What is Shunning?

I. Shunning

Shunning a human being is defined as turning away from a person who has been singled out by a group to punish them, to emotionally, or even physically, cause them distress. When most Americans think of shunning, they often envision a religious community, like the Amish or Mennonite, and perceive shunning as a rare and extreme familial or community behavior that can seem warranted on the surface. For example, an Amish individual can be shunned for a crime, like rape, but restorative justice programs in the United States demonstrate that keeping a criminal within the community forces them much better to face their crime than forcing them outside the community where their shame can be hidden. However, this is not the type of shunning addressed at this online forum.

What we are discussing here is familial shunning as an aggressive act of emotional violence against a family member for not complying to the psychological family rules. Shunning teens and adult-children is an all-too-frequent experience that affects many women, and these grown women often think they are alone, their experience is unique, and that they are somehow flawed or born to a totally crazy family. Unfortunately, like sexual violence, shunning daughters is a widespread experience, and it is important that we build a community to give our experiences a public voice!

As children, families are our key source for personal security that should provide a foundation of well-being that offer us a sense of belonging and inherent value as people. But when unhealthy families use tools of psychological pressure to get children (and adult children) to comply to their unconscious and unspoken family rules, like parents/family members being emotionally cold, giving children the silent treatment, lying to them, excluding them from events and family information, etc., then this sense of belonging and self-worth are compromised. These behaviors are part of shunning, are considered by experts to be abusive and highly damaging, and can become permanent if rifts are not mended. In many instances, families who act in such psychologically unhealthy ways will be beyond the possibility for even marginal, healthy engagement.

Though shunning is painful to daughters, it is often a blessing because the alternative to shunning is that the daughter must sell her authentic self in order to maintain the broken family relationships that can never be a source of love and trust. Trusting the people in your life to consistently love you is imperative in a stable adult relationship, and trust/love can not flourish when it is given only when you comply to the whims and expectations of another person.  

That said, if limited contact is tolerated by abusive families, then that can be an alternative to not seeing them at all. The key is that the family relationship does not routinely disrupt your life. Working with a clinician/professional therapist can be helpful in evaluating boundaries and if a family relationship is worth investing your time into. If you are already shunned, then healing yourself is your goal, of course, not reconnecting with your biological abusers.

II. Family Estrangement

The blog e-stranged.com notes that “Family estrangement may create an intergenerational rift that persists for decades and replicates itself in subsequent generations. Estrangement is synonymous with alienation: the replacement of love, affection, or friendliness with enmity, cruelty, or indifference.”

“Family estrangements are broken relationships between parents, grandparents, siblings and children. The social rejection in family estrangement is the equivalent of ostracism which undermines four fundamental human needs:

1) the need to belong, be loved, and have a sense of history with one’s biological family;

2) the need for a sense of control in one’s life and the ability to trust others;

3) the need to maintain satisfactory levels of self-esteem;

4) and the need to have a sense of a meaningful existence.

Family estrangement activates the grief response. However, the rejected family may not achieve the final Grief Stage of Acceptance, given that the social death of the relationship is potentially reversible.”

For more information see the blog: www.e-stranged.com/blog/

 III. Emotional Blackmail

Daughters who are rejected by their biological families often challenged circumstances and thus experienced emotional blackmail to get them to conform to the family’s rules. Wikipedia offers an insightful definition and important sources concerning Emotional Blackmail, noting that it “is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten, either directly or indirectly, to punish us if we don’t do what they want. Emotional Blackmail and “FOG” (Fear/Obligation/Guilt), terms coined by psychotherapist Susan Forward, Ph.D., are about controlling relationships and the theory that fear, obligation or guilt are the transactional dynamics at play between the controller and the person being controlled. Understanding these dynamics are useful to anyone trying to extricate themselves from the controlling behavior by another person and deal with their own compulsions to do things that are uncomfortable, undesirable, burdensome, or self-sacrificing for others.” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_blackmail

In other words, when daughters say “No” to a family expectation, a family member may get “uptight,” distant, stop telephoning, make passive cruel comments to her or her children/partner, withhold affection, or act disapproving in a myriad of ways. These are manipulative forms of Emotional Blackmail. The behaviors are saying, “If you don’t do what I want you to do, then I will act in a way that is hurtful to get you to do what I want.” When a daughter is in recovery from family abuse and she is attempting to set boundaries and have new behaviors with her unhealthy family of origin, it is very common for her to experience Emotional Blackmail from these family members in order to get her to “change back” to the role her family assigned her.

All human families have a system of equilibrium that keeps it in balance with everyone in their assigned roles. The greater the psychological ill-health of the family, the more rigid these roles are. A psychologically healthy family can be fluid, allowing for changes in roles, give and take in religious and political preferences, and have the ability to re-define itself holistically as members age, are born, die, marry/divorce, move away, hold different opinions from other family members, change sexual orientation, and so on. But a family that has unresolved issues (like loss, addiction, taboo memories or stories, etc) must draw their roles very concretely, severely, and in total black/white thinking so that there is no chance of the forbidden issue to be raised. In this situation, the family is in constant “survival” mode to keep the forbidden issue at bay. This unconscious mode creates anxiety, trauma, and confusion in children/adult children until it is openly examined and healed. Unfortunately, the daughter/family member who gets healthy and heals these issues within her, and then returns to the family of origin as an altered person in an unalterable family system, has little chance of being well received. This is when shunning often occurs.

Of course, there are many ways to handle Emotional Blackmail, like directly saying in a calm, polite tone, “Mom, I have noticed that you stopped calling this week after I said “No” to hosting the family dinner. Though I understand your disappointment, I want you to know that your distancing hurts and I would like you to respect my preferences.”

In a healthy daughter-mother relationship, this polite request would be received with openness, perhaps even an apology or a larger discussion about feelings would ensue. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many mothers who engage in emotional blackmail who then have the emotional maturity and relationship skills to respond in an open and caring way to a daughter’s request to stop them. In other words, if she’s using emotional blackmail, it is unlikely that she will be able to hear a daughter’s request to cease the punitive treatment. In an unhealthy relationship, the daughter’s request may be met with escalation from the mother, like increased anger, criticism, cruel comments about issues unrelated to the request, shouting, and thus increased episodes of Emotional Blackmail. If the drama continues unchecked, Shunning is often the result from the family member or Estrangement on the daughter’s part from her biological family in order for her to protect her well-being and psychological health from abusive, damaging behavior.

IV. What To Do if You are Shunned

If you have been shunned by your biological family, seeking help from a professional counselor or trusted friend is extremely important. The most important concern is that whomever you tell must NOT minimize the pain, blame you for the family’s actions, or make excuses for your family. You must be believed, supported, and offered care. You have suffered a serious wound on many levels of your being–make sure you are in regular contact with loving people. You need comfort now, more than anything.

Shunning is a traumatic shock. You may feel in complete disbelief that your family could do this to you. This is because shunning is a blow to the core of our human needs and sense of self–and parents are so lauded as fonts of unconditional love whom children are expected to love and honor our entire lives. When a parent betrays us by shunning, it is incomprehensible. Finding a professional person who can help you unravel this deeply confusing experience will set you on your way to grasping the most irrational thing you may ever experience.

Will your parent/sibling ever have an epiphany and see the error of what they have done? Will your parent ever heal and change? Will other family members break free from the tangle of Enmeshment and contact you?

No one can answer these questions that all of us ask, I’m sorry to say. All you can do is what so many of we daughters have done: heal yourself, move on, live your life beyond the trauma, cherish each precious day of your life, surround yourself with a new family and let their love soak into your bones. Your life isn’t over because your biological kin have pronounced you as “dead” to them! They don’t get to decide that for you–your birthright as a human being, and as a divine being of holiness, cannot be changed because your family betrayed you. No one has that power over you, ever. Not even your mother who birthed you. No trauma separates us from our divinity and the trauma itself can be healed.

Yes, you WILL wake up one day and discover that all your healing work has crept into your bones and into your soul and that, at long last, you are free from the heavy burden of grief your family’s shunning caused you. There is Life after Shunning, and even this pain will pass. I promise.

Beautiful Daughter, feel the love in this world hold you like a precious treasure, like the most precious of parents. Nothing can take that love from you, ever. Be well. I believe in you, always. Bless you. —Sedna

26 thoughts on “What is Shunning?

    • Oh wow. I read about this site in a magazine and felt so much hope. Now I have opened this and read some of it, I am in tears. The ending of the piece on shunning was so wonderful and I will read it again. Healing without direct help takes spirit guidance and effort. I feel a lot of my life has been wasted and not maximized due to the horrible start in life I was given. I am trying to resolve this and prepare for the ending of my life at the same time. Without my four dogs I would be in the worst possible place in life. My hope is that this message reaches the young in great numbers to save decades of a short life. A life dragged down by this heavy illness of spirit is not the way it should be. A good spirit/soul would not behave in the ways these abusers behave. That is not popular among some ways of thinking but my observation of 71 years of life with this kind of soul. I have watched the soul leave a person and it is real. The undefinable awen is obvious at death and birth. The taking of air and not taking air/essence.
      Thank you for the support and spread of this valuable information.

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    • I hope you are doing better. We are in this recovery together, and that includes you. Your life isn’t over. You have escaped from their dysfunctional behavior. That really made them mad. Now is the time for you to heal and get strong. Best wishes, Carol

  4. Wow! So much of this hits home to me. I have been shunned from my family (except one sister) for 22 years. I just could not play the family games nor abide by the rules. The drive to be my own person was so strong after being told how to think for 18 years and I journeyed outside of their boundaries. I married a man they didn’t like and when we had some marital problems it was made clear to me that it was a situation in which if I went back to my husband I was out of the family. The years have passed and I have made many attempts to talk with my mother and brothers. My mother is so cold-the last time I called her (six years ago) I told her that this was a very painful thing they were doing and her response was a bitchy, cold and condescending comment of “well, I’m sorry”. She has bad mouthed me to my aunts and cousins. I realize that your post said that we don’t have much contact with cousins, but it is the knowledge that my mother hates me so much that she would poison the whole family that bothers me. She is 85 this year and when she dies I will be relieved to know she can’t perpetrate her evil feelings to the world. I have reached the point where I have no feelings for her or my brothers. They don’t exist. However my sister who does talk to me tells me hurtful things they say about me-why does she do this? I am seriously thinking that I might have to close that relationship down. Thanks for any suggestions. Claire

    • Hello Claire. Your sister should not be sharing your biological relatives’ negative words with you. My suggestion is to say to your sister the next time she repeats hurtful comments something like, “You may not realize this sister, but those words hurt me. Would you please never repeat our relative’s words to me again? I have moved on and don’t want to hear about them anymore, most especially any negativity about me. Thank you so much.” Every time she does it in the future, stop her immediately and say in a calm, polite voice “Sister, I don’t want to hear that. I have asked you to please stop, so please stop. Thank you.” If she keeps doing it, safe distance may be necessary for you. The fact that she is continuing in an extremely enmeshed family system means that she is part of that system psychologically and may not be able to sufficiently individuate and be a healthy person for you to have a relationship with. Time will tell. Thank you for sharing your story, Claire. Please know that in enmeshed families (see the Enmeshment page on my site) EVERYONE is supposed to think, feel, and act the same and maintain their roles. Your mother is reinforcing the family system consciously or unconsciously–it is tragic for you and everyone that she has chosen shunning instead of LOVE, but many, many human beings are not psychologically strong enough to individuate from their trauma/mental disorders, so mothers like yours and mine shun us. We all lose, including our mothers. I will hold you in my heart. Blessings, always, Sedna

  5. Thank you so much for your wise words. Now I know a kind way to stop the comments. And I also see that she is struggling to individuate. Bless you!

  6. My pain is so profound that I can’t even tell my story. After my long dedication to my parents and my sons, I was severely betrayed by my mother and my older son. She turned the rest of the family against me. No one talks to me. My mom and my son, whom I always adored and was always by him, talk to me very minimally and superficially on FB.
    The issues with my mom date far back since I was a child. Then, five years ago she involved my oldest son. He ended up moving away from Canada to go live with her. I have no family in Canada. I am divorced, care for my 22 yo special needs son, and work full time. Barely had time to make friends.
    If I start telling anyone what they did , the first question people ask is – what did you do? I didn’t do anything. Quite the opposite – Always a good daughter, tried to help in every way I could. I was a good mom to my son, supportive and did what I always could to stand by him.
    This affects my social life. People tend to think “If not even your family cares for you, it is because you are no good”. They distance themselves very quickly.
    I don’t know how I am managing to survive with so much “disaffection”, so much lack of love. I have even contemplated leaving this world.
    I fall into deep sadness, though I try hard to stay positive. But it us very hard. I am alone all the time.

    I fear like I am not worthy and that everyone will ultimately reject or leave me.

    • Dear Achey Soul….oh, you are brave, brave and more brave to write your story!! Welcome, dear daughter, to a place where you will not be rejected. Let me take your hands and tell you something right now–all we daughters have heard these same cruel lines. Every one of us from every country on this beautiful planet. And we kept going….we kept living….just as you will! The time has come for you to turn away from their lies, their cruelty, and look into the love in this world! Have you been to our Sedna’s Daughters FB page? Go sign up and join us all on the path to healing. You are NOT alone; none of us are. I am so sorry for your pain, sorry that your biological relatives have failed you. The world is filled with people who will NOT fail you (and let’s not forget about animal companions, your ancestors, and the natural world). Welcome…..you are now surrounded by love, Dear, Dear Daughter. Join us….Keep talking….Keep writing….you are already healing!! Big Hug, Sedna

  7. I was shunned for marrying outside the Community of Christ church. The shunning started when my mother claimed that my marriage caused her to have a panic attack. My dad then called all my sisters and brothers around for a meeting claiming I put her there because of whom I married. The violence then started with my dad and brother ganging up on me.. My mother meeting with my now ex for dinner behind my back telling him I was Bipolar with a running problem running from them.. And told him about a balloon filled with other stuff to put in my car that would heat up and blow my car up if I ran.. He gives me the threat.. And my mother then admitted it came from her..I guess to run . Cause that’s family violence on him.. So my mother then decides to convince my sister to call CPS on me .. So she did then started getting money paid to call CPS.. Rumors started that my ex locked me in a closet for three days after blackening my eyes and that my ex was burning the kids with cigarettes, and I did nothing to stop it.. Well they didn’t get the kids and I divorced.. Then these cult members ganged up and shunned me from social events from seeing nieces and all that stuff.. My mother openly shunned me at a friend’s funeral at the church… I was then called dead to them.. That my Holy Spirit was gone.. That I was an evil spirit and didn’t deserve anything–that part was from my mother who I don’t call my mother.. I was openly shunned, back turning by mother, as well as during a 45 minute service.. When my daughter got married my daughter invited me my car then is stolen .. I highly suspect my sister was involved in it.. When I look at my life.. It was controlling. My father was controlling physically and my mother was manipulated controlling.. The shunning is controlling but folks that aren’t abusive to begin with don’t do this shunning.. There stuff along the way that you know the shunners have controlling problems .. I’ve had my mother run to my friends claiming I was Bipolar and told She shouldn’t talk to me. My mother wanted me shunned from everybody; she was running with stories a long with my sister.. They don’t rely on God, instead they use fear, Manipulation, guilt, physical violence, isolation and shunning for control .
    There is nothing Christian about what they do… Nothing these shunners can hide behind the abuse claiming everything under the sun the bottom line is they are abusive controllers..

    • Thank you for sharing your work, Suzette! Together, we all can help one another heal….All my best, Sedna

      • My pleasure Sedna!
        May I please offer to you and to all daughters reading your extremely important resource website some info on “grief”. A lot of people turn to “stages” to make sense of their grief often because doing so makes the whole messiness of grief appear neat and tidy. But this can be lethal. Here are 11 reasons why using “stages” to understand grief may not be such a good idea: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/11-reasons-why-grieving-stages-makes-sense-suzette-misrachi?trk=mp-reader-card

        If people would like to make sense of their “guilt”, “depression”, or “shame”, I have written other (2mins) reading articles on these themes. They are aimed at counsellors but can (hopefully) shed some light on those trying to make sense of their life. See:
        https://www.linkedin.com/today/author/0_34pGUrveHkolMHVKHvijTL?trk=prof-sm
        I hope this is useful.
        With warm thoughts to all of you. May all of your dreams of love and truth become part of your reality,
        Suzette

        • How very gracious of you, Suzette! I strongly support researchers and writers such as yourself providing relevant information for healing on this website. A conversation of many voices provides much more help than a monologue of one. With great appreciation, Sedna

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