Your heart races. Heat pounds through your body. Anger and hurt clench your throat. Tears creep up. Your eyes dart around for a way to escape and not deal with these people anymore. “How the hell can I get out of here?”
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Toxic family members have a uniquely disturbing way of hurting us that goes unrivaled by almost everything and everyone else in life.
Their jeers, jabs, and judgment have a way of piercing the very core of us in a way that feels intensely triggering.
With one nasty lip curl, we can feel rejected, unwanted, and unlovable.
With a cynical glance in our direction, we can feel intense emotions of rage and resentment boil our blood.
If you’ve decided to take the route of the lone wolf and walk your own path in life, perhaps as the result of a spiritual calling or existential crisis, you may feel extra uncomfortable.
Being the black sheep of the family is challenging, as is being a naturally sensitive and empathic person who picks up on and internalizes toxic energy.
Do you have a toxic family?
And if so, how do you deal with them, especially around festive moments of the year like birthdays, baby showers, anniversaries, Christmas, and the holiday season? How do you deal with them if you actively live with them?
I’ll explore all of these questions and more in this article:
Table of contents
- How Do You Know If Your Family Is Toxic? (15 Signs to Look Out For)
- Examples of Toxic Family Behavior
- Toxic Family and the Spiritual Calling
- How to Deal With Toxic Family Members (5 Ways to Stay Sane)
- You’re Not Alone
How Do You Know If Your Family Is Toxic? (15 Signs to Look Out For)
Let’s start with the crucial question: is your family actually toxic?
Perhaps there’s just one person you struggle with, like a toxic sibling, parent, or extended family member. Or maybe you suspect the whole family is deeply dysfunctional.
Whatever the case, there are clear signs to look out for.
Here are signs of a toxic family or family member:
- You feel judged negatively by them most of the time.
- They try to control your behavior, e.g., by expecting you to behave the way they want you to behave, to believe what they believe, or to make the decisions that they’ve decided for you as a condition of being loved and accepted.
- They try to set you against other members of the family (your partner, children, other relatives) by playing favorites, creating drama, and watching to see what you do as a twisted way of seeing where your loyalties lie.
- You feel unseen and unappreciated for who you are around them.
- They are self-absorbed, only talk about themselves, and don’t take a genuine interest in you or your life. This leaves you feeling unimportant and unloved.
- They are envious and gossip a lot about others in a way that falsely elevates their “superior” knowledge, charm, or success.
- They misuse substances (alcohol, prescription medication, illicit drugs), which leads to harmful and enabling dynamics in the family system.
- You question your sanity around them because they gaslight you into believing that you’re the crazy, “hyper-sensitive,” or illogical one (instead of them).
- Your boundaries are disrespected and ignored, whether that be physically, sexually, emotionally, mentally, or even spiritually. For instance, they might make rude comments about your body, touch you inappropriately, or stay in your house past the acceptable time of departure.
- They are deceptive, and they rarely take responsibility for their actions or bad behavior.
- They are overtly or covertly verbally abusive, e.g., they call you names, yell at you, or make underhanded comments to bring you down.
- They are emotionally abusive, e.g., they dismiss, threaten, manipulate, or humiliate you.
- They are bullies, and they seem to enjoy physical, emotional, or mental intimidation tactics to ensure that they have the power.
- They are an energy vampire, and you feel exhausted around them, especially as they tend to vent and dump a lot onto those around them emotionally.
- You don’t feel safe around them, and your nervous system goes into a state of fight, flight, fawn, or freeze.
How many of these signs can you relate to?
Exhibiting even one of the above points is a sign of toxic behavior.
But the difference between having annoying, flawed family members and toxic family members is that toxic ones are constantly negative. Your mental and emotional health plummets as a result.
Do you have any more of your own toxic family member signs to add in the comments?
Note: If you’re experiencing violence at the hands of a toxic family member, please see these domestic violence hotlines for 1-to-1 assistance.
Examples of Toxic Family Behavior
I have a lot of experience with toxic family members and their behavior because I’m a family reject and black sheep who refused to believe in the Christian dogma I was brainwashed into while growing up.
I know the deep, visceral pain of dealing with family members who fail to truly see, love, and accept you for who you are, even if that’s at odds with who they are. True love doesn’t have conditions.
Here are some fictional (but sadly common) examples of toxic family behavior to help illustrate it better:
- Carol, her husband Gary, and their new baby son are attending a Christmas party with their extended family members. However, when Carol arrives at the party and begins settling in, her mother starts commenting about how much weight she has gained, how haggard she looks, and how she needs to exercise more to be a good mother and wife. When Carol changes the topic and begins talking about something else, her mother ignores her and starts bitching about someone else at the party. Carol has a toxic mother.
- Nick and Juan are in a long-term queer relationship and are attending a family dinner. When Nick opens the door, his father sneers at them from the kitchen and bellows, “ah, here are the two queens!!” Nick can hear his brothers sniggering in the living room at his father’s declaration, and Nick feels rage and hurt boil up inside of him, feeling judged, belittled, and rejected. It’s not what his father said but how he said it and his brother’s responses that hurt him. Nick has a toxic family.
- Marie is attending a New Year’s get-together at her sister’s house. As they sit around outside chatting and drinking beer, Marie’s uncle starts becoming obnoxious and rowdy. He saunters over to Marie and starts talking loudly into her face about how his ex-wife is a “whore” and how he’s now in a top position at his company. When Marie tries to back away, her uncle grabs her roughly by the shoulders and accuses her of thinking that “she’s too good for everyone” for trying to leave. Marie looks pleadingly at her sister and parents for help, but they just glance away, ignoring her, leaving Marie by herself. When Marie confronts the three of them later for not helping her, they blame her for being too “hyper-sensitive” and gaslight her into feeling like she is the one with the problem, not her uncle. Marie has a toxic family.
There are many other examples I could give, but I hope these ones illustrate just how varied and complex toxic family members and their unhealthy dynamics can be.
Toxic Family and the Spiritual Calling
For some people, feeling unsupported, victimized, and isolated in a toxic family is enough to trigger a life crisis and spiritual awakening.
If our family of origin can’t give us the love we seek or the home that we yearn for, what can?
What actually is genuine love? What does true belonging feel like?
These are the questions we ask at the start of our spiritual journey.
You might feel like one of these lost souls and lone wolves who feel like an exile in life, just like me. But I’m here to help you reframe your mindset and feel empowered again because having a toxic family can actually be a blessing in disguise.
By having the courage to question the status quo in your toxic family and demand something different for yourself and your life, you are listening to a deeper inner calling.
It is our Soul that longs for authentic love, connectedness, actualization, and belonging – and dealing with the toxicity of people who mistreat and hurt you can be the spark that ignites that drive to search for more in life.
You have a friend and a guide in me if nothing else. I know what it feels like to be rejected, alienated, and alone.
Ultimately, this feeling of being an outsider and an exile is part of a larger transformational pattern known as the Hero’s Journey in mythology or the Spiritual Awakening Journey on our website.
If you haven’t already, you’re welcome to sign up for the free Spiritual Awakening Course that I’ve helped to co-create, which can help you gain some perspective and guidance if you haven’t already.
How to Deal With Toxic Family Members (5 Ways to Stay Sane)
Not everyone has the luxury of cutting ties with or distancing themselves from toxic family members.
For instance, maybe we’re their caretakers, or perhaps we depend on them financially.
Maybe out of necessity, we find ourselves living with them due to housing issues or job shortages. There could be many reasons why we find ourselves stuck with a toxic family.
How do you stay sane?
I’ve written the list below for people who can’t or don’t want to, for whatever reason, burn bridges with their toxic family members.
Here’s what I’ve learned from my own experience and from the insight shared with me by others dealing with this painful situation:
1. Try the gray rock method
If you’re a highly sensitive person, an empath who tends to be an emotional sponge or just a person who has a low energy threshold for bullshit, try the gray rock method.
In my book “Awakened Empath: The Ultimate Guide to Emotional, Psychological, and Spiritual Healing,” I explore this method applied to narcissistic relationships. But it can apply to any kind of toxic connection. I write:
The gray rock method is essentially a way of making yourself so boring to a narcissist that they will eventually leave you alone. Narcissists [and toxic family members] thrive on drama and reaction. When you deprive them of that, they quickly start to lose interest in you.
Practice the gray rock method by:
- making yourself utterly boring
- being bland and vague in your responses
- not reacting to their reactions
- talking about dull topics
The goal is to pretend that you’re like a gray rock or something tremendously uninteresting that has no personality. It’s kind of like adopting a secret disguise!
Do this, and you’ll be protecting yourself from their toxicity and drama.
2. Develop clearer but invisible boundaries
One issue that often arises when people first learn about the idea of “personal boundaries” – especially when they feel disempowered – is taking it to the extreme.
Setting boundaries with toxic family members isn’t about being loud, abrasive, or demanding – this will likely just backfire and bite you in the butt.
It’s understandable to react that way and try to take back your power forcibly. But a better and more long-lasting method is to develop clear but “invisible” boundaries.
By invisible, I mean keeping your boundaries quiet and almost concealed. Toxic family members typically detest any form of obvious boundary. So, to avoid that particular kind of hell, take a more subtle but strong approach.
Here are some ideas:
- Learn how to say “no” in a neutral but firm way. E.g., instead of saying “No way,” or “No, I won’t do that,” try saying something like, “I can’t help today, but I can recommend someone else who can,” or “That sounds interesting, but I have another commitment that day,” or “I’ve got a lot going on right now, but if my schedule clears up I’ll let you know.”
- Spend less time around them. For instance, if you live with a toxic parent, find ways of being out of the house and building a life outside that environment. If you’re at a party with a nasty sibling, create physical distance between you and them, such as standing on the opposite side of the room.
- Plan reasons to leave to give you space. E.g., plan to spend only twenty minutes around them and have a commitment lined up afterward. Plan to excuse yourself to the restroom when the conversation gets heated or tense. Even ask someone to call you during a certain toxic family time so you have the excuse to leave and have more space.
- Cross your arms and adjust your body language so that it looks closed and not open. When someone is in your personal space, step back or position yourself in the room in a way where there’s an object between you and the said toxic family member.
If you have any other tips, share them in the comments!
3. Be mindful of the draining victim mentality and adjust your mindset
Dealing with toxic family members can indeed make us feel victimized, especially when they’re insulting, shaming, belittling, or emotionally dumping on us.
While it’s important to accept that you are the victim of their abuse, it’s also vital not to get stuck in a victimhood mentality.
A victim mentality is defined by:
- feeling powerless in your life
- blaming others for how your life is going
- not taking self-responsibility
- projecting a mostly “poor me” attitude
- believing that “there’s no point in trying to fix the situation because it’s hopeless”
Do you feel tired reading this? I know that I do!
As someone who has dealt with the victim mentality a lot in the past, I can say with certainty that it’s freakin’ exhausting. It’s a drain of life force energy. And it’s pointless at the end of the day!
It’s also a misguided attempt to regain a sense of personal power by paradoxically feeling empowered by a victim identity.
Don’t let your toxic family members have more impact on your life than you allow them to. Take back control over your mindset and find ways to feel self-sovereign and responsible for your life and happiness.
In the words of Maya Angelou,
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
4. See the pain as the path (a stoic philosophy)
It’s no wonder that Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, is coming more and more into the mainstream: it helps us see the pain we experience as our path to growth and fulfillment.
One tenet of Stoicism is to focus on what we can control (aka., ourselves), not what we can’t (aka., toxic family members).
Another assertion from Stoicism is the phrase Amor Fati, which means “love of fate.” To love our fate means to accept that whatever happens to us is meant to be and is part of a larger plan.
While it’s important that we change things that don’t work in our lives, it’s not always possible, especially when we’re somehow trapped with a toxic family member.
Instead, see your pain as your path. Ask yourself, “How is ___ my teacher? What are they teaching me?”
Also, reflect on the ways you have grown and evolved in the presence of the toxicity of your family. Have you become more patient, determined, conscientious, or hard-working? Look for the light in the darkness.
In the words of Stoic philosopher Seneca,
Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.
And in the words of Marcus Aurelius, another Stoic (and Roman emperor), commenting about mindset:
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
5. Build a life that “fills your cup”
Toxic family members are like leeches of energy, but we don’t have to remain their prey.
Although we’ll inevitably feel drained around them, we can replenish our energy reserves by building a life that metaphorically “fills our cup.”
Here are some ways to restore your energy and find joy amid the turmoil:
- Have a simple self-care practice like drinking tea, walking, and reading
- Practice self-love affirmations (these morning affirmations can help)
- Spend time unwinding in nature
- Take care of your inner child
- Spend time cuddling pets
- Practice somatic body work and learn how to unwind your nervous system
- Fill your space with plants or that which gives you life
- Do some reflective journaling
- Spend time with people you genuinely enjoy being around
- Strengthen your spiritual support system and connect with spirit guides and allies (if you consider yourself metaphysically inclined)
- Give yourself permission to nap and rest
- Express yourself creatively
Do you have any other ideas? If so, share them in the comments!
You’re Not Alone
To close, I want you to know that you’re not alone.
So many of us deal with toxic families. And while it can feel exhausting, infuriating, and deeply upsetting, there are ways to stay sane and grounded.
Please share with me your experience with having a toxic family. What has helped you in the tough times? What advice can you share with others? I’d love to hear from you.
Finally, if you’re a sensitive person and you’d like more guidance on dealing with toxic people, see my book Awakened Empath. I think you’ll love it!