A recent study found that toxic people can create toxic mental environments for the people they are close to. In turn, this can cause mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. If the issues at hand aren’t addressed or treated, the risk of developing a substance abuse disorder as a form of self-medication increases.

In many cases, we would advise our clients to cut ties with people who are toxic. But what do you do when you have toxic family members?

There are ways to alter your relationship to a toxic family member so that the relationship can be sustained without causing you harm. This is what mental health experts are referring to when they talk about setting boundaries.

Read on to find out how to identify a toxic family member and how to set boundaries that will improve both your life and your relationship with them.

What is a Toxic Person?

We discuss toxic people informally and it has become a common term to use in popular psychology. What most people mean when they call someone “toxic” is that they have little consideration for others and seek to control, manipulate, or hurt the people who love them. 

“Toxic” people are more likely to be referred to as narcissists by trained psychologists. To be a narcissist is to have an inflated sense of importance, and narcissistic personality disorder bears many of the same symptoms as “toxicity.” 

People with narcissistic personality disorder have an abnormally large need for admiration and attention. They consider their own needs, desires, and concerns to be more important than anyone else’s. Beneath all of this is a huge fear of criticism or judgment and they’ll often project their own failings or flaws onto others. 

How to Identify Toxic Family Members

Let’s talk about some of the ways toxic family members may behave to get a better sense of what toxic behavior looks like. 

They seek to control your choices or, at the very least, your perception of your choices. They might do so through criticism or even punishment for behaviors that don’t serve them. For example, a toxic family member may threaten to cut you off emotionally or financially when you don’t make constant and unreasonable sacrifices for them. 

They also play the victim when you try to express that you’ve been hurt by their behavior. This recenters them in any situation and requires you to put your own needs and feelings aside to cater to theirs. It allows them to divert blame away from themselves so that they don’t have to take responsibility for their negative behaviors.

Toxic family members may meddle in your personal life without your permission or desire. That could look like anything from pushing you to divulge information you’re not comfortable divulging to going behind your back to find out information about your life from your peers and online activity. They may act as though they are intrusive because they care but more likely they are intrusive because they’re looking for more ways to exert control over you.

3 Steps to Set Boundaries with Toxic Family Members

Before you can set boundaries with toxic family members, you may need to address your own mental health needs, especially if you have co-occurring disorders like depression and substance abuse. Having mental clarity and professional assistance can help you to identify the problem behaviors while also allowing you to realize that you don’t deserve to be treated poorly.

When setting and maintaining boundaries with a toxic family member, don’t expect them to change. Research has shown that narcissists are capable of feeling empathy, which would eliminate many of the issues you may have with them, but it would require psychological intervention. For that reason, you should consider your boundaries self-protective.

1. Find Your Cut-Off Switch

Evaluate the behaviors your toxic family member exhibits that make you uncomfortable or unhappy. You can try to discuss these behaviors with them, but remember that they may turn it around and you and refuse to see your side. If this is the case, it’s time to use your cut-off switch.

What does this mean? When your toxic family member begins acting negatively, perhaps criticizing you or attempting to control your life choices, end the conversation. You can try to change the subject and if that doesn’t work, say goodbye and leave the room or hang up the phone.

Most of the time, they’re trying to see what they can accomplish with their behavior. Refusing to react to or engage with these tactics will show them that you will not be manipulated by them any longer.

2. Let Them in on Your Terms

If your toxic family member is intrusive, it’s time to take your privacy back. Like finding your cut-off switch, this will require the willpower to refuse to react or engage at certain times. Don’t reveal information when you don’t feel comfortable doing so even if the toxic family member is threatening punishment. 

In order to ensure that your toxic family member doesn’t have unwanted access to your life, consider removing them from your social media and making your accounts private. 

Correspondingly, you will need to decide when you’re willing to get involved in their lives, especially if they create a lot of chaos or crises. You may decide to assist them only when your own needs have been met or only under certain circumstances. You may decide that you can’t help them at all until you’ve made more progress with your own mental health, which is both valid and healthy.

3. Be Clear About Your Boundaries and Stick to Them

While you shouldn’t expect them to make significant changes to their behavior, it’s still important that you communicate your boundaries to them. Even if they don’t accept or “believe” your reasoning, they need to understand what you’re doing.

That way, they may begin to see some correlation between their behavior and your reactions. While it may not change the way they feel, it could change the way they treat you. Once they see their methods are no longer serving them, they just may give them up, making it a lot easier for you to be around them.

For this to work, you have to stick to your boundaries. If you let your toxic family member violate your boundaries, it sends the message to them that they can still control you as long as they push hard enough. You have to stay consistent and strong, even when it seems easier to give in.

Know What You Deserve

When we grow up with toxic family members, it can be hard to remember that we deserve relationships that are mutually giving, caring, and loving. It’s time to move in a direction that will bring you closer to the things you deserve in life.

At Better Life Recovery, we know how hard it can be to move in the right direction alone, especially with a substance disorder. If you’re ready to make positive changes in your life but need a helping hand, contact us today.