Today’s episode is an interview that I did with Dr. Sherrie Campbell. Her specialty is helping people recognize toxic family members and work to productively cut ties with them and thrive in the aftermath. We get into some really interesting content including how to recognize when a family member is toxic and Dr. Campbell’s deeply personal experiences that have driven her work.
Before we start I wanted to let you guys know that in addition to the audio, we also have full blog posts and show notes for each episode on my website. For instance, the episode last week about productivity tips is a full-fledged blog post in itself that you could easily read through if you forget some of the tips. This is something that I’ve been happy to hire an assistant to help out with. So make sure you stop by duffthepsych.com/episode152 to see the full notes for this episode, or any of the previous episodes by visiting duffthepsych.com/episodeXYZ, where ‘XYZ’ is the episode number!
Last thing before we start the interview is I wanted to address what I’m doing with the book giveaways. I realized that the quote sharing was just a little too labor intensive for you guys and you may not always be in a good situation to stop and write a quote down. BUT I want to keep giving you free shit. SO instead of asking you guys for quotes, I’m going to be asking you for reviews.
Write a review of the podcast or one of my books on any platform and send me over a screenshot via email or social media. I will choose one random reviewer each week to send something free to. This is super easy if you pull of the podcast on iTunes on your phone. Simply scroll to the bottom where you see the reviews for the show and click on “leave a review”.
I’m feeling generous this week, so instead of giving away a free book, I’m going to be giving one of you free access to my online course, Kick Anxiety’s Ass. It’s a 10-week online course to teach you how to better cope with your anxiety and its normal price is $300. Don’t miss out on the opportunity!
Managing Toxic Family with Dr. Sherrie Campbell
Dr. Sherrie Campbell is a licensed Psychologist who focuses on helping individuals recognize and deal with toxic family members and how to cope in the aftermath. She has a full caseload of therapy patients, a sizable social media following, and two books. In her therapy sessions, she sees many people that are healthy who have difficulties due to toxic family members making them doubt themselves.
Growing up in a toxic family
Sherrie opens by talking about how she became interested in this topic and the circumstances that led her to pursue a career in this field. Growing up she was raised by two toxic parents and had to go through her own healing process and therapy to help her understand her own reality and learn how to stop repeating patterns that led to toxic relationships. At 16 her therapist told her that she is not the problem, she is the symptom of the home environment. We talk about this in more detail, as well as the concept of seeing yourself as the ‘common denominator’ in these problems, rather than the cause of the problems themselves.
We take a look at the different roles in the family, such as the scapegoat vs. the golden child, and how the scapegoat often feels the issues experienced in the family environment are caused solely by them. They carry the dysfunction of the family and act it out so no one else has to feel that dysfunction – the blame is laid on the scapegoat.
Sherrie explains these differing roles in more detail and how, in her experience, roles are not rigid in healthy families. This is in contrast to toxic families where the roles are more rigid and ingrained so that the parent can know how to manipulate or use them to their advantage.
Is toxicity abuse?
Following on from this, we discuss how it can be hard to “prove” toxicity vs outright abuse, given how there is no physical evidence to show, and look at the differences between toxic and abusive family members. Sherrie talks about why she chose to use the term ‘toxic’ and describes how this behavior is insidious and deeper than dysfunction and is perhaps a more subtle version of emotional abuse. We discuss this further whilst also highlighting how in many situations there are often doses of intermittent kindness from toxic people to keep you on the hook, to keep you hopeful that things might improve, so you stick with the situation.
In her reality, Sherrie had to accept that her parents were not good people that act bad sometimes, but rather bad people that act good sometimes. However, it can be difficult to tell the difference and define somebody as toxic – we discuss this concept and look at the fundamental differences between healthy, but ‘flawed’ individuals, and those which are toxic.
Sherrie offers some tips for helping people get outside of the bubble and getting perspective about their situation, assessing whether you are being affected by a toxic person. She talks about how stress, dreading the family member coming over, and constant underlying tension are hints that you may be dealing with a toxic person. Another sign is if you feel like you have to overprepare for a conversation with a person, but you leave the conversation and feel like nothing got across, thus causing you to work harder and retry. But ultimately they are not going to change however hard you try.
Taking this one step further, Sherrie describes how she’s tried low contact, cordial contact and no contact with her parents and how that in her experience sometimes having even minimal contact is enough for them to keep you roped in. She talks about these different forms of contact and describes how when setting boundaries with toxic people, you often see them push harder or find other avenues, such as contacting your other family to get back to you. This is when the best course of action may be to simply block the communication.
Youth and toxic families
This is okay if you’re an adult, but when you are younger you often don’t have any choice in the matter, with limits on what you can do. We discuss this in detail and Sherrie offers tips for youth who are stuck in these situations, explaining how you may need to play the game and use “acquiesce as a strategy”, for the benefit of yourself, not your parents. It becomes your choice in order to keep yourself safe, rather than through fear. You can fuel their ego while recognizing that it’s ridiculous, keeping yourself in control until it is the right time for you to cut ties.
Here we also talk briefly about the need to re-think religious or cultural pressures which promote the belief that you have to stick with this toxic environment because it’s your family. This doesn’t need to be the case.
Reading between the lines
We draw further parallels between toxicity and emotional abuse and how dealing with both requires learning how to read between the lines. Sherrie talks about her personal experiences of separation abuse, where toxic people give gifts as an attempt to force you to follow up. This involves them reaching out during very specific times that are strategic, such as Birthdays/Christmas, in order to make them look good. To others who don’t understand or know the dynamics of the relationship, it appears as though they are trying to make amends when in reality, they are trying to re-initiate that toxic relationship and create an emotional response. She describes how outside perspectives are most valuable from mental health professionals, who can help you to gain perspective and deal with the situation. In most circumstances talking to friends and family is not helpful as they often have a very hard time understanding or believing the truth.
Taking care of yourself
When you’re dealing with so much toxicity it can be difficult not to get swallowed into a black hole. Sherrie offers some helpful advice on looking after yourself. According to her we can’t go back and re-do the period of our development where we should have gotten unconditional positive regard. Instead of trying to undo her attachment style, she has learned to operate within it and opens up about how she achieves this. She talks about how you cannot heal in the environment that is poisoning you. You can only do your best to cope in that environment.
Sherrie suggests the book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl as inspiration and describes the toxic family system as a cult where you’re neither loved or given the freedom to separate, navigating a stop sign and a go sign simultaneously, all of the time. Part of her healing process was hitting bottom and then making positive change. After such experiences she explains how you have to gain ‘you’ back and find purpose and that for her, the further she got from her toxic family, the more she learned to love herself.
To finish up, Sherrie talks about her own personal experiences in learning to cope with her toxic parents and the aspects that have helped her throughout her healing and self-development, which ultimately have helped to create a positive relationship with herself.
The stronger my purpose is, the less anxious I’ve become.
Finally, Sherrie highlights her new book and what she hopes to achieve by speaking out about her own experiences. Titled ‘But It’s Your Family – cutting ties with toxic family and loving yourself in the aftermath’, it’s released in April but can be purchased on Kindle now!
That’s it! I’d like to close by thanking Dr. Sherrie Campbell for appearing on the show today. You can get in touch with Sherrie and find out the latest over on her website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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