Family is supposed to be our safe haven. Sometimes, however, it’s the place where we find the deepest heartache.
Letting go of (or breaking up with) a toxic friend, boyfriend or girlfriend is one thing, and there’s plenty of advice out there for doing so, but what about letting go of a toxic family member?
Most of us are not in a position to just walk away, nor do we feel that we want to, or that it’s the right thing to do. So what do we do when a family member is literally spoiling our lives with their toxicity? How do we deal with our feelings of obligation, confusion, betrayal and heartache?
First and foremost, you must accept the fact that not everyone’s family is healthy or available for them to lean on, to call on, or to go home to. Not every family tie is built on the premise of mutual respect, love and support. Sometimes “family” simply means that you share a bloodline. That’s all. Some family members build us up and some break us down.
Second, you must understand that a toxic family member may be going through a difficult stage in their lives. They may be ill, chronically worried, or lacking what they need in terms of love and emotional support. Such people need to be listened to, supported, and cared for (although whatever the cause of their troubles, you may still need to protect yourself from their toxic behavior at times).
The key thing to keep in mind is that every case of dealing with a toxic family member is a little different, but in any and every case there are some universal principles we need to remember, for our own sake:
1. They may not be an inherently bad person, but they’re not the right person to be spending time with every day. – Not all toxic family relationships are agonizing and uncaring on purpose. Some of them involve people who care about you – people who have good intentions, but are toxic because their needs and way of existing in the world force you to compromise yourself and your happiness. And as hard as it is, we have to distance ourselves enough to give ourselves space to live. You simply can’t ruin yourself on a daily basis for the sake of someone else. You have to make your well-being a priority. Whether that means spending less time with someone, loving a family member from a distance, letting go entirely, or temporarily removing yourself from a situation that feels painful – you have every right to leave and create some healthy space for yourself.
2. Toxic people often hide cleverly behind passive aggression. – Passive aggressive behavior takes many forms but can generally be described as a non-verbal aggression that manifests in negative behavior. Instead of openly expressing how they feel, someone makes subtle, annoying gestures directed at you. Instead of saying what’s actually upsetting them, they find small and petty ways to take jabs at you until you pay attention and get upset. This is obviously a toxic relationship situation. It shows this person is set on not communicating openly and clearly with you. Keep in mind that most sane human beings will feel no reason to be passive-aggressive toward you if they feel safe expressing themselves. In other words, they won’t feel a need to hide behind passive aggression if they feel like they won’t be judged or criticized for what they are thinking. So make it clear to your family members that you accept them for who they are, and that they aren’t necessarily responsible or obligated to your ideas and opinions, but that you’d love to have their support. If they care about you, they will likely give it, or at least compromise in some way. And if they refuse to, and continue their passive aggression, you may have no choice but to create some of that space discussed in point #1.
3. They will try to bully you into submission if you let them. – We always hear about schoolyard bullies, but the biggest bullies are often toxic family members. And bullying is never OK. Period! There is no freedom on Earth that gives someone the right to assault who you are as a person. Sadly, some people just won’t be happy until they’ve pushed your ego to the ground and stomped on it. What you have to do is have the nerve to stand up for yourself. Don’t give them leeway. Nobody has the power to make you feel small unless you give them that power. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but just as much to stand up to your family and friends. Sometimes bullying comes from the most unlikely places. Be cognizant of how the people closest to you treat you, and look out for the subtle jabs they throw. When necessary, confront them – whatever it takes to give yourself the opportunity to grow into who you really are.