Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Toxicity Be Gone: Toxic Family Members

(A quick aside: "Family" here refers to one's family of origin - the parent(s) and sibling(s) you grew up with.)

So here we are at our final post of this series. This post is going to be my attempt to tackle the last, and most challenging, category of toxic people: toxic family members.

Unlike the other toxic groups we have already addressed (acquaintances and coworkers, and friends), this particular group of individuals are the hardest to deal with because of the following factors (to name a few): 

1/ You have history with them because they are your family.
2/ They can affect you like no other people can because they are your family. 
3/ You didn't choose them, but you are stuck with because they are your family.
4/ They are your family. Enough said.

For me, I grew up in a household where I was taught to "honour your parents," not to "air any dirty laundry" to save face, and that family was supposed to come before anyone else. I was a shy and quiet kid who who liked to keep the peace at home (read: people pleaser), and because I hated confrontations I tried my best to avoid them at all costs even if it meant bending over backwards for other family members, repressing my own thoughts and feelings even if I felt taken advantage of, and making amends even if I wasn't the one at fault sometimes. Needless to say, I thought everything was fine at the time (or maybe I had repressed my own thoughts and feelings so much that I just had no clue), but when I look back now I can see that things definitely weren't as straight-forward and peachy keen as I once thought they were. I think many people probably experience this kind of insight once they become adults, start their own family, and realize that there can be a different way of doing things from what they experienced growing up.

Anyway, the realization coupled with other drama hit me like a ton of bricks and brought me way down, but I'm now in a much better place after starting to see a therapist for depression who, during my first session, helped me identify this particular area as my biggest emotional sore spot that needed to be addressed. Since then I have worked hard to create and instil boundaries such as:

1/ Not divulging more information than is needed.
Why do I need to share more than I have to? Why should anyone know the ins and outs of my life just because they are related to me? I just share what feel I need to share and leave it at that.

2/ Speaking up if necessary and not worrying about how they might react to what I say.
If I am civil and say things amicably, and am rational, logical, and fair in what I say, then I've done my part; How someone else chooses to react or respond to what I've said is NOT MY PROBLEM so it's not worth thinking about or losing sleep over (especially if it's not brought up again by the other party). 

3/ Limiting my interactions with them
For example, I generally no longer meet-up with my parents by myself during the week for meals. The last time I did this was a couple years ago when I found myself crying alone in a restaurant bathroom stall, but that's another story for another time.

4/ Lowering my expectations
I have come to the realization that people are who they are and the only person you can change is yourself. The relationship is what it is and while it saddens me sometimes, I have come to accept things as they are.

5/ Not feeling guilty for things that I don't need to feel guilty for
Whether it was intentional or not, guilt was used as a manipulation tactic on me again and again.  I didn't realize it at the time and always tried to "right" things because of the resulting guilt (even if I didn't do anything wrong in my opinion), but once I made the connection and saw the guilt tripping for what it really was (read: manipulation), I was able to see things more clearly whenever this tactic was used on me. It sounds obvious now, but I eventually learned that if I didn't do anything wrong, there was no reason for me to feel guilty.

6/ Being able to say "No" to them
I am still working on this one, but I have come a long way from where I started. There was time when the thought of disagreeing or flat out refusing to do something (such as not going to family dinners) would cause me so much anxiety that I would just do whatever I didn't want to in order to avoid any kind of confrontation or tension. While it still difficult for me (old habits and family patterns from childhood die hard), but I've gotten better at it and it doesn't terrify me quite as much as it once did.

In my case, I still see my family about twice a month, but now the interactions are much more bearable because of the above boundaries. It is still hard at times and sometimes I find myself slipping back into old patterns and ways of thinking, but I no longer dread visits and don't leave them feeling tired and completely exhausted anymore. Sure there are still hiccups and things are far from "perfect," but at this point everything seems to have stabilized. Don't get me wrong, I love my family, but I feel I need to love them wisely for my own mental health and well-being. I have come to the conclusion that while I love them, I also need to love myself so, in the name of self-care and self-love, this is what I've come up with and it seems to be working so I'll take it.

In other cases, however, the toxicity is too much to bear and if you find yourself in this position and it is taking too much of a toll on your mental health and well-being, then the final and most dramatic boundary you can instil is cutting yourself off from them/the family member completely. It's a change that is bound to have repercussions re: relationships with other family members and/or extended family, but should you feel there is no other option, then create that boundary and stick with it for as long as you need to. There is no guilt or shame in this. You do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

I have learned that just because people are your family doesn't give them the right to treat you badly and repeatedly take advantage of you and just because they are your family doesn't mean you need to stay there absorbing the negative treatment. Sure, you might be related to them, but sometimes 'family' can be found in those who are not related to you. I know no one chooses their family, but you can choose how you interact with them. Create boundaries, love yourself, and release yourself from the toxins. Set yourself free.

Well this concludes this series on toxic people. I really am no expert (these posts are just filled with my own observations, thoughts, and experiences), but hopefully they have been helpful in some way or another.

If you enjoy reading or are interested in reading more about boundaries and/or family dynamics, here are a couple of book recommendations for you:

I found this book ("Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life" by Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend) really helpful in terms of giving me a better perspective and seeing the importance of establishing boundaries. The authors wrote this book from more of a Christian/Biblical perspective, so keep that in mind if you do end up choosing to read this one.

I also recently finished reading Tara Westover's memoir "Educated" which is hugely popular right now. I'm including it here because so much of the book is about her family dynamics and her journey of detaching herself from her family's way of life and line of thinking. It was fantastic (easily one of the best books I've read this year) and I definitely recommend it if you haven't read it yet.

And with that, I'll finish this post and series on toxic people here. Kudos to you if you're reading this - you've made it to the end!

Read the other posts in this series:
Toxicity Be Gone: An Introduction to Toxic People
Toxicity Be Gone: Toxic Acquaintances and Co-Workers
Toxicity Be Gone: Toxic Friends

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