The holidays are here and for many of us, that means dreading time with family members who drain us. I’m not talking about your racist aunt from the south who you only see at Christmas, I’m talking about your toxic family members. The manipulative members of your family whose presence makes you feel physically ill.
I have a toxic family member, and when I realized that was what was going on, I turned to my BFF Google for support and found out that I am not alone. “There are dozens of us. DOZENS!” – Tobias Fünke, Arrested Development.
The worst part of having a toxic family member is that most people don’t understand. I’ve told friends about my experiences and they have literally called me a liar. People are shocked by the stories I tell, and I used to be shocked they didn’t have similar experiences! Turns out, most families are loving and supportive. If yours isn’t, you may have a toxic family (member).
SEVEN SIGNS YOU HAVE A TOXIC FAMILY MEMBER
1. If their behavior is so appalling it makes you angry, you may have a toxic family member.
This doesn’t necessarily need to be behavior directed at you. If your family member finds out you received a cash gift, then asks you to pay for dinner, and runs up a rather large bar bill thereby spending your entire cash gift, that’s not normal. If, while at the dinner you’re paying for, your family member is so rude to the staff that you have to tip over 30% as a way of apologizing on their behalf, that’s not normal.
2. If they bully you like Biff Tannen from Back to the Future, you may have a toxic family member.
The first time you saw Back to the Future, I bet you immediately identified Biff Tannen as a bully. The character rallies his friends to intimidate others. Biff is the worst! As an adult with a toxic family member, you’re probably noticing some parallels. Does your family gossip about you? Are they trying to get people to “take sides” on issues you didn’t even know existed? Being left defenseless against gossip is a form of emotional bullying and it’s not OK.
3. If they make you feel less than, you may have a toxic family member.
Does your family member tear you down both in public and private? The thing with this type of critical behavior is that it’s very much a negative projection. Projection is when you feel/think/see something within yourself and instead of acknowledging it like a healthy person, you project it onto others. Basically, it’s shifting the blame to someone else. “I am not dramatic, she is!” kind of stuff. It’s not OK. You are not less than.
4. If you’re a grown adult and you’re still scared of this person, you may have a toxic family member.
To people without toxic family members, this seems absurd, I know! But if you’re one of us who gets that sinking feeling in your gut when this family member’s number shows up on your phone, it’s all too real. Are you frightened of what will happen if you ignore the call? Are you afraid to displease this person because of how they’ll react? That’s not normal. You guys, I have friends who get EXCITED when their family members call. That’s an actual thing.
5. If they distort the truth, memories or experiences, you may have a toxic family member.
If the toxic family member manipulates you into doubting your experience or memories, It’s not OK. One example would be a mother who berates you and when you confront her, she tells you that you’re too sensitive. She’s trying to discredit your emotions.
Another example would be a father who slapped you across the face, but he had never hit you before and it seemed so out of character! So you approach him about it later. He denies it, tells you you’re delusional. This second example is called gaslighting. Consistent gaslighting can chip away at your sanity and cause you to question your memories of nearly everything.
6. If you are not being supported in your life choices, you may have a toxic family member.
The reality is, this family member is trying to control you in some way and seeing you succeed or make choices to better yourself angers or scares them. A toxic family member will try to undermine your accomplishments. They will tell you a litany of reasons why your dreams will never work. This is a way of asserting dominance over you and It’s not normal.
7. If you are always the bad guy, you may have a toxic family member.
How annoying is the victim mentality, am I right? People who play the victim lack accountability. Abusers play the victim role to try to justify their actions. Manipulators play the victim role to garner the sympathies of others which they may then use against you in the form of bullying. See #2 for more on this.
THREE THINGS YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT
1. Know it is not your fault
Funny thing about toxic family members, they’re toxic friends, too. They’re generally unhappy people who treat you especially poorly because they’re related to you. Even if they are directly insulting you, know it is not your fault. They are projecting their negative feelings onto you. See #3 above for more on projection.
2. Love yourself
Practice self-care to help stay grounded. The agony of a toxic family member is very real, and if you aren’t careful, that toxicity can ooze into your life. Remember to love and be gentle with yourself. I also find that practicing gratitude helps. Reminding yourself of all that is good in your world makes it less devastating when you do need to encounter your toxic family member.
3. Create boundaries
By now you’ve figured out that your family member is toxic, but you need to believe it in order for boundaries to work. If you don’t thoroughly believe that you need boundaries, you will let them be crossed. Whatever your boundaries are, set them and stick to them. There will be anger and guilt, but these boundaries will be the first step toward resolution. You’re worth it.
IF YOU DON’T STAND FOR SOMETHING, YOU’LL FALL FOR ANYTHING
You have to act. Allowing toxic family members to continue in their ways will take a toll on you both mentally and physically. Eventually, you’ll regret not taking action sooner. Remember, sometimes you can use boundaries to control the situation and sometimes you can’t. It’s best to prepare yourself for the worst – sometimes family members are too toxic to be around.
It’s very hard to end a toxic relationship. The toxic family member will likely be quite upset and may use guilt to try to regain control. They’ll probably go back to bullying and rally their troops against you. Stand firm.
Be crystal clear with yourself:
How have you suffered when boundaries haven’t been respected?
How has being around them made you feel?
What benefits will there be to ending this relationship?
The anxiety and unhappiness that comes from a toxic relationship will not disappear immediately. You will need to remind yourself often that you are not being an asshole and you deserve more than what you have received.
Focus on the healthy relationships you do have. If you have kids, focus on them! That’s a great way to remind yourself why you made the decision to stop speaking with the toxic family member. Do your kids deserve that type of toxic energy in their lives? Absolutely not.
YOU ARE SO LOVED
In my opinion, this is a very sad subject. Family is supposed to empower each other. They’re supposed to be the ones you call when you land a promotion! Parents are supposed to have your back, siblings are supposed to be your friends for life, grandparents are supposed to mean unconditional love. And being from a family that is lacking all of that, you grow up in a different version of reality.
As an adult with a toxic family, you may distrust people. You may have anxiety at social functions. You’re going to need to work on a few things. But I’m telling you, it will be OK. You will find your people. We are here, feeling orphaned by disdain and indifference, and we want to love and support you.