Toxic Family Members

Family is supposed to be our safe haven.  Sometimes, however, it’s the place where we find the deepest heartache.

Mind - When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate - NYTimes.com:


Letting go of (or breaking up with) a toxic friend, boyfriend or girlfriend is one thing, and there’s plenty of advice out there for doing so, but what about letting go of a toxic family member?

Most of us are not in a position to just walk away, nor do we feel that we want to, or that it’s the right thing to do.  So what do we do when a family member is literally spoiling our lives with their toxicity?  How do we deal with our feelings of obligation, confusion, betrayal and heartache?

First and foremost, you must accept the fact that not everyone’s family is healthy or available for them to lean on, to call on, or to go home to.  Not every family tie is built on the premise of mutual respect, love and support.  Sometimes “family” simply means that you share a bloodline.  That’s all.  Some family members build us up and some break us down.

Second, you must understand that a toxic family member may be going through a difficult stage in their lives.  They may be ill, chronically worried, or lacking what they need in terms of love and emotional support.  Such people need to be listened to, supported, and cared for (although whatever the cause of their troubles, you may still need to protect yourself from their toxic behavior at times).

The key thing to keep in mind is that every case of dealing with a toxic family member is a little different, but in any and every case there are some universal principles we need to remember, for our own sake:

  1. They may not be an inherently bad person, but they’re not the right person to be spending time with every day. – Not all toxic family relationships are agonizing and uncaring on purpose.  Some of them involve people who care about you – people who have good intentions, but are toxic because their needs and way of existing in the world force you to compromise yourself and your happiness. And as hard as it is, we have to distance ourselves enough to give ourselves space to live.  You simply can’t ruin yourself on a daily basis for the sake of someone else.  You have to make your well-being a priority.  Whether that means spending less time with someone, loving a family member from a distance, letting go entirely, or temporarily removing yourself from a situation that feels painful – you have every right to leave and create some healthy space for yourself.
  2. Toxic people often hide cleverly behind passive aggression. – Passive aggressive behavior takes many forms but can generally be described as a non-verbal aggression that manifests in negative behavior.  Instead of openly expressing how they feel, someone makes subtle, annoying gestures directed at you.  Instead of saying what’s actually upsetting them, they find small and petty ways to take jabs at you until you pay attention and get upset.  This is obviously a toxic relationship situation.  It shows this person is set on not communicating openly and clearly with you.  Keep in mind that most sane human beings will feel no reason to be passive-aggressive toward you if they feel safe expressing themselves.  In other words, they won’t feel a need to hide behind passive aggression if they feel like they won’t be judged or criticized for what they are thinking.  So make it clear to your family members that you accept them for who they are, and that they aren’t necessarily responsible or obligated to your ideas and opinions, but that you’d love to have their support.  If they care about you, they will likely give it, or at least compromise in some way.  And if they refuse to, and continue their passive aggression, you may have no choice but to create some of that space discussed in point #1.
  3. They will try to bully you into submission if you let them. – We always hear about schoolyard bullies, but the biggest bullies are often toxic family members.  And bullying is never OK.  Period!  There is no freedom on Earth that gives someone the right to assault who you are as a person.  Sadly, some people just won’t be happy until they’ve pushed your ego to the ground and stomped on it.  What you have to do is have the nerve to stand up for yourself.  Don’t give them leeway.  Nobody has the power to make you feel small unless you give them that power.  It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but just as much to stand up to your family and friends.  Sometimes bullying comes from the most unlikely places.  Be cognizant of how the people closest to you treat you, and look out for the subtle jabs they throw.  When necessary, confront them – whatever it takes to give yourself the opportunity to grow into who you really are.
  4. Pretending their toxic behavior is OK is NOT OK. – If you’re not careful, toxic family members can use their moody behavior to get preferential treatment, because… well… it just seems easier to quiet them down than to listen to their grouchy rhetoric.  Don’t be fooled.  Short-term ease equals long-term pain for you in a situation like this.  Toxic people don’t change if they are being rewarded for not changing.  Decide this minute not to be influenced by their behavior.  Stop tiptoeing around them or making special pardons for their continued belligerence.  Constant drama and negativity is never worth putting up with.  If someone in your family over the age 21 can’t be a reasonable, reliable, respectful adult on a regular basis, it’s time to speak up and stand your ground.
  5. You do not have to neglect yourself just because they do.Practice self-care every day.  Seriously, if you’re forced to live or work with a toxic person, then make sure you get enough alone time to rest and recuperate.  Having to play the role of a ‘focused, rational adult’ in the face of toxic moodiness can be exhausting, and if you’re not careful, the toxicity can infect you.  Toxic family members can keep you up at night as you constantly question yourself: “Am I doing the right thing?  Am I really so terrible that they despise me so much?  I can’t BELIEVE she did that!  I’m so hurt!!” Thoughts like these can keep you agonizing for weeks, months, or even years.  Sometimes this is the goal of a toxic family member, to drive you mad and make you out to be the crazy one.  Because oftentimes they have no idea why they feel the way they do, and they can’t see beyond their own emotional needs… hence their relentless toxic communication and actions.  And since you can’t control what they do, it’s important to take care of yourself so you can remain centered, feeling healthy and ready to live positively in the face of negativity when you must – mindfulness, meditation, prayer and regular exercise work wonders!
  6. If their toxic behavior becomes physical, it’s a legal matter that must be addressed. – If you’ve survived the wrath of a physical abuser in your family, and you tried to reconcile things… If you forgave, and you struggled, and even if the expression of your grief had you succumb to outbursts of toxic anger… If you spent years hanging on to the notions of trust and faith, even after you knew in your heart that those beautiful intangibles, upon which love is built and sustained, would never be returned… And especially, if you stood up as the barrier between an abuser and someone else, and took the brunt of the abuse in their place… You are a HERO!  But now it’s time to be the hero of your future.  Enough is enough!  If someone is physically abusive, they are breaking the law and they need to deal with the consequences of their actions.
  7. Although it’s hard, you can’t take their toxic behavior personally. – It’s them, not you.  KNOW this.  Toxic family members will likely try to imply that somehow you’ve done something wrong.  And because the ‘feeling guilty’ button is quite large on many of us, even the implication that we might have done something wrong can hurt our confidence and unsettle our resolve.  Don’t let this happen to you.  Remember, there is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.  Most toxic people behave negatively not just to you, but to everyone they interact with.  Even when the situation seems personal – even if you feel directly insulted – it usually has nothing to do with you.  What they say and do, and the opinions they have, are based entirely on their own self-reflection.  (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Self-Love” and “Relationships” chapters of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
  8. Hating them for being toxic only brings more toxicity into your life. – As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”  Regardless of how despicable a family member has acted, never let hate build in your heart.  Fighting hatred with hatred only hurts you more.  When you decide to hate someone you automatically begin digging two graves: one for your enemy and one for yourself.  Hateful grudges are for those who insist that they are owed something.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, is for those who are strong enough and smart enough to move on.  After all, the best revenge is to be unlike the person who hurt you.  The best revenge is living well, in a way that creates peace in your heart.
  9. People can change, and some toxic family relationships can be repaired in the long run. – When trust is broken, which happens in nearly every family relationship at some point, it’s essential to understand that it can be repaired, provided both people are willing to do the hard work of self-growth.  In fact, it’s at this time, when it feels like the solid bedrock of your relationship has crumbled into dust, that you’re being given an opportunity to shed the patterns and dynamics with each other that haven’t been serving you.  It’s painful work and a painful time, and the impulse will be walk away, especially if you believe that broken trust cannot be repaired.  But if you understand that trust levels rise and fall over the course of a lifetime you’ll be more likely to find the strength to hang in, hang on, and grow together.  But it does take two.  You can’t do it alone.  (Read Loving What Is.)
  10. Sadly, sometimes all you can do is let go for good. – All details aside, this is your life.  You may not be able to control all the things toxic family members do to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them in the long run.  You can decide not to let their actions and opinions continuously invade your heart and mind.  And above all, you can decide whom to walk beside into tomorrow, and whom to leave behind today.  In a perfect world we would always be able to fix our relationships with toxic family members, but as you know the world isn’t perfect.  Put in the effort and do what you can to keep things intact, but don’t be afraid to let go and do what’s right for YOU when you must.

The floor is yours…

What are your experiences with toxic family members?  What have you done to cope with their toxic behavior?  Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.


The Verbally Abusive Relationship

“The great tragedy in a verbally abusive relationship is that the partner’s efforts to bring reconciliation, mutual understanding and intimacy are rejected out of hand by the abuser because to him they are adversarial. This is so because if he isn’t feeling power over his partner, he is feeling that she must be trying to overpower him. There is no mutuality in his reality.”

~ The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans

not letting it out:


How To Explain Your Toxic Family To Other People

I just read an entire article (it was long) on ‘how to explain to people why you have no contact with your family’..

I’ve got to admit I found it annoying.

I don’t feel I have to explain anything. I had my first experience of this on the weekend.

On Saturday I spoke to a guy from my meetup about how I’d had a bad last few months. I didn’t say much just that I’d been going through a rough spell over Christmas with my family as I had made the difficult decision to cut them out of my life.

In retrospect I guess that sounds pretty bad to the average person..

Suddenly he went on a rampage to say that he had ‘sensed’ all along I was a drama queen, and ‘who does that’ …  most people just accept people’s flaws without doing the drama of ‘divorcing’ them.

I didn’t react. Mostly because I know who I am. I’m not a drama queen. He doesn’t know the details of my life. And clearly what he said came from someplace else.

He made this assumption clearly in front of the entire group but I didn’t feel the need to explain any further.

I simply said that it was an act of self preservation.

I actually like this guy and I didn’t take it personally. I feel for him, his life is difficult and somehow I bring up a lot of stuff in him.

He came from a dysfunctional family of alcoholic parents, had a major car accident at 19, was told he’d never walk again but he defied the odds. Although .. in his words (people think I’m drunk when I walk..). He legs don’t work properly and sometimes he needs crutches. He probably late 30s and lives with his parents (I assume he feels he needs their help due to the accident, not sure).

Maybe my choices make him uncomfortable, because he knows he has to find a way to be independent of them.

He’s judgemental, cynical, bitter and unhappy. He’s in emotional pain. He judges me a lot. I almost feel he projects his mother on to me.

In the group everyone has been through some sort of personal hell. We’re all survivors, and we have made the brave decision to trust and love people again but it isn’t easy. 

So do I have to explain..

I remember years ago a 45 year old woman telling me she left home and had gone no contact at 16 years old from her mother. She never saw her again. 

I never asked why I just understood and assumed she must of had a damn good reason.

 Many years later she told me some details of her childhood, it was more shocking than I could have imagined. She never had to explain in detail to me, I had already accepted her choice without judgement.

Saying ‘my family are unhealthy for me and going no contact is an act of self preservation’ is enough. 

I’ve already been through enough ‘drama’

Any thoughts?

SG x




I Am The Parent

“I do not have to share everything I’m feeling with my children. Children in domestic abuse situations often take on the role of a parent, believing it’s their job to protect and take care of their mother or father. I will not put my children in that position. I am the parent, and they are the children. They might have been feeling responsible for me for a long time, and it may be hard for us to ‘relearn’ how to act with each other. Today I will begin trying. Children should be able to enjoy being children, and today I promise to give them that gift.”

~ J.R Smith



Recovery From Abuse And Dysfunction

“Because of all I have gone and am going through, there may be times when I feel like I have little or no energy. During these times, I will be gentle with myself. I have been through a lot. I need time to recover. I will remember that having an abuser removed is major surgery of the soul. I need time to heal, and I need rest. It is okay for me to let myself take it easy.”

~ J.R Smith



When Should You Divorce Your Family?

Over Christmas I heard stories from a few of my friends about horrible things done and said by their family as they gathered. Some of it was just plain emotional abuse. Keli Goff asks an important question: If it’s accepted that we can divorce a spouse, why can’t we divorce a family member without being made to feel guilty over it?

While divorce is widely accepted today there remains a stigma around ending a relationship with other family members, often no matter how egregious their behavior. I was reminded of this just before the holidays when on a recent episode of Oprah Winfrey’s Lifeclass, megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes chastised two sisters who had not spoken in years. The reason for the estrangement: one sister tried to engage in an affair with the other’s boyfriend but was caught before the relationship was consummated. The sister in question had never apologized to her sibling for this transgression. Yet for some reason Jakes seemed under the impression that having this woman out of her life was a major loss for the sister who’s boyfriend the other one had tried to shag and insisted they reconcile. But the question I kept asking is why?

Why should this woman want a person she cannot trust and has shown her no remorse or empathy to remain in her life? What benefit is there in such a relationship? Jakes insisted on the importance of blood, which seems an odd reasoning to focus on when it comes to defining what constitutes a worthwhile relationship, particularly since we live in a society in which there are plenty of strong, healthy adoptive families who do not define family along bloodlines. He did mention the possibility of needing a kidney one day, which I guess is something. But by that logic children should never be taken from abusive parents and adopted by others because “you never know when they might need a kidney.”…

For this reason and others we all tend to tolerate behavior from siblings and parents we never would from spouses or romantic partners. But Doherty and the other therapists interviewed also believe we tolerate more from family members because society expects us to. Pressure, particularly on those who are religious, to forgive can often result in the mistaken assumption that forgiveness means one should tolerate unhealthy behavior for a lifetime.

But Rev. Jacqui Lewis, a pastor at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan said this is not the case. While she stressed that as a pastor her focus tends to be on healing, counseling, therapy if necessary and ideally reconciliation, “sometimes we have to break up to stay healthy in our lives.” She added, “I think in some blood-related families there can be such toxicity, such violence to the spirit that it’s not healthy to be in that relationship.” She also noted that biblical text does not support the idea of staying in a harmful, destructive relationship with anyone for any reason.

I don’t think it’s that complicated. I think genetics means very little. And I think that you should end any relationship that is emotionally unhealthy for you, whether that person is a member of your family or not. I know that’s an easy thing for me to say since I don’t have anyone in my family who is that toxic. But I think you have to be your first priority and the fact that a person is damaging you is not diminished by the fact that you share DNA with them (indeed, it’s often magnified).

Sometimes the decision is made for us, of course. An alarming number of my friends have been disowned by their families because they’re gay or atheist or their partner is the wrong race or religion and the results are often emotionally devastating. But I think that only underscores the importance of placing the emphasis not on shared DNA but on shared values. And many of those friends have built new families that actually care about them.


Wounded Attachment: Relationships of Survivors of Childhood Sexual Assault

15 Brilliant Chuck Palahniuk Quotes

By Valerie Kuykendall-Rogers therapist in Houston, TX

The impact of childhood sexual assault has reverberating effects on almost every facet of survivors’ livelihood, from relationships with family, friends, partners, spouses, and children to their jobs, finances, faith, etc. It is as if sexual assault redefines one’s pattern of and trajectory in life.

Sexual assault is the act of forcing, enticing, intimidating, or coercing another person to engage in a sexual activity, from fondling to coitus, when the other person is unwilling or unable (as is the case of one who is underage, drugged, or unconscious). Imagine yourself as a child, seeing the world through a child’s eyes, and then being introduced to a violent act—an act that serves to not only damage one’s physical body and mental/cognitive mind-set, but also disrupt one’s spiritual being.

This one act for some—repeated acts of violence for others—does untold amounts of damage to one’s psyche. Yet the resilience I’ve witnessed from many who choose to live their lives after the violence is remarkable. Unfortunately, for many the damage is such that many are unaware of how it has skewed their way of looking at the world. This sometimes is displayed in the relationships subsequent to the sexual assault.

Far too often, survivors believe that once the assault ends, it is done and they don’t need to talk about it. Yet the choices made, the decisions not made, and the relationships that come afterward tell a different story. Wounded attachment is an insidious component that I have seen repeatedly in my work with adult survivors of childhood sexual assault. What is wounded attachment? It’s the unconscious way of being attracted or attached to someone or something that reminds the survivor of or reinforces the wound/trauma, or in this case the sexual assault. At its core, it’s the way in which survivors subconsciously seek out relationships that reinforce the wounded aspect of themselves.

Sometimes it is displayed in the choice of employment/work. For example, survivors may find themselves working at a job that belittles them, makes them feel worthless, or where they feel like they have to make everyone else happy at the expense of their own happiness, thereby reinforcing their wounded concept of self. Another example is when a survivor is continually engaged in romantic relationships that serve to reinforce the wounded parts of self.As a child, depending on when the assault occurred and the developmental stage in which it occurred, the person seeks to please the adult and gain affection, attention, nurturing, love, trust, etc. A child who has been sexually assaulted blurs that idea of love, nurturing, trust, attention, and affection, and begins to believe that the only way to receive love, attention, etc., is to please the “assaulter.” This remains in effect as the child matures into adulthood.

Although the assault is no longer occurring, if the child did not receive any type of counseling, intervention, or effective treatment to process and repair the damage to the mind, body, and psyche, then this adult is continuing to live out the wounds experienced as a child. As such, the adult becomes caught in a cycle of relationships that reinforce the wounded attachments. Awareness of this plays a crucial role in helping adult survivors of sexual assault move toward recovery, resiliency, and healing.