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Dealing With Toxic Family Members

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Joe Aoleo moved from Rhode Island to Key West, FL, after retiring from his job as a firefighter/EMT. Aside from his quest for warm weather, he was relieved to get away from his family — all of them.

“All of my siblings were controlling, never wrong, never apologizing, lying people,” Aoleo says. “There was no physical violence in my house ever. But it was [like] a thousand tiny cuts.”

What’s Toxic Behavior?

Toxic behaviors run the gamut, says Sharon Martin, a licensed clinical social worker in San Jose, CA. She’s the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook, which is due out soon.

Common traits of toxic people include:

  • Not showing concern for your feelings, needs, or rights
  • Acting harsh and critical
  • Calling you names
  • Violating your boundaries over and over
  • Refusing to compromise with you on anything
  • Acting entitled
  • Always having to be right
  • Feeling the rules don’t apply to them
  • Making unfair demands on you
  • Not taking responsibility for their actions
  • Blaming others for their mistakes or flaws
  • Rarely saying they’re sorry for something
  • Wild mood and behavior swings, and sessions of rage
  • Lying and/or guilting you to get their way
  • Manipulating you to get to control or take advantage of you and others to get what they want

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“Toxic behaviors exist on a continuum,” Martin says. Truly toxic behaviors are part of a pattern of maltreatment or lack of regard for others. They aren’t isolated incidents.”

Alas, toxic people rarely change their behavior, or want to. “They may lack self-awareness or respond with denial when confronted with their poor treatment of others,” she says.

Aoleo says his family members all vied for control. “I was a control freak at the time as well,” he says. “But I knew I was, and knew I had to change. They didn’t.”

“Guilt was always there,” even when it came to his daughter, Aoleo says. “My daughter was, and probably still is, a master of the kindness-to-guilt-to-anger method of being right. She once told me I had to be nice to her because she was all I had to take care of me when I’m old. I told her I’d put a bullet in my head before I’d ever let that happen. And I’m pretty sure the whole thing was about money I’d lent her and never collected — again.”

Set Clear Boundaries

It can be hard to identify and set boundaries if you’re from a family that doesn’t honor or respect them. You get to decide what treatment you’ll accept now, though. Martin suggests stating your needs and feelings directly. You might ask your family member to change their behavior, such as saying, “Please don’t curse at me.”

“This is not usually successful with toxic people because they’re not motivated to change their behavior,” she says. Instead, the boundary helps remind you to protect yourself from their ways. For example, you might hang up the phone or block your sibling’s number if they continue to curse at you on a call.

Keep Your Distance

One way to stay emotionally distant is to limit how much personal info you share, Martin says. Say your sister mocks you and makes sarcastic comments after you confide in her about a problem you have. This is your cue to share as little as possible with her in the future.

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Also, you don’t have to answer private questions from family members. It’s OK to say, “I’d rather not talk about it.” Then don’t. Likewise, avoid asking about their personal lives. Trade info about key family business only.

Try to sidestep arguments at all costs. “Toxic people will try to draw you into an argument to distract you from the real issues,” Martin says. “They will often turn things around on you — blaming you for their toxic behaviors and never taking ownership for their behavior.”

Many people find sharply limiting or ending contact with a toxic family member is the only way to protect themselves, Martin says. “You’re not a bad person or a failure if this happens.”

Aoleo stayed in touch with one of his sisters while he lived in Florida, but he didn’t feel very close to her, either. On his decision to move to the Big Island of Hawaii, he cut ties with her as well.

“I’m now the only one in my family who doesn’t live within 50 miles of every other family member,” he says.

Other Useful Tactics

Other steps in your game plan to help you make firm choices, wipe away guilt, and move on with your life might include:

  • Don’t expect anyone to be perfect, including yourself.
  • Stop trying to fight old battles. There’s usually no way to resolve them.
  • Stand your ground. For example, if your family expects you to show up for a holiday and you want out, say “no.” Don’t leave the door ajar with a “maybe.”
  • Let go of your wishes for family members’ lives. You can’t make them change their minds or alter their plans.
  • Once you resolve to change your own behavior, brace for strong reactions from family members and even friends. Try to predict what responses you might get — such as crying, guilt, shouting, or even threats — and decide how you’ll respond.

How to Move On

Find solid support, Martin says. Seek out friends and new people to share with, such as a therapist, 12-step group, or other support circle.

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“Dealing with family members who have toxic behaviors is stressful and emotionally taxing,” she says. “Be sure to take good care of yourself physically and emotionally.”

Your physical safety is key. “If you’re dealing with someone who has hurt or threatened to hurt you or others, you may need to call the police, avoid being alone with the person, or create a plan to leave quickly, if necessary.”

To Aoleo, peace of mind trumps keeping in touch with family. “I’m not angry with them, I just don’t care,” he says. “Family doesn’t mean much to me. They’re just people like everyone else, but you feel obligated to them for no real reason. I don’t feel that obligation anymore.”

He’s found space and calm in a relaxed community in the Hawaiian rainforest. “My job taught me to run into fires, and common sense taught me to run from my family,” he says. “Now I’m a happy, almost always wet, guy living with a family of controlling, almost always wet, mutts in my paradise on the side of a volcano in the middle of our largest ocean. Perfect.”

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