The 7 stages of breaking the cycle of family abuse — and how to avoid common pitfalls

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  • If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, it can take time to break the cycle of abuse.

  • A therapist shared common stages she sees in clients healing from trauma.

  • The stages include noticing your feelings and learning what healthy relationships look like.

One of the hardest things about growing up in a dysfunctional family is how it can affect you as an adult, long after you've moved away from home.

Dr. Lindsay C. Gibson, a clinical psychologist specializing in emotionally immature parents, told Business Insider that one of the biggest challenges of breaking the cycle of abuse is taking your childhood pain seriously.

"In our culture, we are taught to minimize our suffering, to keep a stiff upper lip, and especially protect our families and our parents by minimizing painful experiences that we had with them," Gibson said.

For example, you might downplay being physically hit as a child by saying it only happened a few times, or that it didn't hurt that much.

Gibson said that being honest with yourself about how your upbringing affected you is the first step toward healing.

She shared some of the common stages her clients go through, and why breaking the cycle is worth all the time, work, and effort it takes.

Stage 1: Face how your family made you feel

Whether you were a parentified child who acted as your parents' therapist or the family scapegoat who absorbed all the blame, Gibson said the first step to breaking the cycle of abuse is facing how your family made you feel.

"If you don't understand how that affected you, how inadequate or how lonely that made you feel, there's no place for you to start your recovery," she said.

Often, she said people will experience symptoms of anxiety or depression that draw them to a therapist's office. Once there, they might start to explore their past and see how current feelings of low self-worth tie into their childhood.

Stage 2: Reflect on how your childhood shaped you

As you start to explore how different childhood experiences made you feel — whether through therapy, journaling, or another method — it becomes easier to trace how your early childhood experiences shaped your current life.

For example, if you were raised by a reactive or emotionally absent parent, you might have developed people-pleasing tendencies or a belief that you have to be perfect to be loved.

"It's important to begin to question whether or not these stories that we've come to believe about ourselves are accurate, and whether or not they're serving us," Gibson said.

Stage 3: Take a more critical look at your current relationships

If you still interact with your family, Gibson said you can start to become more aware of how you feel when you're with them. For example, what feelings come up when your mom criticizes you or your dad fails to stick up for you?

Oftentimes at this stage, Gibson's clients become bothered by how their family, partners, friends, and even co-workers treat them if they sense a relationship imbalance. They start to notice for the first time how a best friend only talks about themselves or how a boss never considers their point of view.

"They really begin to respond from their own individuality for a change," Gibson said. "They begin to feel their real feelings, and they also begin to feel a sense of dissatisfaction, like something's missing or something's wrong."

Stage 4: Learn what healthy relationships look like

As you start to feel like something needs to change in your life, Gibson said it's important to look to therapy, well-researched books, and emotionally mature people to learn what a secure dynamic actually looks like.

If you didn't grow up with a good model of healthy relationships, Gibson said you might still doubt yourself when it comes to how you deserve to be treated.

"It's super helpful to have some kind of self-education that gives you a perspective on what's going on," she said. Learn how to trust yourself and become confident in identifying when you're being treated well.

Stage 5: Stand your ground

Gibson said that once you reach this stage, sticking up for yourself and setting boundaries feels a lot more natural than you'd think.

She's had clients come into sessions where they told their parents how they really felt, without preparing beforehand.

"For a person who has really lived their life in that relationship, so worried about the other person getting upset with them — to tell them how they really feel or to set a boundary, it's huge," she said.

Sometimes, the boundary-setting can go awry, and a parent might explode into a rage or give you the silent treatment. Gibson said this can validate you even more, as you realize that this was why you had trouble speaking your mind all along.

Stage 6: Learn to fight fair

Finding your voice can come with potential missteps, Gibson said. Because you're finally learning to stand up for yourself, you might be too aggressive in your approach at first.

"There's often a learning curve because that person grew up under the thumb of somebody who was very egocentric," she said.

For example, if you had parents who fought by lobbing insults, slamming doors, or shutting down, you might unconsciously repeat those patterns even if you mean well and have a valid point.

Gibson said arguing fairly is usually an acquired skill for people who grew up in dysfunction.

"That part takes some time and it takes some work," she said. "But that's OK because if you're not fundamentally emotionally immature, you learn that stuff very fast."

As long as you have a willingness to learn and improve, you can learn better communication skills that get your perspective across without hurting someone in the process.

Stage 7: Watch your life improve

Even if you still maintain a relationship with your parents, stay at the same job, and keep the same partner and friends, it's your internal changes that will completely transform your life, Gibson said.

Once you get used to noticing how you feel and start demanding better for yourself, it will dramatically alter how you interact with people.

It can translate to setting clearer boundaries with family, advocating for yourself more at work, or being upfront about needing more support from a friend.

"It's a radical concept," Gibson said. "But once a person gets it, they start to feel like, 'I can't betray myself by not asking for this because I know that I'm worth it.'"

Read the original article on Business Insider