The people in our families are sometimes seen as a group only at the holidays, and we find each year that some of our family members can be very difficult for us to relate to.
We usually have at least one person in the group who we see as toxic, and while we’d like to avoid them, these people are ours for a lifetime. Is there anything you can do?
A smart way to view a toxic family member is to consider them a teacher in our life’s classroom. When you see family this way, their toxic behavior can be practice for you to build your boundaries, strengthen your compassion, increase your resilience and other skills and qualities that you can apply to many different situations throughout your life. Here are some ways to handle toxic family members that you have to deal with.
Work on managing your emotions and set some goals for handling the relationship.
Use “If/Then” thinking to plan for the toxic behavior you anticipate at family gatherings. Prepare by focusing on what you will do if a toxic exchange happens, using the “If X, then Y” formula. For example, “If my mother makes a nasty remark, then I’m going to say, ‘Why would you say something so hurtful?’” Or “If my sister denies what she said to me, then I will simply say,’ You can’t browbeat me into believing that. It didn’t happen.’”
This isn’t easy, and it takes practice, but setting boundaries and standing up for your perceptions is essential. It’s another skill you’ll develop in your life, and sets you up to be more effective in dealing with your toxic family members.
Be clear about your boundaries.
You can’t please everyone, but toxic family members might have you thinking that you can’t please anyone, so you may try harder and compromise more. While toxic family members can trigger you even before you realize you had a boundary, by knowing exactly what you’ll tolerate and what you won’t – and why – you can decide how far you’re willing to let that person go.
Listen to that voice inside you that makes you know when a line has been crossed. Let that voice guide your response and decide that you won’t be anyone’s victim. Instead, be the one with the boundaries, the strength, the smarts and the power to make the decisions that will help you to thrive. With boundaries, you demonstrate and strengthen your skills in your life’s classroom.
Plan what you will say to interfere with a family pattern and end the conversation in a positive way.
- Invite the toxic family member to explain their perspective first without countering or correcting him or her. This immediately eliminates defensive bantering back and forth that usually leads nowhere.
- Give your undivided attention. If other family members are in earshot, step into a quiet place where there are no other distractions.
- Listen for the emotion in what they are saying and try to empathize with them (even if you don’t agree). For example, while you may not feel your sibling is describing things accurately, your goal is to empathize not argue. Listen entirely from their point of view and paraphrase, so they know you listened as they intended. You could say, “So, it sounds like you are angry with me because I am not giving you my full attention.” The emotion – anger – is usually the core of what they want you to hear and understand. When you reflect it back to them, it shows that you listened to what they are feeling.
- Ask what they need to resolve the conflict. You’ll keep the conversation moving toward resolution.
- Be willing to own your part in the conflict. As hard as it might be to admit, take responsibility and admit your error, if there is one. Keep it simple and move on.
Don’t expect change, and try forgiving a toxic family member.
Most of the time you can’t reason with toxic people – they are stuck in their pattern. That’s one of the things that makes them toxic. Because you have an open heart, remember that you’re not dealing with someone who is motivated by what’s right for you or your relationship.
Imagine you have a tense relationship with one of your siblings over decades, and you’d rather just avoid them altogether. Yet this family relationship is essential in the long term, and if you don’t want to suffer the toxicity at family gatherings, you might try out forgiveness, so that you can appreciate being there despite your differences. Use this holiday time as one to release old issues and re-set your relationship with a toxic family member, operating on a new base of accepting them and trying to see the good in them.
Forgiving a problematic family member is the most critical lesson in our life’s classroom. And wonderfully, it only takes one person to do the work of forgiveness and create a new tone and new energy for this relationship to start getting better and find a new pathway. Since forgiveness is a private healing experience, you don’t have to try and get the other person on board with reconciliation. When you take some time to reflect and face the difficult emotional work of real forgiveness and have that breakthrough for yourself, very often the other person mysteriously shifts something in the dance between you, too.