Not everyone is blessed with a loving and supportive family. Many experience abusive relationships in childhood that create far-reaching implications well into adulthood. And while it may be impossible to completely cut ties, it’s crucial to know how to set healthy boundaries with toxic family members to protect yourself emotionally and physically.
12 Signs of a Toxic Family Member
The best way to discern whether you’re dealing with a toxic family member is to reflect upon your emotions. How do you feel around them? If you feel uneasy, depressed, anxious, or unsafe, this is certainly a red flag. Here are other common signs:
- They make cruel remarks
- They don’t take accountability for their hurtful actions
- They’re manipulative and controlling
- They criticize, blame or hurt you
- They deflect or give the silent treatment
- They invalidate your feelings and concerns
- They lie about things to hurt you
- They often gaslight you to make you feel like your memories, experiences, and feelings aren’t valid
- They make you feel bad about feeling hurt
- They use threats, harsh language, or violence
- They violate your trust and spread your business to others
- They’re dismissive of your needs
6 Types of Healthy Family Boundaries
Boundaries help us protect our energy and wellbeing and voice our needs and values. And when dealing with a toxic family member, there are six key types of boundaries to enforce to safeguard your wellbeing.
- Physical boundaries involve your personal space, body, privacy, and physical needs, such as eating and drinking. For example, “No, I’m uncomfortable with you touching me like that”.
- Emotional boundaries include your feelings, what you’re comfortable sharing, and your energy. For example, “I don’t want to talk about that right now”.
- Sexual boundaries concern consent, agreement, intimacy, and rules about safety. For example, “I don’t want to have sex tonight”.
- Time boundaries allow you to set limits regarding how to prioritize and spend your time. For example, “I don’t have time in my schedule to help you move”.
- Financial and material boundaries concern your material possessions like your car, house, clothing, and finances. For example, “I can’t give you any more money, but I can support you in other ways”.
- Intellectual boundaries are the limits we set to protect our thoughts, beliefs, and ideas. For example, “We may disagree, but you cannot patronize me like that”.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries with Toxic Family Members
1. Define what upsets you
Setting healthy boundaries starts with you first and defining what matters most to you. Ask yourself what is bothering you and why? For example, are you annoyed that Aunt Kathy keeps gossiping about your personal life, or are you upset that your brother continually asks for money and ignores your feelings? Take some time to reflect on your limits and what you find acceptable and what you don’t.
2. Create consequences
Unfortunately, people who deal with toxic family members often realize they’re blatantly ignoring their needs to favor their families. But over time, this creates more tension and pain. Therefore, when you consider your own needs and discover clear boundaries, enforce consequences for those who cross them. You may feel nervous to voice these consequences, but boundaries aren’t boundaries without them. Your family members will have no motivation to change their behavior if you don’t enforce either big or small consequences. For example, if your mother-in-law continually comes to your home unannounced, a consequence would be no longer answering the door. It’s vital to choose an outcome you feel comfortable enforcing.
3. Be direct yet calm
When you set healthy boundaries with toxic family members, communication is key. But this step can also feel the scariest, especially if you’re not used to voicing your concerns. Yet the talk doesn’t need to be a big heart-to-heart. In fact, it’s best to take a direct, simple, and kind approach. If you don’t know what to say, try this: “I feel (emotion) when you (topic/action). So, going forward, I will need to enforce (boundary to protect yourself), and if you can’t respect my needs, then (consequence to maintain boundary)‘”. This formula will allow you to kindly yet firmly communicate your concerns, enforce boundaries, and apply consequences. Yet if you’re still feeling anxious, practice with a loved one or in the mirror beforehand.
4. Set realistic expectations
Unfortunately, some people will not accept your boundaries. Even if you take a gentle approach, some might react immaturely, hurtfully, or aggressively. Therefore, it’s crucial to set realistic expectations for your sanity and accept this truth. At the end of the day, you can’t change someone else’s behavior. You can only decide you deserve better. Additionally, if they continue to disrespect your boundaries, enforce your consequences no matter what. This act of self-care will help you break the patterns of intergenerational trauma and protect your emotional and physical wellbeing.
5. Pivot evolving boundaries
We are constantly changing. And what we used to allow will also evolve as we evolve. Therefore, you will need to communicate your changing needs and evolving boundaries. You may also need to communicate your limits more than once. To start, you could say, “Please stop bringing up what I used to allow. My tolerance has changed“, or “In the past, I’ve allowed something different. But my needs are different now. Please respect them“.
6. Practice detachment
Control is never a healthy way of protecting yourself. It only leads to more self-harm and tension in your relationships. And you can only control how you respond and react, not how a family member will. Yet when we detach, we learn to let go and respond differently. For example, if your uncle continually makes hurtful comments to test your reaction, instead of getting angry, learn to shrug it off or limit your contact with him. Other ways include deciding not to engage in old arguments, walking away from upsetting situations, or no longer giving unwarranted advice.
7. Allow them into your life on your terms
After defining your boundaries, enforcing consequences, and communicating them, some family members may continue to cross you. When this happens, sometimes the best way to protect yourself is to limit contact. Yet it’s important to know it’s not a form of punishment, control, or manipulation, quite the opposite. In fact, it’s self-care when you decide to stand up for yourself and no longer tolerate toxic behavior. But the choice is yours. So, determine whether or not this is a step you want to enforce and how you wish to do so.
While every family has issues, not all are abusive or manipulative. Yet it’s vital to know how to set healthy boundaries with toxic family members to protect yourself. You have choices, and your thoughts, opinions, needs, and values matter. You matter. So, define your boundaries, create consequences, and enforce them. And remember, no one, not even family, has the right to deprive you of living a happy, safe and peaceful life.
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