Navigating Toxic Family

via @ohgigue on Instagram

Everyone has a toxic family member or even plural. It could be a parent, sibling, cousin, etc. Interactions with this person or people leave you feeling emotionally drained! Toxic behavior can be abuse, manipulation, belittling, shaming, or criticizing. The common denominator is that it all stems from negativity. Constantly feeling negative in any type of relationship is too costly and familial ties are not exempt. 

Family bonds are not protective shields that absolve accountability nor boundaries. Family titles are not entitlement. This is a myth that often allows many people to be violated, disrespected, and or hurt by their own family. I have heard the statements “but this person is your” and “they are still family” in times where accountability was due. This act of excusing behavior is harmful. Forcing the idea that a family relationship must be tolerated and often maintained for the sake of family peace is damaging to the opposing party. There are relatives who don’t love, who lack empathy, who are hateful, and who abuse. This is reality for many. Those being affected deserve to determine how they will interact with, if at all, their own relatives. 

If you wouldn’t let a friend, or partner treat you like $h-t, why let your family? It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t healthy, more importantly. Some family can be hurtful the same way we think non-family could be toward us. It’s important to understand that. The same way we have a natural instinct to protect ourselves from danger is the same way we must protect ourselves in toxic familial relationships. My rule of thumb is simple. I have two practices: set boundaries or cut them off.

Setting Boundaries

It’s important to set boundaries with family. Family members have limits in your life too (culture plays a large role in this topic so boundaries definitely vary). Toxic family relationships feel and look like more downs than ups. Some of them may know their behavior is problematic, others have no clue, but nonetheless it is toxic. It can be harder to set boundaries with our loved ones. We may want to excuse their behavior or justify why they do certain things because of the relationship we have with them. But we have to recognize when things are hurting more than helping. Boundary setting is self-care. If a family member is constantly making you feel low it may be time to set some boundaries. Boundary setting with toxic family could be limiting or eliminating contact. It could be walking away. It could be only engaging in certain conversation. It could be loving them from a distance or not at all. Setting boundaries with toxic family can be challenging especially if it isn’t encouraged at home. It may feel lonely. Honoring your feelings can feel that way sometimes. 

Cutting Them Off

In heavier cases where boundaries aren’t an option, the decision to let that toxic family member go must be made. I know it sounds harsh— cutting your family off. But, family members are people too and quite frankly a lot of people are $h-tty AF *shrugs*. Some family must be let go for the sake of our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Titles don’t change but that doesn’t mean we cannot determine the course of the relationship. Family worthy of being present in our lives will be focused more on uplifting us than anything else. Cutting family off (especially when they are your elder) is difficult and often looked down upon, especially in communities of color. But if keeping that relative at a distance is healthier for you? You did the right thing. Self-preservation is important.

Like any other relationship, there should be valued exchange taking place. We can easily rattle off why we’re grateful for a family member when the relationship is positive and built on love. Hanging out with that ‘favorite cousin’ or that ‘fun auntie’ comes from somewhere. These family members have brought us joy, happiness, love, laughter, encouragement, or all of these things. They’ve uplifted us and supported us. That’s what real family looks like. Real family is the family you choose that chooses you too. 

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