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