How to Deal with Toxic Families

Now that you’ve made it through the holidays and begun to settle back into your routines, it’s a good time to reflect on your holiday experiences, especially as they relate to family. For some, the holidays are a time of joy and warmth and re-connection with family. For others, not so much.

Sometimes, a lot of time spent with family is so stressful, or even toxic, that you might wonder: why do I do this year after year?

It’s a good question.

But first, how can you tell if your family is toxic? In order to answer this question, you have ask yourself: how does it feel to be around your family? Do you too often feel anxious? Angry? Defensive?

Are there veiled insults, controlling behaviors, or emotional manipulations, such as gaslighting and guilt-tripping?

Examining your feelings may seem like a simple process, but when you are so accustomed to these kinds of toxic behaviors within your family system, you learn not to question them; you learn to accept them as normal and healthy out of habit, because that’s what you’ve always known. Therefore, it really does require some reflection, which means you need to take the time to consciously tune in to how you are feeling.

Boundaries, Boundaries, and More Boundaries

So what if you decide that your family is indeed toxic and unhealthy? What do you do about it?

The answer to this question is highly individualized, and it depends on how toxic it is. But generally, it is absolutely necessary to create a safe distance between you and them by implementing reasonable boundaries that keep you sane.

In the case of mildly toxic relationships, appropriate boundaries could look like the following:

  • Limiting email and phone contact to once a week, or once a month
  • Forbidding spontaneous, unannounced visits
  • Restricting in-person contact with family to once or twice per year
  • Staying with a friend or other family member, or in a hotel or Airbnb, when you visit your family
  • Requiring your family visitors to make other housing arrangements when they visit
  • Limiting the duration of visits with family to an hour or two

Estrangement as Self-care

But what if your family system is so toxic that the emotional toll of maintaining these relationships is just too great?

What if continuing to enmesh yourself in these unhealthy family dynamics provides little to no joy, or worse, results in significant emotional and psychological suffering?

What if remaining attached to your family means endlessly repeating old, unhealthy relational habits learned in childhood and perpetuated throughout adulthood?

Is it Ok to cut off your family completely?

While estranging yourself from your family is no doubt difficult, complex, and entails suffering of its own sort, the answer sometimes, unfortunately, is “Yes”.

When family members are abusive, manipulative, neglectful, or disrespectful, estrangement may be the last resort, and the only permanent solution to maintaining your dignity, self-respect, safety, and emotional well-being. Sometimes estrangement is the ultimate act of self-care, however painful it may be at first.

Getting Help is Critical

Of course, these situations are highly context-dependent, and this decision should never be taken lightly. As such, it is best explored in therapy with a competent psychotherapist well-versed in navigating these complex family dynamics.

When you’re ready to discuss your own unhealthy family dynamics, and how you might handle them moving forward, please reach out to book a free consultation. Your next holiday season may be far more joyful than the last one.

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