Growing up I lived with a toxic family member.
I know this family member loved me, but they did not have some necessary life skills.
There were times of fun and joy, but there were also times I don’t like to remember. I experienced frequent harsh criticisms, name-calling, rejection, and was held to unreasonable expectations.
Shame and guilt were the motivating forces for me to behave, even though I often could not predict what would set off this family member's temper. I endured explosive, sometimes violent, bursts of rage.
A significant amount of my childhood was confusing, sad, and frightening. It still affects me to this day. Unfortunately as a child, I did not know how inappropriate many of these actions were.
I also did not have the skills to deal with this unacceptable treatment. Now as an adult, the two of us have been able to somewhat repair our connection.
This did require time away from one another once I was able to move out. It also required that both of us implement changes in our own behavior.
We don’t always get along, and there are still hurtful remarks made sometimes, but I am now able to have a generally pleasant and mostly supportive relationship with this family member.
Your family is supposed to be an inherently safe and loving, but that's not always the case. Some family members are destructive, difficult, and controlling. It can be made especially difficult if the toxic family member is a parent.
In any close relationship with another person, you'll encounter some disagreements and challenges.
We all have family members we butt heads with over our taste in music, life choices, or politics. Typically we choose to put in the required effort to work through the problem or, depending on the issue, just smile politely and let it go.
A toxic relationship, however, is a relationship in which one person is emotionally and possibly physically damaging the other on a consistent basis.
Just because someone is a part of your family does not make this behavior acceptable.
Your top priority must be your own health and emotional well-being. If someone else is jeopardizing those, then you need to make changes to remedy the situation.
So how can you determine whether someone is toxic?
Here are some examples of things that toxic family members might do:
- Constantly make demeaning comments
- Be unsupportive of you if it doesn't benefit them
- Have an unpredictable and bad temper
- Take advantage of your time, skills, or money
- Emotionally manipulate you in order to control your behavior
- Refuse to take responsibly for their actions
- Make decisions for you
- Display a lack of empathy toward others
- Blame you and others for their own problems
- Use violence or aggression to get what they want
Clearly these behaviors create an unhealthy environment and can have many negative effects on your health and well-being. Some of these include:
- Fear while around that family member
- Shame or guilt
- Low self-esteem and confidence
- Difficulty getting emotionally close to others
- Inability to trust your own gut or intuition
- Withdrawal from others
- Aggression as a form of defense
- Difficulty sleeping
No one can control the behavior of anyone else. There is no way to make the other person change their actions.
If your relationship with a family member is toxic, the only thing you can control is your response. You must decide what to do in order to take care of yourself.
Here are 10 ways to cope with toxic family members:
1. Set Boundaries.
Determine what are acceptable and unacceptable ways for you to be treated.
Everyone is worthy of respectful treatment, yourself included. You deserve to be happy, healthy, loved, and safe.
Decide what your specific needs are and how others can or cannot treat you in order to meet those needs. You can then ensure that they will be met by implementing number two below.
2. Stand Up For Yourself.
When toxic family members cross the lines of the boundaries you set, you must stand up for yourself.
This can be scary and challenging, but it is important to be upfront and honest with them about your needs and expectations.
You can take charge of your life and the way you are treated by letting them know when they have done something unacceptable.
3. Stop Making Excuses.
Do not make excuses for someone else's unacceptable behavior.
While they may try to blame you or others, the truth is that they alone are responsible for their choices and resulting actions.
When you make excuses for someone's behavior, you are supporting it and allowing it to continue. If you have set reasonable expectations and been upfront with the family member, then it is their responsibly to act accordingly.
4. Experience Your Emotions.
Dealing with a toxic family member will bring on uncomfortable feelings and difficult emotions.
It is normal to feel anger, sadness, fear, confusion, and more. Instead of trying to push these emotions away, allow yourself the time and space to sit with them and experience them.
This way your body and mind can work through the feelings instead of having them build up inside. It can also prevent unhealthy coping mechanisms from forming.
5. Don't Take It Personally.
This can be difficult, but try not to take a toxic family member's words or actions personally. They clearly have their own wellness issues, and that is where this hurtful behavior is stemming from. It is a reflection on them, not on you. Believe in yourself and your worth regardless of any one else's opinions or comments.
6. Limit Time Spent Together.
When a toxic family member is making you feel bad about yourself, you need to limit the time spent with them. This may be more challenging if it is a parent or sibling whom you live with, but you can still choose to be in your own room, go out with friends, or take a walk outside when you need to get away. If you do not live with them, simply decrease the number of times you get together or the duration of your visits.
7. Seek Help.
Dealing with a toxic family member is mentally difficult and emotionally draining, so it will be important for you to have sufficient outside support.
Share your struggles with close, trusted friends or family. Read books about coping with toxic family members to hear other people's stories and gain further insights and strategies.
Perhaps you can find a support group; e.g., Al-Anon Family Groups support those who are affected by a family member's alcoholism.
You may want to seek out professional help from a therapist to work through the toxic relationship and its effects.
8. Practice Self-Care.
Practicing self-care is vital to mental health, and it becomes particularly important while going through an emotionally challenging situation.
Take time away from everything else to spend meditating, journaling, soaking in a hot bath, or whatever you enjoy most. It is helpful to implement daily affirmations.
Speak to yourself with encouragement and self-kindness. Focus on the positive by listing things you are thankful for each day.
Remember that your worth is not lessened just because someone else cannot see it.
9. Be Compassionate.
While challenging, it can be helpful to have compassion toward the toxic family member.
This does not mean you excuse their behavior though. It is simply a recognition that they are not an inherently bad person. Every human being is imperfect.
Their own difficult life circumstances or lack of skills have gotten them to this dark place. We all have our own pain that we are trying to deal with, and we all make mistakes sometimes. This is a part of our common humanity.
10. Cut Them Out.
If the above strategies have not helped to remedy the situation, you will have to decide whether or not you want this toxic family member in your life at all.
Ask yourself if you are getting more pain than joy out of the relationship. If the answer is yes, you may want to cut this person out of your life until they have shown the ability to consistently treat you with respect.
It could be for a couple of weeks or it may be much longer. If nothing changes, it could be permanent.
Relationships are built on respect, trust, and honesty. Everyone deserves these things. Just because a person is related to you, does not mean you owe them anything or that they can treat you however they like. This is especially true when the relationship comes at the expense of your own health and well-being.
Use the above strategies to build up your self-esteem and make the changes you need to ensure you can be happy and healthy. People can change which means that the two of you may be able to repair this relationship.
It will be hard and take a lot of time, but it can be done. However, notice that it is “the two of you.” Both parties must be willing to work together.
Unfortunately in some cases, it is best to let the relationship go. After you’ve put in as much effort as you can, you will have to decide what’s best for you and your well-being.
Grace Furman is a writer and blogger at Heartful Habits. Heartful Habits is a place of inspiration for what Grace calls living mindfully and heartfully. She loves learning and sharing about wellness tips, natural remedies, beauty DIYs, green cleaners, healthy recipes, social issues, and more. Grace will be regularly contributing to Live Bold and Bloom.