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Monday, January 7, 2019

But It's Your Family...Book Review


Happy 2019! How is your year going so far?

If you make one resolution for this year, I suggest its eliminating any toxic people from your life.

This is something that comes up for so many of my counselling clients. It is often easier said than done, especially if the toxic person (or people) is/are part of your family.

Nevertheless, my philosophy is that its matters not at all who the person is, your mother, sibling, uncle, cousin, etc. If they are toxic, get them out of your life! This also ties into my belief about what family actually is.

According to the dictionary, family means:
1. a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household, and
2. all the descendants of a common ancestor.

I say this is bullshit.

Family are the people around you who love and support you unconditionally. Blood and DNA be damned.

This is relevant for my fertility/infertility clients building their families using donor sperm and/or eggs, and its relevant for my clients with toxic family members. Unfortunately, most culture's are too fixated on the dictionary definition of family and with the notion that if you are related to someone by blood you owe them. If someone treats you poorly and having them in your life compromises your well-being, than no matter who they are, you owe them shit. DNA is not what's important.

Given my slightly strong feelings about this, I was very pleased to be offered the chance to review But It's Your Family: Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath by psychologist, Dr. Sherrie Campbell.

Not only has Campbell treated many patients dealing with a toxic family member, but she has them herself, and from what she says in the book, has had to cut them out of her own life.

The book starts with a discussion of what a toxic person is: malicious, manipulative, emotionally abusive, etc. There are then a  series of chapters addressing specific types of potentially toxic family members (mothers, fathers, adult children, siblings, grandparents, in-laws, etc.).

Campbell devotes a chapter to validating your feelings and desire to remove the person (since cutting off a family member goes against what our society tells us about how we have to treat family). There is a chapter explaining how and why you might choose no contact with this person, how the person may use the separation to guilt and manipulate you, and how to recover from the severing process.

Though religious discussions usually make me very uncomfortable, I do think it makes sense that she includes a chapter to religious beliefs since that often informs people's beliefs about family. Personally though, I could give a rats ass what any religious text says, but she gives some ideas on how to reconcile religious views on family with your need to eliminate a family member from your life.

I am always telling my clients we need to redefine what family means and I love how Campbell describes it:

"Being genetically related to our toxic family members doesn't make us family. The real definition of family refers to constructs much deeper than bloodline or DNA. Family is about love, sacrifice, honesty, protection, support, unconditional love, reciprocity, acceptance, security, respect, protection, loyalty and safety. It is is not about lying, criticism, selfishness, betrayal, or gossip. When a family is full of these negative qualities, it is a family in name only. It is really merely a group of toxic people to whom we happen to be biologically related."

Yes, yes, yes!!

I have so many clients who carry shame because they have toxic families as if it somehow compromises their own worth as a person. Coming from a 'good' family seems to carry so much weight in many cultures. But often how we define 'good' versus 'bad' families is based on surface level criteria and false public images that hide all sorts of dysfunction.

A lot of clients are fearful about what it will be like to live without a family, but I always explain to them that they can choose a family that is loving and kind and leave the toxic (blood relatives) behind. Most of us can probably think of someone (our spouse, a friend, etc.) who we love like family though there is no genetic connection.  DNA does NOT make people love you more.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, definitely for people who are struggling with a toxic family member, and also for therapists who see lots of clients in this situation.

Disclosure: I was sent the book to review but all opinions on this blog are my own.

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