Family of Monkeys

The above is a Polish Proverb, and one that is good for survivors of abuse to keep in mind when they are dealing with the guilt of stepping away from abuse. For years we have been given responsibility for the emotional well-being of the abusers and enablers in our lives. It can be hard work to re-establish the boundaries.

The World’s Biggest Guilt Trip

One aspect of emotional abuse is the total lack of boundaries. How does that often manifest? The abuser makes the victim feel responsible for their well-being, and even have them take responsibility for the abuse itself. An emotional abuser will convince the victim that their behavior is triggering the mistreatment.

Every survivor will at some point in their life have been told: If only you were thinner/better/smarter/nicer/etc. I would not have to… (fill in the blank). But no matter how far the victim bends, they will never be able to keep the trouble person happy or stop the toxicity.

The primary weapon of emotional abusers is the deliberate infliction of guilt. They use guilt the same way a loan shark uses money:
They don’t want the “debt” paid off because they live quite happily on the “interest.”
– Andrew Vachss

It is this sense of responsibility that often triggers a huge amount of guilt in the survivor when they decide to change or leave the relationship. Even when we realize the toxicity of the situation, deep down we continue to feel that responsibility. And, unfortunately, that too often translates into the world’s biggest guilt trip.

The Toxic Story

At we usually focus on our own healing, surviving and thriving. We talk about Toxic People and abusers of course, but we usually focus on the effects of their abuse, or discuss certain strategies they may use. Of course we understand that each abuser has their own history. They too have experiences that have made them who they are, whether genetic or environmental.

“I know my mother had a troubled upbringing of her own, although I am not sure of the details. There is enough to hint at a seriously messed up family life, but the past is always shrouded in mystery. Sometimes we were given hints, but always with the express warning not to tell anyone else in the family, as we weren’t supposed to know to begin with”  — K.

Discovering more about the problems that shaped your particular abuser is understandable. What actually caused their inability to care for you in the way expected of a partner or parent? Looking into root causes certainly has merit. It can aid with understanding, and perhaps compassion and, in the end, forgiveness for what happened.

For so long, we as targets have accepted responsibility for the abuse perpetrated against us. Figuring out the underlying issues can act as an eye-opener. It means gaining understanding that we are not responsible, and therefore cannot ever fix the abuse or the abuser.

Every person has negative character traits that they struggle with and should continue to improve. That’s part of being human. Toxic people will manipulate a victim of psychological abuse by repeatedly pointing out the flaws of the victim. Why? The toxic person tries to justify their abusive behavior by spotlighting the victim’s own mistakes. It’s a shift in blame tactic and will work unless the victim learns to not take on the intended false guilt.
Shannon Thomas

You Never Leave Just One Person

When a target of abuse decides to leave a toxic situation, they rarely have the option of leaving only the abuser. More often than not there are other family members, friends or good neighbors that are cut off with the same sweep. And if a survivor feels guilt towards the abuser when leaving, imagine how they feel about leaving others behind too. It can be overwhelming.

“When I initially cut contact with my family I felt very guilty about leaving my father behind. He is not well, and he was after all not the abuser in the family. I felt I was punishing him for my mothers behavior, and that was difficult to come to terms with” says G.

It is important to realize that many people have different roles in toxic situations. Even when they are victims themselves (as G’s father likely will have been) they contribute to the dynamic by enabling the abuse or even by contributing in more passive or self-protective ways. In many toxic families for example we see that there is one actively abusive parent, and one passively enabling parent. There are however many more situations where this dynamic can be found.

We Are Also a Player in the Story

It also helps to recognize that we are a player in this story. We too played a part. Only when we accept that, can we begin to heal any fleas and allergies we picked up along the way. That self-reflective part of our healing journey can be very difficult, because it means confronting our own less appealing traits. It can sometimes mean seeing ourselves not as just victims, but as contributing factors. We may at times have compromised our ethics in order to deflect abuse, or perhaps we did ‘take revenge’ by scratching our abuser’s favorite CD. We are only human beings, and we will have had our moments of ‘weakness’, and we were trying to survive in an extremely precarious situation.

We need to confront these learned behaviors, if we want to break the cycle. It may not be our fault that we developed these patterns, but they are our responsibility to change. When we do not confront our own behaviors, we may continue to attract toxic people into our lives.

Where Responsibility Ends and Forgiveness Begins

Not only does a survivor need to take responsibility for their own strengths, weaknesses, choices and healing, we also need to let the other players in our life story take responsibility for their own lives.

“What finally helped come to terms with the role my father played was to consider that he was an adult, he made choices and those choices have consequences. Even if he suffered under mother’s toxicity, he was the only person that could have left or changed the situation in the family. His inability to protect us then, has lead to me needing to protect myself now by denying him contact” explains G.

By starting to give others responsibility for their own life, you may also become increasingly able to give them the responsibility for dealing with their emotions, thoughts and opinions about what happens in their life. And as you give them that responsibility you start to understand that they are also responsible for the choices they made based on those experiences.

“My mother may have had a troubled upbringing, it was her choice to not confront and deal with that hurt. As much as it is my choice no longer to suffer for her trauma” — K.

It is too easy to get stuck in the Swamp, to become stuck in a place of blaming and complaining. By both accepting and assigning responsibility we can start mapping out our recovery.

We can in short take ownership of our own monkeys, and leave responsibility for the rest to their respective owners.

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The abuser makes the victim feel responsible for their well-being, and even have them take responsibility for the abuse itself.


  1. Profile photo of Monkey

    November 19, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    First off all: BEST TITLE EVER
    Second: BEST PHOTO EVER! 😉

    I think you are right in saying that we often take on a whole orphanage of monkeys, lions and performing bears. I quite happily care for my own, but am becoming more and more able not to take on too many… Too many monkeys make a mess!


    (wow that is a lot of monkeys!!)

  2. Profile photo of Nova

    November 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    Great article, thanks! Certainly hit home for me.


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