The Taming of the Toxic

By Mary Beth Wallace

The manipulative aunt, the overbearing father, the passive-aggressive sibling – toxic family members can appear in many different forms, wreaking havoc on your mental and emotional health. What’s worse, these relatives are often oblivious to their own destructive behaviors, sometimes even viewing their actions as helpful. Here, local marriage and family/sex therapist Karisa Kaye sets the record straight on toxic family members and how best to approach them.

Karisa Kaye Marriage and Family/Sex Therapist, I Love Us Relationship & Intimacy Counseling

How Do I Identify a Toxic Family Member?

From spreading negativity to causing unnecessary drama, people exhibit toxicity in a number of ways. Toxic character traits may include manipulation, narcissism, jealousy, insecurity, apathy, and being overly dependent or controlling. Enmeshed family systems, in which boundary lines are blurred and individuality intruded upon, are also harmful to all involved. As Kaye puts it, “A lack of trust in the relationship, feeling judged or ignored, or feeling restricted in how you’re allowed to relate to other people – these are all key signs that you are dealing with a toxic relative.”

For comparison, Kaye shares what a healthy family dynamic looks like: “Healthy families allow all members to feel safe, heard, and validated. They provide security, stability, and safety, honoring the boundaries of every individual.”

How Can a Toxic Family Member Affect Me?

Toxic family members can take a toll on you mentally, leaving you feeling frustrated, disrespected, or used. On a larger scale, their behavior can contribute to a lack of self-esteem or a host of illnesses and disorders, including anxiety and depression. According to Kaye, a commonly seen example among therapists is the controlling, overly involved mother causing stress for her daughter; that stress, Kaye informs, may ultimately manifest in something much more sinister, like anorexia. Conversely, an absent, neglectful parent – perhaps one who spends more time working than anything else – can create feelings of insecurity and anxiety in children, who look to their guardians for protection, love, and a sense of anchoring.

Constant association with a toxic family member can begin to influence your own behaviors as well. “Modeling is how we teach people to respond and act,” Kaye says. “When we have toxic people modeling toxic behaviors for us, it’s not uncommon to see those behaviors continue in the next generation.” For instance, over time, your sister’s unrelenting negativity may cause you to respond with more negativity, and that pessimism will likely pervade into other areas of your life.

How Should I Handle a Toxic Family Member?

Handling a toxic family member, while difficult, is not an impossible task. Healthy boundary setting is essential to preserve your own well-being and sanity. “If someone is teachable, then it’s absolutely worth having a conversation,” Kaye says. Be open and direct regarding any boundaries you’d like to set, such as determining conversation topics that are off-limits. Kaye continues, “If the family member isn’t willing to listen, then it’s probably best to set your own boundaries, like blocking them on social media or even moving to a different city in extreme cases.”

Kaye also encourages finding your “safe” people and staying connected to them, emphasizing, “Everyone needs someone in their corner, especially when you’re met with resistance while instigating change.” Seeing a therapist is both healing and constructive, as their professional insight can help you determine a course of action in dealing with a toxic relative.

While confrontation and avoidance can both be appropriate, so can cutting ties completely, however heart-wrenching that may be. “Forgiveness is always the goal,” Kaye advises, “even if the person never asks for it – without that closure, bitterness and resentment can be destructive. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t move on, effectively ending the relationship, if their behavior keeps you from living a healthy life.” She suggests taking time to grieve the relationship, while knowing that the tie isn’t necessarily cut forever; a future mending is always possible.

A Final Thought

Your family member’s toxicity does not mean that you are, or are destined to be, a toxic person. No matter your situation, you can still lead a healthy lifestyle and achieve balanced, healthy interpersonal relationships.

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