Andrea was preparing herself for her yearly visit home for Thanksgiving. She was dreading it. Months ago, she started avoiding all thoughts of her family because even thinking about visiting brought on anxiety attacks. But now it was only a few days away and she knew she couldn’t avoid it any longer. She grew up with physical and verbal abuse and developed depression and anxiety. But the times she came up with an excuse not to attend the yearly gathering, she felt guilty and listened to family members tell her how horrible it was that she didn’t come home. She knew it would end bad but didn’t know what else to do.
What is a Toxic Family?
We only need to turn on the television, especially during the holiday season, to see the happy, idyllic family getting together. Children from near and far travel home to gather around the dinner table and share stories of their present life and memories of their childhood. Everyone always seems so happy and these stories usually end with everyone giving hugs, with promises of getting together more often. But what if that idea is far from your reality? What if your family fights, argues, gets drunk, verbally abuses one another or physically abuses one another? What if your past memories are so hurtful that you can’t bear thinking about them? What if you know you are going to spend the day being criticized and put down?
A toxic family is one in which your relationship with the family makes you feel emotionally or spiritually injured. You can have a toxic relationship with anyone: your spouse, your parents, your siblings and nothing brings out the toxicity more than family gatherings. Although some toxic relationships are caused by overt abuse, others may result from overly critical parents, leaving you with a feeling that nothing you do will ever measure up to their expectations. They may make comments about your weight, your career choice, your partner choice. They may belittle you and cause your self-esteem to plummet. They may bring up every mistake you ever made in your life. If your day with your family ends with you feeling worse than when you arrived, there is probably toxicity.
Just Say "No"
If your physical or emotional well-being is threatened by your family, it may be time to just say "No" and surround yourself with other, more supportive people. While this is not always an easy option, chances are you will be overwhelmed with guilt, it may be the healthiest option. Some families are so toxic that your physical and emotional health is in danger - and in these cases you must carefully weigh how much damage seeing and interacting with your family will bring and whether it is worth going.
But saying "No" doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stay away. Saying "No" can mean setting health boundaries in all your relationships. When you do this, you aren’t trying to change someone else’s behavior, you are changing your reaction. And it isn’t going to be easy. Your family members are used to dealing with you in a certain way and they will continue to do so, until you stand up for yourself.
Decide that you are no longer going to allow anyone to disrespect, berate, belittle, embarrass or manipulate you. You may want to tell your family in advance that you don’t like how they talk to you and you will not accept it. If they say something anyway, you can simply say, "Please don’t say that to me anymore, it is disrespectful" or "Please don’t comment on my weight, I don’t appreciate it." Then walk away, don’t get into a debate or an argument, just walk away. Seek out family members who are supportive.
If your family members continue to berate you, be prepared to leave to show your family you are serious. You don’t deserve to listen to insults. Your emotional well-being is important.
For more information:
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.