You love your dad, but whenever he calls, you cringe. Your mom is constantly nitpicking your appearance. Your sister won’t stop comparing her life to yours—and it makes you feel really terrible about yourself. If any of this sounds familiar, you’ve got some toxic family dynamics going on. Here, seven books that might help (or at least make you feel a bit less alone).
Whole Again: Healing Your Heart and Rediscovering Your True Self After Toxic Relationships by Jackson MacKenzie
Ever heard of the drama triangle? Basically, it’s an unhealthy pattern that can start when a well-meaning people-pleaser (ie., you) tries to reach out and help a toxic person with a problem in order to distract themself from their own low self-esteem. But no matter what they do, it’s impossible to really get to the core of a person’s issues, so they enter a cycle of trying to help more and more until they’ve depleted all of their own energy, which makes them feel even worse. Meanwhile, the toxic person will keep asking more and more of you, continuing the cycle. This useful read highlights the subtleties of all sorts of toxic relationships and helps you look for patterns so you can break the chain of continually being drawn in by the same type of toxic behavior again and again.
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Sometimes you need a break from self-help books and just want to commiserate with someone who’s been there. Even if you already read Burroughs’s hit debut memoir when it first came out, it’s worth another look. Sure, your stepsister is a huge pain, but at least your mom didn’t send you away to live with her therapist and his kids in a filthy Victorian mansion?
Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattie
We know what you’re thinking: “I’m not the problem. My toxic relationship with my mother has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with how messed up she is.” It’s time to recognize the actions you could be taking to stop her toxic habits in their tracks. The first step? Admitting how large a role you play in this relationship and recognizing the ways your mother feeds off of your behavior and responses. The self-help author’s best-selling book focuses mostly on people who have close, co-dependent relationships with addicts, but it’s packed with extremely valuable advice for anybody who has a difficult time setting boundaries and standing their ground.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Can the children of toxic parents emerge as competent, successful adults? Jeannette Walls is proof that the answer can be a resounding yes. In her wildly successful memoir, The Glass Castle, the author recounts her extremely dysfunctional childhood in West Virginia, and the tactics her then-homeless parents use to try to reel her back into their toxic worlds throughout her adulthood. Uplifting? Definitely not. Inspiring, if you’re the child of toxic parents? Absolutely.
Nasty People by Jay Carter, Psy.D.
First published in 1989, this revised edition provides extremely useful tips about how to turn the tables on toxic family members, friends and co-workers who have previously held the upper hand. Carter refers to toxic behavior as invalidation, aka “putting other people down to bring yourself up.” He maintains that only 1 percent of people use invalidation maliciously, while 20 percent do it semi-consciously as a defense mechanism. The rest of us do it completely unintentionally (yep, even you have been an invalidator at some point). Once you start to recognize the behaviors of an invalidator—and realize that most of the time, they probably aren’t doing it to harm you—you’ll be on the right track to gaining control of your feelings about the relationship.
The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
With alcoholic, mentally ill parents, the cards seemed stacked against Karr and her sister. But Karr has spun her story into literary (and often comedic) gold that anyone dealing with a toxic parent should read. When you’re feeling down about your own family issues, just remember this gem of a line: “A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.”
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson, Psy.D.
You’re a grown-ass adult, but whenever you’re in the same room with your family, you feel like you’re 12 again. If you have toxic parents, it’s a major clue that your issues with them haven’t been resolved. In her popular book, Gibson breaks down difficult parents into four types: the emotional parent, the driven parent, the passive parent and the rejecting parent. Identifying the ways they operate and taking a more psychological approach (as opposed to an emotional one) might help you see your parents in a new light—and realize their behavior never had anything to do with you.