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Dealing with a toxic family member can be uniquely painful. We’re taught that family is a central part of our lives, so experiencing harm at the hands of family members can be devastating. We often look to our families for trust, safety, and guidance, so when they make us feel unsafe, it can be jarring. Toxic relationships can range from disagreements all the way to abuse. Dealing with a toxic person who is not a member of your family is hard enough, but what are you supposed to do when the toxic person in your life is a family member?
First of all, what is a toxic family member?
In this case, a “toxic” person is someone whose behavior causes negativity or distress in your life. Signs of a toxic person in your life include:
- You dread or fear being near them
- They frequently criticize you or judge you
- You leave interactions with them feeling angry or drained
- You feel ashamed about yourself and your actions when you’re with them
- They are physically, verbally, or emotionally abusive toward you
- You don’t feel like you can say “no” to them
- You feel like you’re constantly trying to rescue or help this person
- They rely on you to manage their feelings
- You feel on edge around them or like you’re walking on eggshells
- You feel like you’re being manipulated or controlled by them
- You feel overwhelmed by the drama in their life
- They will not accept responsibility for their actions
- You’re expected to meet unrealistic standards
In general, spending time with a toxic person will leave you feeling down. You might feel like you’re losing sense of your values or that you’re not able to be your true self around this person. If that’s the case you might be dealing with a toxic family member.
It’s important to note that using the term “toxic” can be harmful in itself.
It gives us the idea that people are just one thing, when in fact we are all capable of many different things. Someone can be toxic to you but not to others. There are just some people we don’t mesh well with, for any number of reasons from differences in values to personality. Of course, some people are so harmful that our only option is to cut them out of our lives, but in general, it can be helpful to remember that people contain multitudes. Someone can cause you harm but not be a “bad” person. The person’s behavior might be toxic, or your relationship itself might be toxic, but the person themselves isn’t toxic all the way through. This doesn’t mean that you can’t enforce your boundaries or require others to treat you with respect. It just means that people are complicated, and we all have good and bad qualities. We’re all doing our best. Approaching this situation with a little bit of understanding for everyone involved can make it easier.
If you’re dealing with a toxic family dynamic or toxic family member, here are some ways to deal:
Notice how you feel after interacting with them
The first step to dealing with a toxic family dynamic is to recognize it. It can be hard to realize that the dynamic in your family is harmful, especially if you’re still in the thick of this dynamic. Understanding the signs of toxic behavior and noticing how you feel after interacting with your family members can help you decide if your dynamic is toxic to you. After you spend time with your family, how do you feel? Do you feel safe and rejuvenated? Do you feel judged and ashamed?
Often toxic people feel draining because we don’t feel like we can have any boundaries with them. After you talk to them about how their behavior is affecting you, follow up with some boundaries so they know what is and isn’t okay. This person may resist your boundaries and even break them intentionally, so make sure you know up front how you will respond to that. Let them know the consequences of violating your boundaries at the get-go, so there are no surprises.
Remember that you can’t control others
The only thing you really have control over is how you react to situations. As much as you might want someone else to change, you don’t really have a say in whether they do or not. Some people may benefit from your help, but it’s not worth the energy to try to change someone who has no interest in changing. If your toxic family member is resistant to change and you’ve spoken to them about your boundaries before, don’t waste your time and energy trying to change them. It’s just going to leave you tired and frustrated.
The only feelings you’re responsible for are yours
Related to the last point, remember that you can’t control the feelings of others. You might feel hesitant to bring up your concerns with this family member because you don’t want to hurt their feelings or upset them. However, it’s not up to you to manage their feelings. The only feelings you’re responsible for managing are your own. Talking about this will probably hurt your family member’s feelings, but you can’t always prevent them from being hurt. That’s not your job.
Know that you deserve to be treated with respect
There’s this idea in some families that what the family says goes. While, of course, it’s important to treat others with respect, it’s also okay to demand that people treat you with respect as well. Some families find it disrespectful to disagree with the family leaders, or find it upsetting if a younger member of the family asks for the same respect that the older members automatically receive. However, as a person, you are entitled to be treated with respect, and you asking for that doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re allowed to question your family. You’re allowed to do things differently than they want you to. You’re allowed to be your own person.
Remind yourself that you have options
Just because you are related to someone doesn’t mean that they can treat you however they want. If you’ve brought your concerns to this person before and nothing has changed, it might be time to go low or no contact with them. Low contact means that you speak minimally, and have many boundaries in place to protect yourself, like what you will and won’t discuss. No contact means that you don’t interact with them at all. Often this is a last resort as it is immensely painful to end a relationship with a family member emotionally and socially. Folks who have never had to deal with a toxic family relationship may not understand that cutting yourself off from this person was your only option. Know that whatever choice you make, it’s your business and not anyone else’s.
Dealing with a toxic family member or toxic family dynamic is really hard, and you don’t have to deal with it alone. Distancing yourself from your family and setting boundaries can bring up feelings of grief, which our grief therapists are experts in. Grief Recovery counseling practice in Houston can help support you as you navigate this dynamic, whatever feelings come up.