How to deal with Toxic Family Members

Even if toxic people came with a warning tattooed on their skin, they might still be difficult to avoid. We can always decide who we allow close to us but it’s not always that easy to cut out the toxics from other parts of our lives. We’re going to cross paths with those we would rather cross out in some way or another.

Dealing with a toxic family member is never a walk in the park, but dealing with a toxic family member 24/7 will inevitably eat away at your energy and self-esteem. While you can easily cut ties with a toxic friend at any time, a unique family situation may not provide you with many opportunities to physically distance yourself.

Co-existing with toxic family members means going around them to set your own rules, then accepting that you don’t need them to respect those rules to claim your power. Here are some powerful, practical ways to do that:

Decide what you want.

Identifying what you want from the relationship can help you develop a clearer idea of the boundaries you want to set.

Having limits around interaction can empower you and help you feel better about the contact you choose to maintain. But once you set those limits for yourself, try not to cross them. Wavering can put you back into a difficult or unhealthy situation.

Set clear boundaries.

People will often treat you the way you allow them to treat you. Toxic family members will often become accustomed to treating you in a certain kind of way. Until you set boundaries, it may not change. (And even then, there may be resistance because change is hard.)

Standing firm on those boundaries says that you will not tolerate not being respected, valued, and treated with the dignity you deserve. Remember, setting boundaries is pointless without the threat of consequences. If you draw a clear line with a family member, be sure to enforce this line and remind your family member of their promise if they attempt to cross it.

Practice detachment.

When you do spend time with family members, don’t let them pull you into the family issues you’d prefer to keep separate. You don’t have to get involved in anything you’d rather avoid. The key is learning how to end interactions with toxic family members when you begin to feel your emotions triggered and when to avoid interactions altogether.

Detachment can involve:

  • not participating in messy situations
  • avoiding topics that bring up strong emotions
  • keeping conversation light and casual
  • ending the conversation or leaving if necessary

Be prepared.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking this person has changed. Whenever you’re about to have an interaction with this family member, remind yourself how the person is.

After going days, weeks or even years without speaking to your toxic family member, it can be easy to forget his or her true colors. Be prepared for how this person is going to act, so you can react appropriately, without being too surprised.

Keep communication to a minimum.

There is no use spending time around a family member who continually drags you down. Limit your time spent with them.

If you’re going to cross paths over a holiday, don’t spend the entire holiday with this person: Split your time with other family members. If you worry about seeing this person while you’re visiting another family member on a random occasion, perhaps try meeting somewhere else.

When toxic family members sense we’ve pulled away or are pulling back, they escalate their manipulations because they do not respect any of our needs for space. They do not want us having the space or time to think rationally about our relationship with them because once we do, they get exposed and lose.

You don’t have to help them through every crisis.

The reason that toxic people are often in crisis is because they are masterful at creating them. It’s what they do – draw breath and create drama. You’ll be called on at any sign of a crisis for sympathy, attention and support, but you don’t have to run to their side.

Teach them that you won’t be a part of the pity party by being unemotional, inattentive, and indifferent to the crisis. Don’t ask questions and don’t offer help. It might feel bad because it’s not your normal way, but remember that you’re not dealing with a normal person.

Don’t try to change anyone.

When dealing with toxic family members, it’s not uncommon to hold out hope that they’ll change. You might fantasize about the day they finally realize how they’ve hurt you and get to work on changing their behavior.

Sure, people can and do change, but it’s beyond your control. Beyond telling them how you feel and asking them to consider your perspective, there’s not much you can do. The only person you can change is you. This might involve addressing negative feelings they cause, practicing self-compassion, or learning how to say no.

You don’t need to explain.

‘No’ is a complete sentence and one of the most powerful words in any language. You don’t need to explain, justify or make excuses. ‘No’ is the guardian at your front gate that makes sure the contamination from toxic people doesn’t get through to you.

Empower yourself enough to say No and stand up for yourself.

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