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:
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- 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.
- 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. (Read Emotional Blackmail.)
- 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.
- Pretending their toxic behavior is OK is NOT OK. – If you’re not careful, toxic family members can use their moody behavior to get preferential treatment, because… well… it just seems easier to quiet them down than to listen to their grouchy rhetoric. Don’t be fooled. Short-term ease equals long-term pain for you in a situation like this. Toxic people don’t change if they are being rewarded for not changing. Decide this minute not to be influenced by their behavior. Stop tiptoeing around them or making special pardons for their continued belligerence. Constant drama and negativity is never worth putting up with. If someone in your family over the age 21 can’t be a reasonable, reliable, respectful adult on a regular basis, it’s time to speak up and stand your ground.
- You do not have to neglect yourself just because they do. – Practice self-care every day. Seriously, if you’re forced to live or work with a toxic person, then make sure you get enough alone time to rest and recuperate. Having to play the role of a ‘focused, rational adult’ in the face of toxic moodiness can be exhausting, and if you’re not careful, the toxicity can infect you. Toxic family members can keep you up at night as you constantly question yourself: “Am I doing the right thing? Am I really so terrible that they despise me so much? I can’t BELIEVE she did that! I’m so hurt!!” Thoughts like these can keep you agonizing for weeks, months, or even years. Sometimes this is the goal of a toxic family member, to drive you mad and make you out to be the crazy one. Because oftentimes they have no idea why they feel the way they do, and they can’t see beyond their own emotional needs… hence their relentless toxic communication and actions. And since you can’t control what they do, it’s important to take care of yourself so you can remain centered, feeling healthy and ready to live positively in the face of negativity when you must – mindfulness, meditation, prayer and regular exercise work wonders!
- If their toxic behavior becomes physical, it’s a legal matter that must be addressed. – If you’ve survived the wrath of a physical abuser in your family, and you tried to reconcile things… If you forgave, and you struggled, and even if the expression of your grief had you succumb to outbursts of toxic anger… If you spent years hanging on to the notions of trust and faith, even after you knew in your heart that those beautiful intangibles, upon which love is built and sustained, would never be returned… And especially, if you stood up as the barrier between an abuser and someone else, and took the brunt of the abuse in their place… You are a HERO! But now it’s time to be the hero of your future. Enough is enough! If someone is physically abusive, they are breaking the law and they need to deal with the consequences of their actions.
- Although it’s hard, you can’t take their toxic behavior personally. – It’s them, not you. KNOW this. Toxic family members will likely try to imply that somehow you’ve done something wrong. And because the ‘feeling guilty’ button is quite large on many of us, even the implication that we might have done something wrong can hurt our confidence and unsettle our resolve. Don’t let this happen to you. Remember, there is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally. Most toxic people behave negatively not just to you, but to everyone they interact with. Even when the situation seems personal – even if you feel directly insulted – it usually has nothing to do with you. What they say and do, and the opinions they have, are based entirely on their own self-reflection. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Self-Love” and “Relationships” chapters of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
- Hating them for being toxic only brings more toxicity into your life. – As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” Regardless of how despicable a family member has acted, never let hate build in your heart. Fighting hatred with hatred only hurts you more. When you decide to hate someone you automatically begin digging two graves: one for your enemy and one for yourself. Hateful grudges are for those who insist that they are owed something. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is for those who are strong enough and smart enough to move on. After all, the best revenge is to be unlike the person who hurt you. The best revenge is living well, in a way that creates peace in your heart.
- People can change, and some toxic family relationships can be repaired in the long run. – When trust is broken, which happens in nearly every family relationship at some point, it’s essential to understand that it can be repaired, provided both people are willing to do the hard work of self-growth. In fact, it’s at this time, when it feels like the solid bedrock of your relationship has crumbled into dust, that you’re being given an opportunity to shed the patterns and dynamics with each other that haven’t been serving you. It’s painful work and a painful time, and the impulse will be walk away, especially if you believe that broken trust cannot be repaired. But if you understand that trust levels rise and fall over the course of a lifetime you’ll be more likely to find the strength to hang in, hang on, and grow together. But it does take two. You can’t do it alone. (Read Loving What Is.)
- Sadly, sometimes all you can do is let go for good. – All details aside, this is your life. You may not be able to control all the things toxic family members do to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them in the long run. You can decide not to let their actions and opinions continuously invade your heart and mind. And above all, you can decide whom to walk beside into tomorrow, and whom to leave behind today. In a perfect world we would always be able to fix our relationships with toxic family members, but as you know the world isn’t perfect. Put in the effort and do what you can to keep things intact, but don’t be afraid to let go and do what’s right for YOU when you must.