How does one deal with a toxic family? Sharon Martin, LCSW, brings us to the table
Is there a pit in your stomach when you think about spending time with your family? Has family drama ruined every holiday you can remember? Have you repeatedly tried to cut ties with your family only to be drawn back into the chaos?
When it comes to families, my personal definition of toxic is dysfunctional family on steroids. It means you’ve tried to be an agent for change, you’ve set boundaries, you’ve compromised, and still nothing gets better. You are always wrong, hurt or made to feel worthless. Toxic people are invested in keeping things the same in maintaining the status quo in secrets, lies, and blaming.
Hallmarks of a toxic family are:
– You dread seeing or talking to them
– They’re emotionally or physically abusive
– They violate your boundaries
– They lie, blame, manipulate, and try to control you
– They criticize your choices
– They’re disrespectful
– They use passive-aggressive behavior such as the silent treatment or “forgetting” things
– They’re low in empathy and high in narcissism
– There’s often untreated addiction or mental illness
– They’re secretive and good at “keeping up appearances”
– You feel worse after seeing or talking to them
– They can’t tolerate you having a different opinion or disagreeing
Toxic families have an uncanny ability to draw you back into their dysfunction. It’s like being caught in a spider web. The other thing that’s been striking in my work with toxic families is their skills in deception. They often have neighbors and friends convinced they are a well-functioning family (and you’re the crazy one for thinking otherwise). This just adds to your isolation and makes you question if it’s really as bad as you think.
“John” was in his early 30’s when he came to see me about his toxic father and step-mother. His father had physically abused John, his two brothers, and step-mother throughout his childhood. When he wasn’t in a drunken rage, his father belittled John’s athletic abilities, spending habits, choice of girlfriend. John’s older brother took off at 16 and got hooked on heroin. His step-mother and younger brother always defended his dad. They told John he was over-reacting and dad had his best interests at heart. But despite being constantly called “a worthless piece of shit,” John got himself into college and moved across the country to get away from his toxic family.
Avoidance was John’s primary coping skill.
Now John’s brother was now getting married on New Year’s Eve and he’d asked John to come celebrate Christmas and his marriage with the family.
John told me, “Honestly I’d rather stick needles in my eye than see my Dad and Carol. But I feel like I owe it to my brother.”
Here’s what I told John about dealing with toxic family:
You have choices. There isn’t one right approach that works for everyone. It helps to remember that you can choose what is best for yourself. You don’t have to play the part of the victim or martyr.
Stop trying to please everyone. There is no way to please a toxic family. They will criticize and undermine whatever you do. So, you’re better off choosing yourself because at the end of the day you’re the only one who’s got your well-being in mind.
Decide what you’re willing to tolerate and don’t compromise. In other words, set clear boundaries. Don’t keep accepting less and less. Write down what you’re willing to live with, stick it in your wallet and refer to it often.
Stop trying to change your toxic family
Acceptance is the path to emotional freedom.
Take care of yourself. The best way to manage stress is to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Get support. Seek out caring friends or others who have first-hand experience with toxic families. Keeping negative feelings bottled up and keeping family secrets is a burden that will negatively impact your health whether by insomnia, headaches, or depression.
Numbing and efforts to feel in control of an out of control situation through alcohol, drugs, binging, restrictive eating, over spending, or self-harm don’t actually make things better.
Trust yourself. This is another tough one because a toxic family erodes trust in both self and others. Focus on how far you’ve come, what you’ve learned, and your ability to continue to grow and learn.
John decided not to go home for the holidays and his brother’s wedding. After a lot of soul searching, that was the right decision for him. He did get a bunch of nasty texts and voicemails from his father, which he stopped responding to because it only fueled the fire. He initially felt guilty and selfish about attending to his own needs. It helped to reflect on past holidays and be realistic. He recognized that the emotional cost of visiting would be huge and he’d probably deal with the emotional damage of being around his dad and stepmom for weeks or months after the visit. As a compromise, John arranged to meet up with his brother and his new wife in March to visit and celebrate their marriage. There is no perfect holiday when you have a toxic family, but it is possible to do what’s right for you and to feel good about that.
Names and details were changed to protect privacy.
Photo: Ariel H./Flickr