It is not an easy thing to acknowledge that you have a relationship with a toxic person. It is even harder when you realize that this toxicity comes from a member of your family.
As uncomfortable as it is, you can choose not to continue a relationship with someone who is terrible for you. It doesn’t matter whether this person is your parent, your grandparent, your sibling, or great cousin Martha once removed.
“The wise do not consider the chains and shackles of jail to be the toughest restraints. The chains of attachment are the strongest of the ties that bind.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh
Knowing that and implementing it are two different things, though. Whenever people suggest cutting out toxic family members, I get anxious and unsure of myself. I begin to feel all of the negative emotions that years of gaslighting and trauma bonding have taught me.
I don’t want to be mean and ungrateful, and that is precisely what I would be if I didn’t talk to the person who sacrificed so much of her life to raise me. Right? No, not right. You might be wondering if the person in question is, in fact, toxic, so let’s start there.
How to know if someone is toxic
Safeguarding your mental health is your number one priority. If someone in your family jeopardizes your carefully balanced house of cards, then it might be time to consider letting them go. If this sounds a little too vague, you can ask yourself these questions:
- Has this person ever abused you? Abuse includes: physically, mentally, emotionally, or sexually. If the answer is yes, then permit yourself to walk away. As a child, you may have felt you had no choice, so you learned to cope and tell yourself that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. My therapist tells me this a common coping mechanism because the brain wants to survive. You are an adult now, and you can thrive! Love yourself and stop putting yourself in situations that create undue anxiety.
- Do you have positive interactions with this person, or are you constantly feeling like they have sucked your will to live? You deserve happy interactions, and if this person can not respect boundaries, or enjoys leaving you in an anxious state, then it is time to say goodbye!
- Are you dealing with someone who only cares about themselves? Do they always remind you of all the things you have done to them, or how you are solely responsible for the rift? When you try to explain to them how you want to try and leave the past behind you and build a healthy relationship, do they completely ignore your wishes?
If you have answered yes to any of these questions, then it is more than likely that it is time to cut ties. Trying to swim through the emotion-filled sea of your mental health is impossible to do with a cement block tied to your ankle. You may be able to use your stamina and stay afloat for a moment, but eventually, you will end up drowning. The knife to cut the rope is in your hands; you have to find the strength to use it!
Why is that so hard?
That sounds easy enough. But anyone who has lived through a toxic relationship with a family member will tell you it never feels that simple.
For example, I received a message from a toxic family member. She stated that I was ignoring her, and she had had enough and wanted to know why. I responded that I was not ignoring her, but every time we spoke, the conversation deteriorated into an argument over how I wronged her.
I let her know that I was more than willing to talk to her if she wanted to talk about any other topic, not related to the trauma. I even went so far as to tell her that the constant battles we get in are detrimental to my mental health. She responded by asking me if I thought it was pleasant for her not to know what was going on.
She then asked me, “What the hell I said or did,” in regards to why my children barely communicate with her anymore. Then she let me know that I was right and that she would be dead soon and wanted to die in peace. She kindly offered to “not respond to the accusations but just wanted to close the book.”
I tried again to explain how the problem was this type of behavior—a complete disregard for my boundaries, or emotions, and outright hostility. Then I did something I have never done. I blocked her. I hit the block button on my phone and silenced her. I spent weeks in therapy, where my therapist reassured me that I was not a terrible, heartless monster.
So, I understand how complicated this is. You have likely been conditioned to feel shame and guilt whenever the toxic person does not get their way and are then “forced” to react in a certain way. It is not your fault, and they need to go. Cut the rope, do not let them be the reason you drown.
“Some people live in cages with bars built from their own fears and doubts. Some people live in cages with bars built from other people’s fears and doubts; their parents, their friends, their brothers and sisters, their families. Some people live in cages with bars built from the choices others made for them, the circumstances other people imposed upon them. And some people break free.” ― C. Joy Bell
Harmful effects of toxic relationships
Allowing these destructive relationships to continue can wreak havoc on more than just your mental health. You have likely realized that this is causing you to be depressed and anxious, but stress increases have physical repercussions as well. The stress that relationships with toxic family members cause can also lead to:
- Immune system problems (including autoimmune disease and decreased function)
- Headaches and other body aches from the unresolved tension
- Cholesterol and weight gain problems
- Heart health problems
- High blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
How to walk away from a toxic relationship
This part is where the rubber meets the road. You have reflected on whether or not this relationship is harmful—or just experiencing some turbulence. You have recognized all the adverse effects it has on your body and your psyche, but now what?
You have been worried about what other members of your family are going to think. You know that the person is going to paint you in the most unfavorable light, and maybe you worry they will take sides. Let them.
Maybe you said things and acted a certain way and are embarrassed it will come out. That is ok; honestly, it is probably another indicator that you need to walk away because you are acting in a way that doesn’t resonate with you are.
It can be a very challenging process to examine your life and acknowledge how you came to be who you are. To admit that trauma has shaped you. At this moment, you need to tap into every ounce of courage and resiliency your past has given you.
You have already survived, and I know it is hard to see it at this moment, but that is the hardest part. For me, I was a powerless child. I was an abandoned daughter that no one wanted. I was never good enough for the person who sacrificed her life to take me in. Yet, I survived. I didn’t die. I found the courage each day to live a little longer without the aid of drugs or alcohol.
I finally found the courage to say enough is enough and walk away from the guilt and the sadness—that feeling of being responsible for everything. She has been telling me for years, since I was a teenager, that I would kill her; Insinuating that my “bad behavior” would result in her having a heart attack. Find your courage; you have made it this far. It is inside you, I promise. Walk away and never look back.
“A bad relationship is like standing on broken glass; if you stay, you will keep hurting. If you walk away, you will hurt, but eventually, you will heal.” ― Autumn Kohler
If you need some professional help to say no to toxic family members, then get it! There is no shame in needing help, and a therapist can help you unlock doors that you never realized were available to you.
A therapist will also help you wade through the emotional soup and uncomfortableness that this will bring. My therapist has a saying; it goes, “This is uncomfortable, not unsurvivable.” She is right. I already survived the unsurvivable, you have too, and you will survive walking away from this. Don’t focus on what you might lose, but rather, what you might gain.