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Let's Talk Trauma: How to Rewrite Toxic Family Rules

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Everyone grows up with an understanding of the rules in their family. In healthy families, these rules are often about safety, growth and connection. Some healthy family rules might be: “No means no,” “Correct, but do not control,” “If it doesn’t feel safe, don’t do it.”

Toxic family rules often live at the center of a dysfunctional family system. They are designed to keep secrets hidden, enable abuse and avoid personal responsibility, to name a few. Usually they prevent safety, growth and connection. Often, these rules are about keeping people in line, maintaining the status quo and never discussing the elephant in the room.

Toxic family rules are often unspoken, but everyone in the family knows when they’re broken, often in the form of experiencing extreme stress or tension. For example, let’s say Dad is an alcoholic, and the toxic family rule is “we don’t talk about that.” Perhaps you say to Dad after he opens beer number six, “Wow, I’d be so drunk if I had six beers in a row like that.” Everyone in the room tenses. Mom looks at the clock and says it’s time for you to leave. Afterward, everyone is mad at you. Perhaps they say you are “rude” or “judgmental.” The real reason, of course, is that you broke the toxic family rule. Children who break toxic family rules by telling the truth about a situation often become family scapegoats, blamed for everything.

Toxic family rules often stay with dysfunctional families for life. Unless someone becomes aware of them and breaks the pattern, they often get passed on to the next generation. However, it is possible to identify these toxic patterns and purposely change them. Here’s how:

Take your time making a list of the toxic rules in your family of origin. Write down as many as you can and add to the list whenever you uncover a new one. Here are a few examples that are on my list:

  1. Avoid conflict at all costs.
  2. Never need anything.
  3. Mental illness is shameful.
  4. Boundaries equal rebellion.
  5. Never ask questions.

Reflecting on toxic rules and what they’ve cost you will usually bring up feelings of sadness, anger, shame or other challenging emotions. Oftentimes, these “rules” play directly into our wounds. Take some time out to care for yourself as you make your list and process these emotions. When you are ready, make a new list. This time, rewrite the old rules into new ones that match up to your truth, identity, and power:

Don’t talk about family dysfunction = Speak up! Your voice and experience matters.

Never need anything from anyone = Your needs are valid and worthy of being shared with healthy people.

Mental illness is shameful = Mental illness is valid and worthy of care

Boundaries equal rebellion = Boundaries equal health and safety.

Never ask questions = Stay curious and learn as much as you can.

Continue to repeat these new rules to reinforce them. Share them with a trusted friend or family member. Surround yourself with people who will encourage you to keep your new rules and let go of the old ones. Whenever a toxic situation arises where the old family rule might get played, remind yourself of the new rule. Adjust, limit or eliminate the relationships that keep old rules in place. Opportunities will arise to make a different choice when an old toxic rule gets challenged. Notice what changes in your life as you incorporate these new rules.

Originally published: June 17, 2021
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