Healing from A Toxic Environment

By Ken Wells - 04/09/2022


Series Three: Blog

I grew up in a cult. It was hurtful It was overwhelming and dominating. It was truly a mind-fuck. There was always a game being played. The goal was to keep you from figuring it out. If you got close to experiencing reality, there was always a ploy to slap you down and remind you of your place. When success outside of the “friendly” confines of cult environment was engaged, you were quickly alienated from support, and you were told you had worldly ambitions or were materialistic.

Friends encountered outside of the “Way” were criticized as a bad influence. I grew up thinking I was on the outside of the bubble looking in. In some ways it was true. This perception was always reinforced by a litany of “do’s and don’ts” hammered in by youth group theologies and the ever fear of dying and going to hell or missing the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. If you really believed in both, it was enough to keep you in the fold and always going to the altar in a worship service to confess your sins and keep you in good standing with the Man up above.

James Baldwin remarked that “it is not the world who is your oppressor because what the world does to you, if it does it to you long enough, you will do it to yourself, and to others”. He couldn’t be more accurate for those who grew up in a cult environment. The truth is that even when you divorce yourself from cultic influence, the experience resides in the blood and bone of who you are. At the drop of a hat I can go into memories of an altar call with a rolodex of awful experiences. I can audibly give an altar call in the same tone of voice with the same illustrations, organ playing, people praying and singing “Almost Persuaded”. The only hope I see in the dementia of old age, likely in my future, is that it might erase the memory of those early days of cult experience.

Sometimes people who know my story have pity on me and never consider their own story of toxic influence from their early family experience. It is my belief that we all have hurtful realities and toxic beliefs that have impacted the way we live in the here and now.

Here are a few suggestions to unpack the toxic beliefs and hurtful realities that have impacted your relational experience in life.

  1. You have to understand the rules of the game in the toxic relationships you are in. Have you ever engaged a friend, work colleague or family member who expresses a hurtful experience with someone and when you empathize, they quickly go to the defense of the one who perpetrated the problem? That’s a game. You must understand the rules of that game, or you will get stuck in confusion and bewilderment. There is a game being played in every human relationship system. I have learned to figure out the rules of each relationship game. It helps me to know whether I want to play or not. Addicts go through relationship life never recognizing or understanding the rules of the game. As a result, it triggers chronic cycles of relapse. Recognize the relationship game you are in and understand the rules. This is an important first step toward removing yourself from a toxic environment.
  2. When the relationship is toxic, confront the rules that you do not agree with, and if the rules cannot be changed, don’t play the game.  Leave the relationship. Many of us have struggled for years in a toxic relationship at home, work, church or wherever. Despite all your effort, nothing essentially changes. The rules of the game are set in stone. They are not going to change no matter how earnest you try to help others see the need for change. Be courageous and leave the system. It is not helpful to create commotion, build a case or have a big fight. It never works anyway. Simply divorce yourself from the system. Remember, what Charlie Brown had to do when playing football with Lucy. No matter what he did she kept pulling the football away when he tried to kick. And he landed on his posterior in frustration. Finally, Charlie concluded “No more football”.
  3. Create accountability and support to help you change the rules or leave the game. Changing the rules in a toxic relationship is a momentous endeavor. You won’t be successful without the support, encouragement, and push from those who love you and will stand by you no matter what. Leaving the toxic system is even more difficult. I have listened to hundreds of childhood abuse stories. Children who could not leave their toxic environments grew up with the “hidden” power to leave but never left and even created their own toxic systems. I listen to others who talked about hurtful marriage, friendship or work relationships who have the insights about the rules of the hurtful relationships, know they should leave but are paralyzed to do so. Fears about how they will survive, make a living or deal with change is overwhelming and incapacitating. They never get out of the toxic box and suffocate the brilliance within that never sees the light of day.

Getting out of a toxic relationship requires a community of support. Reach out! Summon the support! You can do it!  As you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams and endeavor to live the life you have imagined, you will be met with unexpected fulfillment. You will create healthy rules of engagement that will empower boundaries, positive assertion, and realization of your own brilliance   in unexpected common hours.

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