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  • Writer's picturebeccabland4

The Stigma Around Family Estrangement: Finding Validation In the Right Places

Updated: Apr 4

For over a decade I have been writing and speaking about family estrangement and the stigma around it. What does stigma really mean? If we look at the definition of stigma in the dictionary then it tells us that it is a ‘mark of disgrace left by a particular circumstance’. So should not having a happy and functioning family leave us with this mark of disgrace? Or is there space in society to integrate the more uncomfortable truth that families don't always provide us with love, security and joy.

In many of my coaching sessions, support groups and workshops that I have run over the last decade, people feel tortured by this idea that they aren’t accepted by other people and society. They often hand over a lot of power to other people to define their worthiness as a human. There can feel like there is very little social permission to take space or have boundaries when it comes to family relationships.

Yet the key to so much of our healing can live in taking back the validating power from the outside. In healing, we begin to hold that power of acceptance within ourselves. If we can work on truly accepting our own our needs and choices, the chances are that others will have much less power to destabilize us with their opinions, judgements or lack of understanding.


Why do we need validation for family estrangement?


It’s human to seek validation from the environment around us. When we are children, we have a need for our parents to validate us. As young adults, we have a need for the world around us to validate us and reinforce our sense of self. This gives our body, mind and soul a feeling of primal safety. For many people we will continue to seek validation and it can be a lifelong pursuit.


Humans have survived over centuries by operating in tribes, and rejection from the tribe at one point in time would have severe consequences on ones chances of survival. Although we now live in more advanced society, we must not forget that we have a hard-wired instinct to feel accepted by other humans and to belong. For many, that means that we feel difference is negative.


I often recognize this primal, human voice when I listen to myself carefully. It wants to lead me to safety by fitting in and it wants me to please others and so I’m liked. This is why it can be crunchy to have a ‘different’ story to tell about family and why we label people who do things differently as brave or courageous.


Who is telling the story on what a normal family life ‘should’ look like?


In this capitalist era, it is advertising and the media that sell us a desirable and idealized image of family life, where we are all content and close. There is also the influence of story telling. The ‘Hollywood ending’ for any family rift is for people to be together rather than apart. There is an excellent book by Stephanie Koontz  called ‘The Way We Never Were’. She goes to great lengths to demonstrate that families have not always looked like the adverts. She also makes a powerful point that this advertising is stuck in the 50s where it heavily romanticized marriage and family life. It has not moved with the times and the vast social changes that have been made. So we are working with an unrealistic model.   


The fantasy is that life would be more easeful psychologically if we are hitting the right societal notes and meeting entrenched societal expectations around success in the areas of career, housing and family. The reality is that we are often much more inclined to dissatisfaction when we live outside of our personal authenticity and when we suppress our own needs, boundaries or identities. On many levels in society, we are fighting for the space to be ourselves and to be accepted in our authenticity.


There is a social anxiety about the choice to not have a relationship from a family member. It can be a considerable source of resentment to be ‘made different’ by someone else and have the relationship taken away. It can trigger this primal fear and give us social anxieties to navigate that are simply not our choice. This can be seen through divorce, alienation, estrangement, death or simply ties drifting as life circumstances change. It can be painful to be different.  


What do we want validated?


It’s worth us having an exploration about what may need validating when we are at a certain stage of healing. There are aspects of our family estrangement (and the experience leading up to it) that we may feel very shaky about. The sense of duty around family and the hangover from gas-lighting may lead us to questioning these import aspects of relationships.   


My needs. It can be hard to accept that our needs for a healthy and safe family relationship are valid. It can be hard to even imagine it’s OK to have needs. We may want others to re-affirm this.


My right to say no and set boundaries. Many people can feel a considerable amount of guilt when putting in boundaries. This can mean we look to others to tell us that it was OK. If there is any relationship of co-dependence then it may feel rejecting for the other person to receive boundaries and the reactions to it may take away a sense that we are entitled to look after ourselves.


The validity of my experience. I often see this in sibling estrangements where one sibling is desperate for another sibling or family member to recognize, validate and support their experience of family life. If we experienced a lot of gaslighting we could be left with this idea 'was it just me?' and it can feel hard to trust our own senses and experiences. We then look for validation.


That it was difficult. There is this sense from the societal stigma that this is heartless and flippant choice to press pause on a family relationship and take space. It can be shown that way in the media. We may want to be seen in the difficulty, stress and pain that these relationship issues involved.


I’m OK as a person. I really want someone to tell me that I’m not a monster for losing this relationship or taking space and protecting myself.


The person who hurt me is wrong. We can spend a lot of time talking to others about how the person who hurt us is wrong, and sometimes we may want validation around their mental health struggles or behavior patterns.

Why do others respond negatively?


I started my career in the field of family estrangement by writing about Christmas time. I wrote about how uncomfortable I was with my truth around my family situation and how I lied about it to others. I allowed people to have a power and judgement over my story with their responses. I talked about subtle social cues, facial expressions and body language from people that I allowed to shame me. It was almost as if I had outsourced my own sense of what was wrong and right in my family life. I was constantly looking for someone to tell me I was right.


I do understand this part of me. She had been through a lot of very hard experiences alone with little professional intervention. There were a lot of decisions to make with very little support out there to guide my younger self. I could see why she desperately needed people to see and understand her. But really what I know now is that I really needed me to see, listen, understand and accept her. Self-acceptance is the greatest freedom we have or will ever get.


I started a charity (Stand Alone) on the back of this Christmas article with the primary purpose of raising awareness in society, so people would be more understanding and would have more comfort in talking about this reality of family life. These were big ambitions. It would allow thousands to meet others in the same position, which evidently brings my clients and the service users of the charity a new level of confidence and reduces the feelings of abnormality. It is amazing what shared experience can do. I have no regrets, as we did magical work on a personal and societal level for over a decade. Yet, I feel I took on the harder fight to try and evolve societal perceptions rather than the more available journey within myself.

The changes I can most easily make around family estrangement and feelings of belonging are within me. They are about how comfortable I feel with my own choices, my integrity and to reduce the shame I feel within me. I was trying to change the outside when it was and is an inside job. The inside job of accepting myself and my life experiences led me to different social interactions with others. I feel more confident with my truth and my experience. I don't project my own awkwardness about my family estrangement onto others, and then feel angry when it’s served back to me as awkwardness. I have come to understand that I have a part in how people respond.


I also grew to give away the fear of responses that are awkward, dismissive or tone-deaf. When I developed self-compassion for myself and my family estrangement situation, it gave me the space to have grace for how others interacted with me on this issue. I began to see their responses not as a personal attack or an attempt to reject me. Instead I began to understand people and their responses from their individual context and conditioning, and I took away their power to judge me.


In reality, so many people don’t know what it’s like to have this experience of life and they are a product of the societal conditioning that family is a supportive entity. It can be hard for them to understand because they have no experience from which to base their understanding. This was an insight through several years of working with politicians. Most had very little understanding of what it was like to be a young person without family backing and had led lives where their family had been very supportive and, for some, the key to their success. They had been surrounded by others where it was the same picture.


I can expand other people’s worldviews if they are willing to hear me. I can’t expect them to know how to respond well to me without explaining what that would look like. I am responsible for what I choose to share and to whom. I don’t owe anyone my story. And this doesn’t mean I tell everyone about the deepest parts of my story with complete abandon and I don’t care. But I do feel more prepared to take ambivalent or dismissive responses more lightly and less personally. I see these responses with compassion and in their context.


Where to find healthy validation?


It’s important to really understand our urges for approval from sources outside of ourselves. By no means do I think seeking positive validation is a negative trait, and it is essential to a stage of trauma healing. It’s a right of passage as we grow up in the world.


The right professional can help you on the journey towards trusting yourself. As this is what we are talking about at the root of things - deep personal trust. My challenge is to examine if we can simply turn this urge for positive attention to ourselves. Can we look at what parts of us need validating from within? Can we listen to ourselves? Where do I need to show kindness and acceptance to myself for making the choices I made? Where can I take responsibility and stand in my own corner? Can you talk to yourself and truly say ‘I understand’ you?


'Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me' - Audre Lorde

The one truth that I lean on is that only we know what it was like to be us in the family we grew up in. It is for nobody else to say what our life was like. Only we know our experience, and our personal understanding of our own life can never be wrong. Other people may have differing views or experiences (even of the same moment) but that does not invalidate us. This helps me to stand strongly in my truth and trust myself.



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