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Toxic Family Member? What to Know and How to Deal.

If you have a member of your family who causes you to feel like you are walking on eggshells with, you often feel stressed, frustrated, or emotionally drained, this might be a sign that you are dealing with someone who has a very strong personality.  

It can be difficult when this person like is a close family member – you might feel conflicted about them.  On one side you know you should love and enjoy them, but on the other side the stress that results from interacting with them can be very difficult to manage.   Gaining some insight and understanding about the relationship patterns can help you gain some control over the situation, and can help you in the long run.

Notice when your family member is shifting blame

People who have tendency for conflict can also have a tendency to shift blame onto others.  Rather than recognizing that they, too, played a part in the dysfunction – they might place the responsibility on you or other members of the family. 

Understand the cycle of abuse. 

Most people who are emotionally, verbally or physically abusive are not ALWAYS abusive.  Notice if your loved one is going through cycles of being mean/critical/abusive, followed by apologies (or denial), followed by a honeymoon period.  Recognizing the cyclical nature of abuse can help you begin to understand some of the more complex patterns at play in-between.

Try to avoid jumping in to “rescue” them.

You may experience fear, obligation, and guilt towards your loved one.  You may have a history of trying to help them understand why they are getting so angry, frustrated or sad. 

Conversely you may have a habit of working very hard to get them to see what they are doing is toxic, dysfunctional, or hurtful.  Doing this might serve as a positive feedback loop where your family member may then unload more often on you, looking for you to help caretake their negative emotions. 

Try to avoid jumping in to rescue them from their emotions or behaviour, and encourage them to deal with it independently (or with a therapist).

Validate their emotion (not behaviour).  

When they are acting cruel towards you, they are likely very angry or upset.  Sometimes they might get worked up because they feel like they are not being heard.  You can try to verbalize to your family member to feel like they are being “heard loud and clear”. 

Help them understand that they are 100% entitled to their emotion, but are not entitled to take this emotion out on you.  

For example “I understand that you are very angry and I’m sorry you are feeling that way, that must be very frustrating.  When you called me a b****, that hurt my feelings, its not okay for you to call me names.”

Try not to catastrophize about the relationship or the future.

Take things day by day.  How do you feel today about the relationship and what can you do TODAY to protect your wellbeing.  If you think into the future, you will likely come up with many ways that things can go wrong, and think of the worst-case-scenarios.

Seek out therapy for your own peace of mind.  

We all have subconscious ways of reacting to people and situations that we may not be aware of. Understanding your own patterns of thinking may help you see the ways you are reacting that are impacting your own well-being.

Practice radical acceptance. 

Hope for your family member to see the light, but do not expect it.   They might be unwell from a psychological perspective.  They may or may not have control over their behaviour.  Accept the fact that you would like to have a good relationship, but also accept the fact that it might not be possible at this point in time.  

You might be grieving the relationship that “could have been.” 

Grief is common and under-recognized when dealing with a difficult loved one.  We all have ideas in our minds of what a daughter, father, mother-in-law, husband, brother, sister, or son should be.  If the relationship has not met your expectations or hopes, it is healthy to grieve the relationship that “could have been.”

Promote change and encourage positivity.  

If your family member does treat you very well sometimes, actively notice this and communicate this to them.  Does your mother-in-law make great dinners and host fun family gatherings (despite the rude messages she sends you)?  Is your sister very funny and good with your children (despite calling you fat)? 

Telling your family member how much you enjoy their positive behaviour (“I love how kind you are to my kids”) may encourage them to do more it.

What if they ignore my boundaries?

If a person in your life refuses to respect your personal boundaries, it is okay to take an undisclosed break from the relationship.  

 “At this point in time, I am taking a break from the relationship.”  If your personal boundaries are being crossed, it is ok to take time for yourself.

Understand that their behaviour is likely more about them, than you

Learn about projection, and understand that their behaviour is usually not about you, but rather about themselves.  

People who are prone to conflict often use a psychological defense known as projection.  Projection is when a person shifts blame away from themselves and onto others.  This often includes a person taking their own unwanted emotions or traits that they do not like about themselves, and attributing them to someone else. 

For example: your sister worries and complains about her weight and thinks she is fat, then in turn tells you that you think she is fat. You never thought this about her.  This could be projection.

Another example might be your husband who is often jealous and thinks you are having an affair (despite much evidence that you have always been faithful) when in fact he, on many occasions, has been caught cheating or messaging other women in the past.  He has the desire to cheat, but instead confronting himself he blames you.   

Noticing when your loved one is projecting onto you may help you understand the why they are behaving the way they do.

Know you are not in this alone. 

Most families have somebody that is more difficult than the others to deal with.  Additionally, your family member likely also has conflict with other people or relatives.  Understanding how your loved one affects other people may help you understand the dynamics at play.

This post was co-authored by Suzanne Black, MD, BSc and Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc.

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