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  • Writer's pictureSara Speed, LMHC

How to Break Free From a Toxic Family Member: The Antivenom for Poisonous Family

“Adulting” doesn’t come with many benefits, but one of them is being able to choose who you want to be in your inner circle. If someone rubs you the wrong way, makes you feel badly about yourself, or just gives you an off vibe, you get to decide how much contact you wish to have with them, if any at all!

There is an exception to this rule though, one that can cause quite the conundrum… family. These relationships can often be wrought with frustration, anxiety, and even trauma, yet they are nuanced with a sense of obligation that is hard to avoid.

It's one thing if your mother calls incessantly to make sure you took your vitamins, or your sister is going on and on, again about her obnoxious boyfriend. But how do you know when a family member has crossed the line from annoying to toxic?

Signs of toxicity in anyone, including family are:

  • Being overly critical or cruel with their words

  • Making unrealistic demands or attaching strings to favors or services

  • Refusal to take responsibility for their statements or actions and blaming instead

  • Manipulating you or those around you to get what they want

  • Pitting family members against each other for some gain of their own

  • Withdrawing support or attention if displeased with you or a decision you’ve made

  • Violation of your wishes or restrictions you have put in place

And when in doubt as to whether you are dealing with a toxic family member or not, listen to your body. What happens when their name pops up on your phone? How do you feel when you know that you will be seeing them in the near future? If someone elicits a sense of anxiety or dread, if you feel a pit in your stomach or a flush in your cheeks at the prospect of having to spend time with someone, they may be a toxic figure in your life… family included.

So now that you know you are dealing with a toxic relationship, how do you best navigate it?

This can be particularly challenging with family because there is a sense of obligation that comes along with familial ties specifically. It is said that a dysfunctional family is not family at all, it’s a toxic relationship parading as a requirement. But once you realize that you always have a choice, even when it seems that there is no way out, you gain your freedom!

Here are some ways to liberate yourself from a toxic family member:

Manage Your Expectations:

Much of the pain and suffering we feel in life is due to unmet expectations. First you must mourn the loss of the parent/sibling/extended family member you thought or always wished you had. After you process your grief, try to see it for what it is. We can never control another’s behavior, but we can always control our own response.

Knowing what you are getting when you spend time with or communicate with someone will lessen feelings of pain or disappointment. If you know that Aunt Mary is going to criticize your career choice or Uncle Carl is going to get drunk and be inappropriate, you can prepare yourself mentally and even construct a plan to protect yourself. Coming up with stock answers to intrusive questions or creating an exit plan beforehand can help to alleviate anxiety and take your power back.

Create & Maintain Boundaries:

Even though you may always feel like a scared five-year-old child every time your father raises his voice, the beauty of being an adult is that you get to decide how to respond now. Creating boundaries can be intimidating, particularly with people who historically have had decision-making control over you. Also, toxic family members will most often not respond well to new limitations you put in place.

No matter, your only job now is to protect your own mental health and well-being. These boundaries can include how many times per week, month, or even year you have contact. Or how long you spend at family functions. It can even include whether or not you allow someone to remain in your life at all.

Some of this boundary setting you may wish to communicate directly, while others you will simply put into place with your own behavior. And while you are doing this, it is important to become comfortable with others not being happy with you. This will be awkward and unpleasant at first, but you will be surprised with how comfortable and even empowered you can become at saying “No” with some practice!

Friends Are The New Family:

Blood may be thicker than water and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be swimming in water than blood! The days of cleaving to family due to isolation or necessity went out with the wagons and pioneers.

Never before have we been so connected to millions of potential friends, companions, and support systems. The new phenomenon of “Friendsgiving” has become so popular because people are beginning to understand that those you surround yourself with are now a choice, not a requirement.

Lean into the people you enjoy spending time with. Consider experimenting with vulnerability and allowing others to share your life with you. The beauty of friendship is that it is pleasurable, reciprocal, and completely voluntary. In the new age of urban jungles, you get to form your own tribe!

Therapy Therapy Therapy:

Family ties are not easily broken. Toxic relatives are well versed in the art of mistreatment, manipulation, and martyrdom. It is possible you may need some help in breaking out of the jail of unhealthy lifelong relationships.

Because these connections go so far back or run so deep, they can often trigger feelings of guilt, self-doubt, and pain. A skilled therapist can offer the support and guidance you need to see past the ingrained trauma and make the decision to prioritize yourself with confidence.

Interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help point out and correct faulty thought patterns that keep you in abusive relationships. The highly effective eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) treatment can even allow you to go back and reframe negative associations at their source. Having the benefit of an objective professional with only your best interest at heart may help you navigate your way out of these very complicated and nuanced relationships.

Consider today being the first day of your emancipation from the toxic family members that rule your life.

If you want more encouragement, validation, and assistance in breaking free from toxic family members so you can reclaim your peace of mind, we invite you to contact us for your complimentary consultation at 954-391-5305.

Sara Speed, LMHC is a EMDR Certified Therapist and provides counseling for adults, First Responders in our beautiful Plantation, Florida office. She also offers online counseling via our secure telehealth platform for those who reside in Florida.

For more information about Sara and her approach to counseling or EMDR, click here.


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