This is an important post. The most important post that I’ve written here on the blog. It’s also a labyrinth of a situation to be in. I really don’t know if I can do this post justice, because there is nothing simple about knowing how to deal with toxic family members.
Here is what we all know:
- Toxic co-workers are difficult and can be detrimental.
- Toxic romances are difficult and can be detrimental.
- Toxic friendships are difficult and can be detrimental.
So, we know the same will apply to toxic family members. However, it is an especially insidious connection to have, as our family is meant to be the safe haven that we fall back on in life.
We can choose our friends, but our family is a choiceless deal.
For better or worse, these are your relatives. Love them, hate them, or loathe them.
- It is where we first learn about love, boundaries, and how to connect with others.
- It is where we learn patterns – healthy or otherwise.
- It is where we learn the value of loyalty, being loved, being cared for, and valued.
Sadly, these qualities are sometimes learned through growing up and being denied them.
This is a naked fact. Not a pleasant one, but a fact nonetheless.
Toxicity in relationships. There are four ways it presents itself:
- Physical abuse
- Mental abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
First, know that if you are in a situation where you are dealing with toxic family members (or anyone else for that matter)…
When a family member is toxic, remember that you do not deserve to be treated badly or abused. We are meant to flourish, be happy, feel loved, and cared for. To be safe. If you are dealing with a toxic family member who shows no respect for your feelings or boundaries, as crushing as it can be, it doesn’t have to be your forever. Staying away from toxic family can be defined in many ways.
We start life belonging to a special group, taking these people for granted in some ways, as the ones who will always be there for us. We call them our family. The ones with whom we share special traditions, things we do on birthdays, at Christmas or holidays, ways that are passed down through generations.
We share recipes, physical traits, heirlooms, and secrets. Sometimes, we also share toxic traits with toxic parents; behaviors that serve no one but exist anyway.
This is where the labyrinth becomes twisted.
We cannot give out free passes to family though just because they are family. If you are dealing with a destructive relative, it is no more acceptable than it would be in any other individual.
Excuses – not reasons.
There are people who damage others and refuse to own their behavior in any way. They are full of excuses, or others provide excuses for them. Well-being isn’t of importance here. And we feel guilty.
As a child, there is little to nothing we can do about a parent who is addicted to alcohol, drugs, in and out of relationships, violent, verbally abusive, sexually inappropriate, or narcissistic. That is the travesty. We must live with it. This becomes daily life, our reality, the way we grow up. What is even harder, is almost always, the toxic family member doesn’t care about the negative impact they have on others. On us. On our growth and development.
Sadly, often other family members who are aware of the toxicity are either powerless to change it or too afraid to make any attempt to intervene. In a way, this is one of the hardest things to swallow about a toxic family member: sometimes others that we trust and depend on, enable and endorse their sickness by covering it up or excusing it.
People may turn a blind eye towards the toxic person’s conduct. Especially when we try and bring it to light:
“Oh, he didn’t mean it.”
“I didn’t see him hit you…”
“She only swore at you because she was drunk. She wasn’t herself.”
“You are being too sensitive.”
“Don’t upset anyone. Just say nothing.”
“Let sleeping dogs lie.”
“You must have done something to make her angry or else she wouldn’t have reacted that way.”
These transactions are toxic too, as they do not allow anything to be dealt with. Everything gets swept under the proverbial carpet.
We also learn to behave in a certain way related to the toxicity we are dealing with. We might feel we have no voice. We may often feel we are walking on eggshells. We might feel anxiety, fear, and anger or a mix of these. We might find ourselves developing co-dependent behaviors. We might have distorted ideas about disagreements, conflict, and how to share our feelings. What we grow up with may not match what we see in the outside world.
Some of the underlying messages we receive when dealing with toxic family members are:
We are not good enough.
We are not important.
We are not a priority.
We have no right to complain.
We are a nuisance.
We are nothing to be proud of.
We are the problem.
We are not lovable.
We are not worthy.
We are losers.
Our feelings don’t matter.
Our wants and needs are not important and therefore, overlooked.
Our opinions mean nothing.
Our ideas are stupid and meaningless.
Our safety isn’t important.
Our mental well-being isn’t important.
Our happiness isn’t important.
What are some examples of toxic family member dynamics?
This list is not exhaustive. It is merely a guide.
Some examples include:
- Alcohol abuse (and this can be evident without someone being an alcoholic).
- Using drugs.
- Other addictions such as gambling, sex, medication, work, and spending.
- Violence – through anger or after drinking or using drugs or any combination of these.
- Relying on crime to bring in an income.
- Personality disorders.
- Learned behaviors passed down from other generations.
Toxic people change the dynamic of a family because they create dysfunctional patterns of relating to others which in turn, puts an unstable slant on how life works. Negative circumstances continue to breed more dysfunction, which has a flow-on effect towards other family members. Anger is a problem. Things are said and done that should never have been said or done. Emotionally destructive behaviors run rampant. There is often a refusal to consider the needs of others and a feeling of safety is eroded.
Much of the problem is because the focus isn’t on taking care of the family, but accommodating the dysfunctional behavior and the person responsible for it.
What happens to us if we are dealing with a toxic family member and what does it look like?
The biggest thing that happens: our boundaries shift. We shift them so we can deal with the circumstances. We normalize abusive treatment, so it seems easier to tolerate. It becomes our reality. We learn to navigate it.
What kind of behaviors do toxic family members exhibit?
- Control. expecting us to make decisions they approve of and belittling us if we don’t. May use sarcasm, “jokes,” and putdowns to undermine us further.
- Micromanaging everything in our lives. This is control when it is “completely out of control”.
- Threats. Telling us things will be taken away or refused unless we do things a certain way. Their way. Our views and feelings are not taken into account, only theirs.
- Constant criticism. About our life, views, opinions, religious beliefs, dress code, friends, career choices, sexuality.
- Gaslighting. Turning things they have said around, to make us feel like we are the problem and we have misunderstood/ confused things: denying what they said and making us feel like we are going insane
- Blaming. It is always us. We are the reason something isn’t good; we are the problem and we are causing the toxic family member to feel bad.
- Dismissing our feelings. We are not given a voice, a choice or a second thought. We are not valued
- Neglect. Not taking care of a minor if unwell; not providing proper food and emotional support. Not taking any interest in us, refusal to support us and help us when in need.
- Emotional abuse. Silent treatments, laughing/making fun of an individual, verbal abuse, and mind games.
- Lies. Told to cover up things said and done, or to manipulate.
How do I talk about this?
Something to consider…
Sometimes toxic family members are not aware that how they behave is hurtful and damaging. And there are those members who do know but go ahead and do it anyway.
If you think a toxic family member is not aware of the damage they are doing, you have an opportunity to confront them and discuss their behavior and the negative impact it is having.
If they genuinely are unaware of the negativity they are creating, and they care, it is possible that through honest discussion some change is likely. Perhaps this is the start of a new way of relating to each other. Sometimes taking a time out may give everyone the space they need to reassess and try again.
You are allowed to feel happy, wanted, loved, and appreciated. Confronting someone you love but find toxic can be powerful. You need to decide what outcome you want and contact the toxic party, letting them know the rules you need respected if they are to interact with you.
For example, if alcohol is a problem, you will only visit or see them if there is no drinking. If the problem is they don’t like your partner and become sarcastic and difficult when around them, ruining everything for everyone – explain that you won’t accept this, and if it begins, you will both be leaving.
These kinds of rules aren’t manipulative. They are setting a clear boundary that defines how you wish to be treated. Everything will go ahead as planned unless things get abusive. That is healthy.
Make sure you enforce your rules. Stand by them. If you don’t value them, a toxic family member certainly won’t.
Create change by being the change.
How to deal with toxic family members: Is it ever ok to walk away and cut them off?
I cannot answer this for everyone. Sometimes it really is the only option. But making the choice to cut someone off for good… this is not the answer for some. If you are alone and subjected to abuse in private that is hidden from others, then you owe it to yourself to get out.
Anything that is hidden from others but happening to you in private is a reason to leave and find your own safe space. Never accept being someone’s emotional punching bag… or physical one. Sometimes leaving gives you the space to relate to someone in a new, safer and more self-empowered way.
A child cannot make this choice, but as adults, we can. We can choose. Moving out of home, moving away. Placing your own stamp of independence on your life. Learning to be self-sufficient is a challenging but rewarding adventure when you have escaped the clutches of a toxic family who want to control and define you.
The dynamics of toxic families can be such a hidden undercurrent. Some families appear highly functional… respected career paths, intelligent people and a nice family home, comfortable with financial wealth.
However, what goes on behind closed doors in that same home with those same “functional people’ might actually be a destructive cocktail of physical and mental abuse, verbal torment and mind games. And yet, everyone gets up the next day to go out into the world and act normally.
Dealing with toxic family members is hard. And it is often a dirty secret we want to hide. So, how else can you deal with them?
It all comes down again to…
You might not be able to stop them.
But you don’t have to be them.
How to deal with toxic family members?
- If you feel abused and unloved and uncared for, but are trying to put up with it because it comes from a family member… protect yourself.
- Keep your distance as much as you can. Watch for trigger situations and avoid them, do not engage if you can avoid it.
Also, know this: You are not there to fix them.
- You do not have to assist and help them through every crisis and drama that they are involved with. Sometimes, the transaction gets worse before it gets better, so be clear about your boundaries and enforce them.
- Expect them to not like your boundaries. Do not buy into emotional and manipulative arguments about your requests, just stand by them.
- If you cannot get support from other family members who are also aware of the situation – do your best to love yourself.
Self-care is your first priority.
- Talk to someone who you trust and can confide in. Get some help from a professional or seek legal advice if you have real concerns about your safety or mental wellbeing.
- Don’t keep everything under wraps. There is a saying “we are only as sick as our secrets”. Think about that. What are you hiding? And why? It is probably tied to guilt and shame regarding your family circumstances. If you know you need help, then get it. Love yourself enough to do this. Remember: self-care is your priority when you are in a toxic situation.
We have all heard about blood being “thicker than water” but with a toxic family member, no strong and wholesome bond is created. The bond does not exist in a healthy, sustainable way.
Key message: This is what relationships are really about… the bond between people.
You owe yourself the highest duty of care when toxic family members are unable to treat you with decency, love and respect. You owe it to yourself to stay emotionally unentwined so you can stay emotionally healthy. To identify those toxic family patterns and behaviors. To recognize the destructive outcomes of these behaviors and to not accept them.
I will say it again: Remember, relationships are all about the bond. Stay healthy, keep your boundaries strong, and walk away from toxic people and situations that mirror any destruction you grew up with.
If it is still happening with toxic family members, you need to protect yourself from further damage by distancing yourself. Do not give countless chances to abusive people. If they are family, that does complicate it incredibly, but abuse is abuse. We can learn all kinds of unhealthy behaviors when living with toxicity. We shift our boundaries and accept, excuse and condone unhealthy patterns and sometimes even begin to act the same way.
By staying healthy you give yourself the opportunity to create bonds with other healthy people. This is where you will find the love and peace you are looking for. Sometimes the tribe we connect with are not the same people we grew up with. Sometimes the love and kindness we receive aren’t from the ones we share blood ties with. Grieve it, but don’t let it hold you frozen in time.
Time is the one thing we cannot ever get back. It is gone, spent, wasted. The past doesn’t have to define your future. Do not waste your time watering rocks (I have said this before) and don’t waste your time hoping someone might morph into the person you desperately wish they were.
There are varying degrees of toxicity in relationships but dealing with people who are toxic is draining. Nothing is simple. Everything seems to be a drama; the goalposts keep being shifted and you can end up being hurt and feeling very low about yourself. Over time, you may also be filled with unresolved anger.
Trust these feelings because they come from your gut. Know that these feelings are telling you to find a way to stay safe and feel valued. No matter how hard it is, sometimes we must accept that the people who should mean the most to us, are sometimes the ones who do the least for us.
Accept that you cannot change them, it is not your responsibility to fix them and there is probably nothing you have done to contribute to their behavior.
If you are really struggling with breaking free from the family dynamic you are used to, write down the behaviors you would like to see in others. Write down the things you want to hear, do and feel with others. This is where you want to put your focus.
Breaking the chain
I believe that even in a negative situation, there is usually something good to find. My story is one where it took me years to find myself, but it was a goal I never gave up on.
I clung to that goal and it gave me fuel to keep going during the times I was falling down and getting back up. I had my core values and I wanted to live my life by those. It was worth fighting for. Here is something beautiful to think about if you are dealing with toxic family members….
Be the person they cannot be. Stand up and lead the way to a better way of doing things. A better way of life. A life where love and trust exist. A new way of thinking.
We are all scarred in some way. We all have a past. Many of us have endured unimaginable hurts, damage, and pain. These scars are reminders that you fought, that you survived and you made a choice about the way you wanted to live your life.
We are not the sum total of the people who have hurt or damaged us. We are people who have lived with things we do not like or want and have moved on and are wanting to thrive. To live. Not to exist in another person’s toxic world of pain and shame. To ensure that we will not replicate that same world of toxicity.
Break the chain!
There is a massive difference between tolerating familial toxicity and feeling powerless to change it – as opposed to defining our boundaries about what we will and won’t accept. Stand by your boundaries.
And something else to remember…
Even if someone else cannot respect those boundaries – as long as YOU do, you can move forward.
In the darkest places, the smallest slither of light can shine the brightest.
- Do not let destructive people define you.
- See your own worth when others cannot.
- Treat yourself with self-love and decide on the person you want to be. Work towards that.
- Set yourself goals that mean something to you and stay focused on them.
- Stop wanting people who cannot love, accept, and support you to fill your bucket with happiness and make you feel good.
- Fill your own bucket – and protect your happiness. You deserve it.
- Discover in this huge world what makes you feel good. Focus on that.
- Do things that you love, go to places that you feel good in, choose people who are like-minded and care about you.
- Spend time with people who are enjoyable to be around. Don’t tolerate uncomfortable situations where your boundaries are being trampled on.
And never give someone else the power to continually and deliberately treat you badly – even if it is a family member.
But what if you are feeling truly alone and have no one? What if you cannot continue the relationship with a toxic family member because it is too painful?
If you have lived with a very toxic familial relationship and you feel emotional turmoil from it and are unable to continue this damaging connection, know this:
Although we all want to be loved and accepted, sometimes we don’t get these things from the people we should. You are still lovable, and you will still find acceptance in this world. Remember that adversity teaches us we can survive hardships we never thought we could. And from this, you learn the boundary of all boundaries:
You can live without the approval of others.
The hard part is, we often desperately want the approval of others when we are going through these hard times. Hardship builds a strong person. You learn very quickly that your priorities matter, especially if they are at the expense of someone else’s damaging behavior. You connect with yourself in a way many people never learn to do.
There is always something great to be born out of pain. Some of the most beautiful souls out there have learned to take care of themselves because they had to. You may not realize it but you have identified with your worthiness despite it not being recognized or respected by others.
We develop the incredible quality of resiliency when faced with criticism and unloving treatment off others. Resiliency is the bomb because it teaches you to bounce back. You don’t absorb others’ negativity. It is like a weatherproof coating. You begin to see and understand that what happens around you and to you, does not define your worth. It doesn’t need to define what your future is either.
When you do not need acceptance or validation from others – you learn who you are. You create a rock for a foundation, not a raft that floats along with the ever-changing direction of the tide – or in this case, other people’s agendas or toxic behavior.
You are never alone. You always have yourself.
And when you truly value yourself, you will know just how powerful this place is.
My final word is this: When you see unhealthy and hurtful patterns in your family, you have the power to make a choice that they will end with you.
Know you can be a different person and attract different people. Know that you are not the same. Break the chain. Be that tiny slither of light…and let others be responsible for carrying their own darkness.
This post was written by Natasha Adamo team member, Lorelle.
Lorelle, this was one of the most powerful, vulnerable, and healing posts that I have ever read. It hit so painfully home that all I can say right now is “thank you.” Thank you for refusing to be a victim and for becoming a survivor. Thank you for surviving your past, your pain, and the shame that was never yours to carry. Thank you for surviving so that we could all *be* your family and feel less alone in our own. Thank you for this beautiful post. Lorelle will be answering your comments and questions below!
+ If you need further and more personalized help with toxic relationships, please look into working with Natasha here.