Recognizing and Surviving Toxic Family Behaviour

“My friend, you are not alone. No matter what you’ve suffered, the abuse was not your fault. You didn’t cause someone to hurt you. Not as an innocent child, teenager, nor as an adult. Let that sink in. It’s not your fault.”
~ Dana Arcuri

Toxic behavior is abusive, aggressive behavior that causes either physical or emotional harm. It can include verbal abuse and constant criticism to more subtle tactics like intimidation, manipulation and refusal to ever be pleased.

Toxic behavior is a common way for people to behave in a relationship when they have narcissistic personality disorder and even more so in high-conflict divorce.

An example of toxic behavior would be a husband who only communicates with his wife through criticism. Everything she does is wrong, he’s never pleased with her performance, and he points out all of her flaws. Nothing she does will ever make him happy. This will eventually wear down her self-esteem and cause emotional harm

Toxic family members can cause a lot of stress, anxiety, and even anger. They can also trigger emotionally-driven reactions. It slowly wears down the victim’s sense of self and becomes an accepted form of treatment over time. It leads to abuse and usually affects one person’s emotional health much more.

What is toxicity in families?

“Family is supposed to be our safe haven. Very often, it’s the place we find the deepest heartache.” ~ Lyanla Vansant

Toxic behavior describes actions or behaviors that are psychologically and emotionally damaging to others. The people involved in these relationships often find themselves drained, anxious and/or depressed. Toxic behavior doesn’t always involve physical violence or hurtful words. For example, passive-aggressive behavior is also considered toxic because it’s manipulative and unhealthy in its own way.

While every family is a bit different, there are some common signs of toxic behavior in families.

Toxic behaviors that can affect a family include:

Rigidity and control

One person or a few people might have trouble with flexibility and tend to micromanage other family members. This can include controlling language, such as “always” and “never.” For eg. “I have told you to never do that again!” “You always drop things down, butterfingers!”

Dysfunctional communication

Family members might use blaming or discriminatory language (for example, sexist or racist comments). Or communication might be nonexistent, which can leave you feeling isolated and undervalued.

Negative competition

Some families focus too much on comparing themselves with others – for example, comparing grades or athletic abilities. Families also might be overly competitive with each other, which can lead to unmet expectations and hurt feelings.

Excessive criticism

Criticism is a normal part of life – we all make mistakes – but some families take criticism to the extreme by being hypercritical or refusing to let things go. This can leave family members feeling inadequate or ashamed.

Dealing with toxic family members

“Toxic people are really good at making you think that you are the one with the problem,” says Shannon Thomas, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “Healing from Hidden Abuse.”

Thomas says it’s important to remember that you are not alone, and it’s not your fault. You may not have caused someone else’s bad behavior, but you can take control of your own actions.

Here’s how to deal with toxic family members in ways that are healthy and productive:

Self-awareness is the first step to reducing the impact of toxic family members, according to the Mayo Clinic. By acknowledging that someone in your family has exhibited toxic behavior in the past, and making a plan to deal with it before it happens again, you can better handle future encounters.

For some, this might mean limiting time spent with a negative relative. If you have a toxic parent who tends to harp on your career choices or romantic partners, for example, you may decide not to visit for Sunday dinner. Or if a sibling tends to make snide comments about your physical appearance, you might decline their invitation for girls’ night out.

In other cases, though, cutting ties is not an option — particularly if the relative is an elderly parent who needs assistance or a young child who wants to spend time with an aunt or uncle. In these situations, it’s helpful to understand why someone might be behaving negatively.

You might not be able to completely avoid toxic family members, but you can learn how to deal with them in a healthy way. These are the steps to handle the situation if you have a toxic family member.

Talk to them about their behavior

It may be painful, but if you have a toxic family member, you need to address their behavior directly. Say something like this: “When you (insert action), I feel (insert feeling). Please don’t do that again.” Then leave the conversation immediately. It is best not to engage in an argument if they deny the accusations or try to turn it around on you. If nothing changes, remove yourself from the situation by not answering their calls or replying to texts for a while.

Find out what triggers their behavior

Sometimes when someone is acting out, it is a result of an underlying cause such as depression or anxiety. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it does help you understand why they’re behaving this way and how best to handle them.

“The most important thing is to know why they are that way,” says Dr. Nicole Martinez, PsyD, LCPC. “If they have had bad experiences and are showing signs of paranoia and being critical of others without cause…they could be suffering from PTSD.”

Be calm, courteous and consistent

One of the best ways of dealing with a toxic person is not letting them get under your skin. Don’t argue, yell or lose control — that’s exactly what they want you to do. Walk away from the situation, even if it means leaving the room or hanging up the phone. If they press on or get emotional, remain calm and courteous but firm in your response. And don’t give up — don’t be drawn into repeated arguments by responding every time they call or text; it just encourages them.

Set boundaries and stick to them

If your family is toxic, the first thing you need to do is recognize that you can’t change them. You can only change yourself. The second thing you need to do is set boundaries, says Shanna Donhauser, a licensed clinical social worker in Denver who works with family systems. “There are plenty of people that say setting boundaries isn’t effective, but if you don’t have a boundary or limit, they will walk all over you,” she says. “The more you set a boundary and stick to it, the less someone will try to control what you do.”

If you want toxic people to stop taking advantage of you, setting boundaries is crucial — but it’s something many of us find difficult to do.

Avoid triggers

Sometimes it helps to avoid the person who causes you the most stress. If possible, limit your time together or avoid seeing them at all. You may also want to avoid talking about certain subjects that tend to set off an argument if you do have to be around them.

Talking to someone else in the family

“There is healing in telling. There is healing in exposing abuse. There is healing in being truthful. There is healing in knowing you are not to blame. There is healing in standing up for yourself. There is healing in setting boundaries. There is healing in self-love. Hold onto hope that you will recover.”
~ Dana Arcuri

If you can’t talk directly with the toxic family member without things escalating, consider speaking with another relative or friend who might be able to help mediate the situation or get through to the person causing trouble for you and others in the family.

Consider the role you play in the family dynamic

When we think about toxic people, we tend to only focus on their behavior and attitudes, without considering our own role in the situation. It can be helpful to take a step back and try to identify your own behaviors that may be contributing to the problem.

Are you expecting too much from this person? Do you have unrealistic expectations about how they should behave? Do you tend to overreact in certain situations? If so, try practicing ways of responding differently in order to change the dynamic between the two of you.

Don’t take it personally

Whatever the toxic person says or does, don’t take it personally. Don’t let their words or actions affect your self-esteem or sense of self-worth. Often toxic people project their own bad feelings onto others, so try to remember this when they say something hurtful.

Ultimately, the decision is yours. You’re the only one who knows how it will impact your life if you choose to continue a relationship with toxic relatives. It hurts. It saddens you, deep in your soul. Family relationships are supposed to be a refuge from the troubles of the world, a familiar hidden place where love abounds and hardships are unexpected.

So why is it that sometimes they take more strength than anything else? The answer is that when family love has turned into abusive behaviour, it is no longer an expression of love at all. It doesn’t mean that your family relationships are beyond repair — it simply means that you need to learn how to cope before you can heal.

“Ending the toxic cycle within your own life isn’t easy. When you don’t come from a healthy family, you do your best to ensure a healthy one comes from you.” ~ Steve Maraboli

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The Scream

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