How Toxic Family Members Impact Your Career – and Your Life

I’ve followed the Turpin case for awhile now, and justice was served this week when David and Louise Turpin were each sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for torturing their children. It was an unusual case – at least I hope so. These California-based parents from hell kept their 13 children from ages 2 to 29 in squalor and chains, starved them, kept them from doctors and schooling and basically them isolated completely from the outside world.

I’m blogging about it because I see a clear link between the damage these parents did, and the damage that many parents do to their children that prevents them from reaching their full potential. Of course, the usual parental mismanagement is nowhere near this extent. This case, well, to me, it was evil. But it’s still an issue, and I think it’s a big one.

For the record, I believe that most parents are good, or they at least have good intentions and want their offspring to succeed. It’s rarely a case of all bad or all good, but usually something in between. Most parents aren’t trying to hurt their kids. Any damage they inflict is often accidental, and many of them may not see or understand the harm they do or have done.

But it’s there, and it can shape every aspect of a person’s life – and their career. The kicker is, sometimes the kids don’t fully understand the damage either, not even when they grow into adults and are walking around everyday carrying family trauma on their backs like a really heavy ghost.

I say ghost because I’m not talking about physical abuse, which is its own kind of fuckery, I’m talking about mental abuse you can’t see or touch: psychological intimidation, verbal abuse, excessive restrictions and control, fill in the blank. But the end result is often an adult who operates from a place of fear and self-imposed limitations.

You’ve probably heard the phrase the walking wounded? Or, hurt people hurt people? That’s what I mean. Parents may not intend to harm their children, but when they take out their angst and frustration and unresolved child and adult issues on the little people who depend on them for care and nurturing – and the adult children they often don’t want to loosen their grip on – the pain and the damage is real.

You have to be really savvy, emotionally intelligent and focused on self to even know that you are suffering from family-related trauma. Most of it’s not as obvious as the abuse the Turpins dealt out. It’s more subtle. Screaming at your kids, telling them in one way or another that they’re not attractive without this or that change, insisting they do everything your way, and not letting them think for themselves. It can take years to unlearn the bad behaviors these things invoke, and that’s my point. While you’re undoing all the damage your parents have inadvertently done to you, life is passing you the hell by.

I read that the average adult spends more than 13 years of their life working. Unless you’re extremely self-aware and brave and well supported, you’re likely to spend a great deal of that time doing work you don’t want to do to make a living because you won’t have the guts or the focus or the energy to do different. That’s why the family thing is so important.

Family is tricky. You can’t shit can them as easily as you can bad friends or bad bosses or bad significant others. You can make new friends, get a new job or a new boy or girlfriend or even spouse. But you only get one mother, father, sisters, etc. We’re programmed to need our family members. They’re guaranteed support and love when there may be no support or love – or they should be. If they’re not, and let’s face it, that happens more often than any of us would like, you have to be able to detach for your own good.

How to detach is a topic for a whole other blog. But here are some things I’ve observed that can help you to identify toxic family members, so you can get away from them:

Contact with them creates negative impact on you. When you see their number on your phone you droop. Or, after you talk to them, you feel depressed, anxious, worried, resentful or some other negative emotion. Yet, before you talked to them you were okay. Or, you weren’t as bad.

You feel like you’re stuck in a loop. You’ve tried to talk things over, or patch things up. You’ve tried to create boundaries only to be manipulated into maintaining the status quo. You’ve tried any number of things to fix the faulty family relationships, to no avail. Again and again you find yourself at square one, dealing with the same shit over and over and over.

You spend a lot of time talking about them. Who can blame you, right? You’ve gotta get this kinda crap off your chest, but you can run good people away from you with that behavior. I still need to apologize to a direct report I had years ago who was a great listener – poor thing. She had to hear more than she should about my family troubles. But I haven’t – because we no longer speak.

It’s notable because I’ve kept many coworkers as friends long after our immediate job connection was severed. But who could blame her? She wasn’t a therapist. She wasn’t being paid to listen to that nonsense – especially since she came from what appeared to be a more well-adjusted background and was probably secretly like, what in the name of all that’s reasonable is this foolishness? – and bottom line, it was completely inappropriate for me to dump it on her. I just couldn’t seem to help myself. I needed someone to talk to.

When I think about how much productive work time I’ve wasted being in some kind of bad head space over family crap, all I can do is shake my head in despair. That kind of shit is why it took me so long to launch my own business. It’s why I still struggle to take risks and to focus on those dream big goals that are entirely possible, but not if I’m still stuck on stupid dealing with mama this and sister that crap over and over.

You have siblings who share the same issues. Misery loves company, right? Siblings talk to each other about the screwed up things their parents do. The problem is when those discussions dominate everything else. There is no talk of dreams or plans only what has already transpired and is still standing in the way of any forward momentum or change. You have to let go of the old before you can embrace any new. You can’t do that if the people around you keep filling your head and your valuable time with the past.

Distance, boundaries, discipline and determination to make changes. Those are the only things that will save you. Do yourself a huge favor: Deal with your family crap. Time waits for no man, woman or beast. It is an infinitely valuable commodity; once spent you can never get it back. Don’t waste yours dealing with toxic family members. If you do your career will suffer, your health will suffer, your appearance will suffer, and your dreams will be unnecessarily deferred.

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