We get it, your connection with your family is supposed to be this mythical bond that nobody and nothing can break—however, sometimes it’s okay to distance yourself from certain family members, even if that means cutting them off indefinitely.
You should never compromise your mental, emotional or physical health for the sake of tolerating a toxic family member.
Before you start blocking Aunt Susan and your second cousin, it’s important to recognize the signs of a toxic person:
They’re judgmental. Constructive criticism is healthy, but persistent, unwarranted criticism can deteriorate anyone’s self-esteem.
They feed off drama. Have you ever turned to a family member for some personal advice? Yet, somehow after you’ve shared your most vulnerable moments with them—someone you thought was a trusted ally—somehow everyone in your family knows everything about your personal life (including your distant cousin in Hungary, who you’ve never met).
They gaslight you. If your family member continually claims they never said something, when you and everyone else knows they did, it might not seem that serious. However, this is a form of gaslighting, which is highly emotionally abusive behavior.
They only talk to you when they need something from you. Often, they’ll go to you for advice or emotional comfort. But once you turn to them for support, they dismiss your needs or hold your personal information against you.
They flip-flop between positive and negative reinforcement. They can lash out at you, yell and insult you. However, once you ignore them after this senseless attack, they’ll likely coax you back into their trap by offering you pseudo-praise and support. Typically these positive interactions are short-lived before this individual goes back to their typical manipulative behavior.
If anyone in your family displays any of these symptoms of toxic (i.e., abusive) behavior, they’re putting your mental health in jeopardy.
Alithia Asturrizaga, a licensed clinical social worker at Alithia Psychotherapy Associates, P.C., explains to Her Campus, “I have worked with countless people who have lived their lives dealing with toxic family members and significant others. In fact, this is one of the chief reasons that many people seek therapy.”
Toxic relationships, even with family members, can drain you emotionally, which can impact your overall mental well-being. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t accept this as the status quo.
“There are certain techniques that people can use to make these relationships more tolerable—these methods generally involve distancing yourself to a certain degree from the toxic person. However, in many cases, the best solution is to remove the toxic individual from your life completely. This is rarely easy and is often complicated and emotionally conflicting in the case of close family relationships, such as with a parent—but when situations deteriorate to the point of making it impossible to live a happy and liberated life, this course of action is usually the best,” Asturrizaga says.
This abusive behavior isn’t confined to romantic relationships because anyone can have a toxic influence on your life.
Shannon Battle, LPC LCAS for the last eight years at Families Services of America, tells Her Campus that the best way to approach a toxic person is first to establish boundaries. To help stick to these boundaries, Battle suggests, “Anytime you deal with toxicity, understand there is a learning curve. There will be periods of uncertainty, guilt, and possible loss in relationships. You have to determine the level of sacrifice you are willing to make to protect your emotions and those that trust you to protect them as well. Sometimes, you have to hurt one to help another. The hurt is never intended to be malicious, but always done in love and respect. Behavior is choice-driven.”
Although you might feel an innate impulse to keep your toxic family member in your life, especially if that family member is your parent, it’s important to understand that keeping a toxic person in your life will have damaging effects on your mental health.
While you might try to convince your family member that what they’re doing is emotionally harmful to you, it’s possible that your family member won’t change—and that’s okay.
Personally, I spent most of my teenage years and a couple of years of my adulthood trying to get my parents to comprehend their emotionally abusive and toxic behavior. After finally convincing my mother to go to therapy with me, so my therapist could help her comprehend her abusive behavior (so she could make a positive change), my mother vehemently denounced my therapist’s suggestions and proclaimed that I was the one “who needed help, because [I was] the one who [was] crazy.” Not only did her statement perpetuate offensive ableist language, but it also contributes to the ignorant stigma that only the “emotional fragile” need therapy. In reality, everyone can benefit from therapy and counseling.
Before this instance, I’d heard similar phrases from my mother countless times. I told myself that her abhorrent behavior wasn’t worth sacrificing my mental health and emotional well-being because she was obviously never going to change—so I needed to change the situation to protect myself from this abuse.
Initially, I felt worthless because the very person who birthed me refused to change to keep me in her life, but I realized that I couldn’t force her to change.
Nevertheless, it’s okay if the toxic family member in your life never changes. Though you might become obsessed with getting them to change, this obsession can also negatively impact your mental health. Imagining a life where you disassociate from a family member might seem unfathomable, but it’s possible—because you don’t need them.
Even after you distance yourself from that toxic person, it will still take time to recover from that abuse, and that’s okay, too. Family is a subjective term, so you can form a new family from your supportive friends. Surrounding yourself with supportive people will help you reinforce the positive change that you need in your life.
While my personal experience with toxic parents might seem like an isolated event, it isn’t. Lori Osachy, MSS, LCSW and director and owner of The Body Image Counseling Center, explains to Her Campus, “Often one of these toxic family members is a parent. It is extremely painful to realize that a toxic parent’s personality is very unlikely to ever change. The decision to go low or no-contact, and then stick with one’s decision, can be excruciating. On top of that, my clients often do not realize the parent’s behavior is toxic, so they continue to put up with abusive behaviors.” It can be a never-ending cycle of abusive behavior, until you accept that this behavior is, in fact, harmful and that it won’t change until you distance yourself from this family member.
“The social stigma of needing to ‘honor thy mother and father’ is another stumbling block. Sometimes cutting a parent out of your life is the best decision, but you need enormous support and education to do it successfully and experience relief,” Osachy says.
As someone who’s perfected the art of cutting toxic lovers, friends and family out of her life, the toxic person in your life might try to gaslight you into thinking that you’re actually the abuser. They will likely claim that they’ve been victimized because you’re avoiding them, just because they give you the false sense of change or because they’ve made you feel remorse. These are the same abusive tactics they’ve used before, and you shouldn’t backpedal and accept them back into your life.