relationship to giving, emotionally or materially, to others in my life is still live work for me. I have to watch it every single day. Do I really want to do that? Should their friendship and love be conditional on me giving that? Should my place in the world be validated by my giving? Would I be worthy of love even if I didn’t do this?! Even if I just breathed?! Of course you would!
Find your family who support a two way model. It might not be biological, but it can be proudly different and you can serve each other wonderfully.
It’s a journey…
These could be confronting aspects of growth to those of us who are newer to this journey or who have become recently estranged. And I must stress this is twelve years of work that I have just written about here. It’s not like this happened overnight when I became the founder of Stand Alone. I am not a magician. This journey has also been assisted and supported by counsellors, yoga teachers, books by the authors mentioned and TED talks.
For me, it is everyday work to show up for myself kindly and I have invested time, commitment and energy. But it was the best and most important commitment I have ever made, and the best money I have ever spent. There is one person you will always have in your life, and that’s you.
The first step on my journey is accessible to us all without spending a penny. And that is to say today, and everyday: I am loveable. I am worthy of love. I’m worthy of being treated with kindness, care and respect.