A happily married 43-year-old mom, Stacey has three kids and is an accomplished professional. Despite her success, she’s always felt excluded from her family—particularly by her sister and brother, who are overtly hostile and critical. "My siblings were never able to celebrate anything positive in my life,” she says. “Every celebration and holiday turned into a catastrophe, or about them.”
In sessions, Stacey would comment, "No one communicated directly with one another in my family. So issues that needed to be talked about were expressed in passive-aggressive ways, like shutting down emotionally or gossiping behind someone's back. And since issues were never dealt with head-on, they were never resolved.”
As a result, Stacey’s family was in a constant state of tension, hostility and conflict. “No one took responsibility,” she says. “I always felt scapegoated, too. My achievements were belittled, minimized or criticized. My parents never confronted my siblings or protected me when they acted blatantly hurtful toward me. They would collude against me, and they still do now.”
Sadly, Stacey’s family continues to function in this toxic way. “Getting together for events like birthdays or holidays is hard,” she admits. “My family affects me emotionally, to the point where it interferes with being able to enjoy my own family and life on a daily basis. My family causes me to be depressed and anxious all the time."
Stacey's family is toxic to her attempts to be happy. Having a toxic family makes life difficult, challenging and heartbreaking. We look to our family members to be the ones we can rely on the most to keep us safe physically and emotionally, to love us unconditionally, to watch out for us, to support and encourage us. And when they fail at these things, it can leave a deep wound. Attempts to lessen the emotional damage might include hoping things will magically improve in the future, implementing strategies for damage-proofing family relationships by always acquiescing, and regularly making excuses for family members' negative behaviors.
What makes a family toxic? Toxic families are made-up of abusive relationships and the majority of communication is expressed in passive aggressive ways. Fear, intimidation, sarcasm and manipulation are used as a means of controlling family members' behaviors and emotions. The toxic family ends up tearing one another down rather than building each other up. Most toxic families have a scapegoat—the one who’s blamed for every problem, picked on, and put down. Fear, intimidation, sarcasm and manipulation become control mechanisms. In reality, though, the scapegoat distracts from the real problems.
Deciding between completely severing ties with a toxic family and/or figuring out how to maintain some degree of a relationship with a toxic family or family member WITHOUT losing one's sense of pride and sense of self is a challenging feat at best. A toxic family dynamic contributes to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, low self-esteem and many other issues. Figuring out how to cope is crucial to one’s emotional health. Below are five helpful strategies:
1. Give yourself time to mourn. We all want a family that’s supportive, loving and kind. Unfortunately, not everyone can. Processing and accepting this loss is an important step in moving forward.
2. Set limits and boundaries. Make toxic family members aware in advance of what topics you will not discuss. Use discretion in what you share, and limit the time you spend with them.
3. Work on your self-esteem. It's hard not to be influenced by family members; we care what they think about us. But no one can make you feel badly without your permission.
4. Get what you need from others. Make a conscious effort to build relationships that are supportive, positive, loving and reciprocal. Having people you can rely on will help make up for what your toxic family can't provide.
5. Separation and Individuation. This occurs when we make an emotional and cognitive shift away from the way our family views the world and their definition of who we are. In the process, we become individuals with our own perspectives, feelings and ideas.