When You’re Disowned by Family: Healing and Moving On

Published June 5, 2020
Lonely young man sitting on bed, holding family photo

When you are disowned by your family, you may experience an intense flood of thoughts and feelings. As you begin to process what has happened, it's important to take care of yourself and learn how to cope in healthy ways.

What to Do When Your Family Disowns You

Being disowned, or estranged, by your family means that a set of individuals or one individual in your family system has decided to cut ties with you. This is true even if you've already legally moved out of the family home and are living independently. Keep in mind that family estrangement can come from those who are biologically related to you, are family by means of adoption, or who you consider to be family based on your experiences with them. This disownment may feel as if it has come out of nowhere, may be confusing, and may cause intense waves of painful emotions to emerge.

Expect Intense Emotional Responses

After experiencing this cut off, you may feel overwhelmed with a flood of emotions. You may also feel numb and in denial. Each person will experience this differently and will process this painful situation in their own way and at their own time. Common emotions associated with estrangement include:

  • Disenfranchised grief, which is grief that is not acknowledged, socially supported, or accepted
  • Sadness, feelings of loss, and anger
  • Confusion and frustration
  • Loneliness, helplessness, and depression
  • Disbelief and numbness
Woman looking out of window into her reflection

If at any point you are having thoughts of harming yourself or others, reach out for professional help right away. You can contact a crisis line, the police for a wellness check, and a hospital to do a voluntary hold until you are feeling better. After seeking immediate assistance, it's important to find consistent support to help you process what you are going through. Remember, this is a complex, painful, and confusing situation and it's completely acceptable and normal to need a bit of support to navigate this moment in your life. Seeking appropriate care is brave and reinforces the notion that you deserve to feel better and have access to healthy coping skills.

Understand the Complexity of the Situation

Everyone experiences their own reality. This reality is heavily influenced by each person's individual and unique unconscious and conscious memories. These memories shape how people view, interpret, remember, and process information and interactions. This means that how your family interprets the situation may be grossly different from how you see the events that led to the cut off. Also, you may not even know what triggered them to cut ties with you. These different interpretations and triggers coupled with everyone's unique experience can lead to a lot of confusion on your end. Know that you don't have to have all the answers in order to heal and fully process the situation.

Expect Processing to Come in Waves

Even if it's been years, you may still experience emotions that may be as strong as they were when you initially experienced the cut off. Being disowned by your family can carry a lot of weight that may touch on themes such as safety, love, and trust. If you were disowned by your parent(s), it is quite common, even as an adult, to feel abandoned, unlovable, and unworthy of healthy relationships. This may be a conscious or unconscious current that influences your choices and relational behaviors. If you were cut off by your child, you may experience waves of grief without feeling like you can seek closure, because the end isn't necessarily final. Because of this lack of finality, processing often comes in waves as triggers make their way in and out of your life.

Prepare for Triggers

Holidays, birthdays, inside jokes, favorite restaurants, and family events that you aren't invited to can feel incredibly painful and reignite intense emotions. Keeping note of what triggers you and preparing yourself emotionally for an upcoming trigger can make a huge difference in your ability to preemptively take care of yourself. While self-care looks different for everyone, taking note of your triggers and what tends to help you process in especially challenging moments can be a helpful tool and a solid start to better understanding your thought process.

How to Deal With Being Disowned by Your Family

While understanding estrangement is the first step in healing, there are concrete ways you can support yourself as you move through this painful process. Know that this complex experience takes time to unpack and fully understand, so be patient with yourself and try out several healthy coping techniques until you find a combination that works best for you.

Seek Out a Therapist

Because being disowned is such a complex issue, it can be really helpful to have a professional therapist guide you in how to better process this experience. Therapists who specialize in this particular situation aim to provide unbiased support, psycho-education regarding estrangement, and helpful coping tools for you to implement.

Find a Support Group

No one will be able to fully understand exactly what you went through, but those in a support group who have experienced similar circumstances may have a unique perspective that your friends and family members may not. Support groups are typically led by professional counselors or therapists who create a safe environment and gently guide the conversation so those in the group can better connect and provide support to one another.

Woman sharing while sitting with mental health instructor in group meeting

Journal About Your Experience

While journaling may be the last thing you feel like doing, writing your thoughts and emotions down may help some individuals release some of what they're feeling. Writing may also help you organize your thoughts, better understand your triggers, and connect with yourself. Some journal prompts you can try include:

  • What is my understanding of the cut off?
  • What emotions am I feeling right now? What triggered these emotions?
  • In terms of being cut off, I'm most worried about...
  • Am I considering trying to reconcile in the near future? Why or why not?
  • What am I going to do today to take care of myself?
  • How do I best process my thoughts and emotions? (alone, with others, internally, externally, through activities, etc.)
Woman sitting at the window writing into diary

Be Patient With Your Process

Continue to remind yourself, maybe even create a mantra, that you are doing your best and for the time being you are focused on processing what you are going through. Confronting the pain that you feel can seem intimidating, pointless, and scary. Directly dealing with what you are thinking and feeling, instead of numbing your process, can help you heal in a healthy way. Avoiding difficult feelings may lead to emotional outbursts, increased emotional intensity, irritability with others, and heightened levels of stress. Keep in mind that there is a huge difference between actively avoiding your emotional process versus processing in your own time. Examples of mantras you may want to implement include:

  • Even though this is painful, my goal is to take care of myself.
  • I'm prioritizing my healing.
  • I want to better understand what happened and I am actively seeking healthy ways to take care of myself.

Surround Yourself With Supportive People

Some individuals may feel intense feelings of loneliness after being cut off by their family. It is very important to continue to surround yourself with people who support you and are there for you during this time. If you don't know what to do when you have no friends or you feel like you don't have trustworthy people in your life, seek out a support group or online group of others who have gone through something similar. It is very important that you have others in your life who can witness and validate your emotional process.

Best friends lying on bed at home

Why Do People Break Contact With Their Family?

People break contact with their family for a variety of reasons. Some may include:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Physical and emotional abuse
  • Feelings of betrayal
  • A painful shared experience that being around the family member re-triggers
  • Mental health disorders that lead to relational strain and volatility
  • Personal choices that your family disagrees with such as religion, non-religion, career
  • Intimate relationship(s) that your family disagrees with

Should You Try to Reconcile?

You may experience moments where you long to reconcile with those who have estranged you. This may or may not be something you have control over. Know that even if you decide you want to reconnect, there's a chance that your family will not. If you do go this route, be sure to think about how you'll feel afterwards if they still don't want to reconcile. Preparing yourself for the worst-case scenario, whatever that may look like for you, is always something you should consider before you enter into a potentially volatile situation. You may also consider if reconciling is the healthiest option for you right now. Be sure to give yourself time to think through the situation and process your feelings with a trusted individual before attempting to reconnect.

Understanding Estrangement

Estrangement can be an incredibly painful and confusing experience that may feel like there's no end or closure in sight. Prioritizing your self-care and seeking out appropriate support can help you process your thoughts and feelings in healthy ways.

When You’re Disowned by Family: Healing and Moving On