My last two blogs introduced the idea of toxic families and this one looks at ways to cope with a toxic family. Looking for support in dealing with difficult relationships within their own close family is one of the most common reasons people come to me for counselling.
Dealing with difficult family members is not easy and there will be periods of uncertainty, guilt, and possible loss in relationships. Each individual has to determine the level of sacrifice they are willing to make to protect themselves. Sometimes, people have to either temporarily or permanently cut people off because they’re doing them more harm than good. This is an extremely difficult choice to make and has to involve large amounts of grace, kindness, and bravery.
1. Have courage
First of all it is essential that an individual tells themselves that despite neglect, manipulation, or abuse, they still survived. Now, they just need to find the courage to stand up to them—whether that means establishing strong boundaries, minimal contact, or cutting them off entirely.
2. True “closure” may not be possible
Some families are able to heal as long as everyone is willing to try. If a family member has tried everything—honest conversations, interventions, therapy—and nothing still changed, they just have to step back. Not having closure (or answers or explanations or apologies) is often very difficult but far better than continuing to live with the toxicity and damage. In some ways, by denying you closure, they still have control and power over you – so don’t let them!
Everything you need to live a better life is inside of you. You have the complete power to turn yourself around and be a better, healthier, and happier person. Accept that you may never find the root cause of their behaviour. In any case, it’s not because of you. Some questions don’t need answers.
3. Let go of what you can’t change
You can maintain a semblance of a relationship with a toxic family without sacrificing your sanity only by stopping trying to change what is impossible. If a family member is a narcissist or substance abuser, you need to realise that they can’t get better until they decide to be better. Toxic family members are notorious for their inability to self-reflect and admit fault. They will blame everyone else but themselves.
You can’t change who they are and what they do, but you can control how you react to the situation.
4. Stop taking responsibility for their actions
People who are dealing with the effects of toxic families often find it hard to work out their own part in the family dynamics. Even people who have experienced abuse and trauma can still carry heavy burdens of shame and guilt. It can take time to process this, to finally stop taking responsibility for their toxic family’s actions.
5. Be assertive
Once someone has decided that they need to face up to toxic behaviours within their family, they need to spend time deciding on a plan of action. This might involve calling someone out if they’re doing or saying something toxic. Say “no” and mean it. There is likely to be a “backlash” – the person may well not like being challenged and it is vital to stand your ground. If they don’t listen, that’s their choice. But at least you can establish the boundaries you want and stick with them (see next step)
6. Set boundaries
If you do choose to maintain a relationship with your toxic family, it’s absolutely crucial to set boundaries. However, it can be hard for your family to see why you need to establish boundaries. They may see it as a selfish act. In this case, again, you need to remember that it is not your responsibility to protect their feelings if they refuse to understand that you’re just trying your best to be mentally healthy.
Boundaries are not about right or wrong. Your personal healthy boundaries are based on your own value system and perspective, and might be totally different than someone else’s. This also means that you don’t have to explain or defend your boundaries.
7. Establish minimal contact
If you don’t want to deal with a certain level of family toxicity, yet still want to communicate with your family, you can decide to establish minimal contact. For some people, it means Christmas cards and the occasional phone call. For others, it means seeing family just for important events such as weddings and funerals.
Only you can judge how much contact you want going forwards. Your family may or may not accept it, but you have to be assertive.
8. Sever ties
The most drastic of ways to cope with a toxic family is to stop having contact with them. No-one ever severs ties with their family easily but when the relationship creates so much stress that it impacts the important areas of their life at work and/or at home, they may have to consider it.
If it has got to the point where it brings down almost every aspect of your life, the biggest kindness you can do to yourself and to that person is to just let go with grace and kindness. If you want to be happy and healthy, you need to surround yourself with people who are equally as healthy.
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!