Setting boundaries with toxic family members
Have you ever found yourself staring incredulously over at the family who seems to have it all together and wonder why your family looks like nothing like that? You know, two gorgeous kids complete with nice clothes and perfect manners, blissfully happy parents living in a beautiful home and enviable careers. The perfect family.
The perfect family tale isn’t a reality, it’s not even close. Every family has struggles. Sometimes they are big and sometimes they are small, but they are never without them. But there is one aspect of family life that can create huge struggles. It’s toxic relationships, and it’s more common than you think.
When Family Hurt You
Our upbringing shapes who we became as adults and ultimately how we parent. If a child is brought up in a situation where there is a toxic member of the family, then it can shape future relationships with friends, co-workers and even loved ones. Ultimately, it impacts our body and mind as we carve our place in the world. As the name suggests, a toxic relationship is never a healthy one.
Do you think you could be in a toxic relationship? It’s inevitable that the people you were exposed to in your childhood will impact you. If a toxic family member influenced your upbringing it’s likely it will leave scars that are buried deep down inside, only showing themselves when we become adults. But there is good news. We have the power to take the negativity of a toxic family dynamic and turn it into happiness and reshape the relationships we have later in life.
We have the power to take the negativity of a toxic family dynamic and turn it into happiness and reshape the relationships we have later in life.
What is a toxic relationship?
A toxic relationship is any relationship that impacts negatively on your body and mind. As a child, you may not notice the signs of a toxic relationship because it is all you have ever known. But as you step into adult relationships or roles, patterns of toxic relationships will surface particularly during times of high stress.
You may notice that certain people that exhibit toxic traits will trigger you. Identifying a toxic relationship can be tough, but there are a few things to look for to help you identify if the influential relationships in your life are helping or hindering you.
Signs of a toxic person
The traits of a toxic person can range from passive aggression and verbal bullying to physical or sexual abuse. Sometimes the behaviour is subtle and covers a wide spectrum, so it is often tough to identify the relationships that are causing harm.
Learning to listen to your body and observe how it reacts is a powerful way to identify a toxic relationship. You may feel your jaw tighten, you may hold your breath (fear breathing), you may grip with your stomach, you may feel numb or you may feel anger or sadness.
The impact of toxic relationships
The constant emotional stress that comes with having a toxic relationship can cause havoc on the body. We are not designed to stay in a constant state of stress and our primitive reaction is to always seek a state of protection. So when we are in a toxic relationship our body is flooded with stress chemicals that keep the body on red alert.
The body moves into action by pumping blood to the major organs, diverting it away from the digestive tract and reproductive system. Long-term, your breathing is altered as you are trapped in a constant state of stress. You may notice shallow or fast breathing, or a change in the rhythm of your breathing.
The knock-on effect is a range of symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, weight gain or loss, hormone imbalance, frequent illness, digestive problems, muscle aches, back and neck pain. All of this from a toxic relationship.
How to deal with toxic family members
Most people that exhibit toxic behaviour aren’t aware of their impact on others. They will ride the rollercoaster of emotions, numbing themselves with whatever their chosen vice is to get them through the stress they themselves are feeling. Narcissism, aggression and bullying are common signs of toxicity and are also very hard to shift. It requires consciousness and personal work to help change years of patterning.
Part of the process of dealing with a toxic relationship in your family, at work or with a friend is to open up a dialogue. While this isn’t always easy, sometimes great growth and learning come from tough conversations. Other times, you may realise that you can’t change that person’s behaviour, and the only thing you can change is your own behaviour.
Having an honest conversation with someone you are close to may be the hardest one you ever have, but it may also have the biggest positive impact on your future.
Toxic family signs
Every family has its unique dynamic. From divorced households to single parents to married couples who fight so much, it would be better they were separated. In each family, there may be one or many toxic members of the family. Whatever the dynamic, there is no denying that it impacts the adult you become.
As we grow up, we are impacted by every touchpoint as we navigate our way towards adulthood. If you are shown throughout your childhood that passive aggressiveness or dominance is okay, then you can be sure that you will grow into an adult who believes the same.
A toxic relationship in your past may have been unavoidable, but you have the ability to take it as an opportunity for personal growth. The only person you have control over is yourself.
Toxic Sibling Relationships
It isn’t just parental relationships that can take an emotional toll. I was reminded of just how brutal sibling relationships can be while working with a patient this week. My patient was struggling to deal with her brother as he worked his way through alcohol addiction. Her brother was angry, in denial and prone to lashing out at his sister.
Not surprisingly, her anxiety would increase when she was around him, and she could feel her physical reaction to her brother. Because we care so much for family members, we are vulnerable to how much they can hurt us. To help my patient, we worked on creating space for her mind and body so that she could get through the tough times with her brother and was in a better place to communicate.
I am one of six kids, and I know from first-hand experience that each sibling relationship is different. Each takes work, energy and commitment from both sides to ensure that you can grow into an adult relationship that is based on trust and not drag the behaviours of your childhood with you.
Take care of yourself
If you think you are in a toxic relationship, there are several things you can do to take control.
- Connect: We can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends. Choose friends who allow you to be you. There is often shame associated with our childhood and the vulnerability of mental or physical abuse can be tough. Finding a strong support group, however small, can allow you to start working on the negative impact a past relationship has had.
Look for those who will support you in getting out of a toxic situation if required. It takes time to build respect and trust and remember it isn’t the quantity of the relationships you have in your life that matter but the quality.
- Take time for yourself: Find a way to create time to escape. We all need time for ourselves so that we can nurture our souls. When dealing with toxic or jealous relatives the more you can remove yourself from the situation the faster you can reduce the negative impact on the body from the stress.
And when it comes to finding space, small things add up. Find a place in your home or community where you can retreat. Or build in a daily ritual that benefits you, like a mantra or even just a few kind words to yourself that reverse the impact of toxicity.
Mental and physical abuse leave deep scars, so it is not uncommon for it to take years to change the internal dialogue and believe your new truth.
- Get out: Don’t live in fear. If you or someone else’s safety is in danger then get help immediately. This can be incredibly difficult and is compounded by the fact that often, those who are in this situation often feel like they have no options. But there are many organisations, such as women’s refuges, that are waiting to help you.
Stepping into bravery and getting help can be the scariest thing you ever do but everyone deserves to be safe and loved. Reach out to human beings and organisations that are ready to help you.
- Setting boundaries for toxic family members: There are many ways you can put boundaries in place. I have worked with adult patients who have had to completely shut off contact with family members in order to get themselves better. In one case, the narcissistic behaviour of a parent was triggering so much anxiety and grief for a patient that their breathing pattern had become altered as their stress reaction was being activated so often.
For that patient to fix the altered breathing and anxiety, he had to stop contact with his mother and work with a therapist to discover what was triggering the response. While we can’t always cut off contact, nor should this be our first line of defence, we can set up boundaries that will help reduce the impact of a toxic relationship.
- Exhale: In moments of stress that are caused by a toxic relationship one of the best ways to calm the body is to release air out of the lungs with a long, relaxed exhale. Exhalation activates the calm part of your nervous system (your parasympathetic nervous system) that is shut down during times of stress.
Constant emotional stress from toxic relationships can generate fear, sadness or anger. Each one of these emotions has a unique breathing pattern that the body can become stuck in, like a record stuck on repeat.
Learning to change your breathing pattern to joyful belly breathing (more about this in The Big Exhale 30 day online breathing course) can break the cycle of stress and the impact of a negative relationship. Learning to breathe in a calm, relaxed way is often the first step to taking control of a toxic situation.
- Reduce the impact of stress: Create a daily practice that reduces the impact of a toxic relationship. Walk, dance, sing, scream, run, try yoga. Whatever it is, just move and release the adrenaline (one of our stress hormones) that is stored when we are triggered by toxic relationships.
- Reshape your internal dialogue: When you have been living in a toxic relationship for a while your brain chemistry or your physical reaction to stress and your internal dialogue become altered. Therapy can help process your family of origin story allowing you to let go of the impact it has had on you.
This can be painful and difficult work and takes time and patience. The reward is well worth it. Not every counsellor or therapist is the same, so hunt out the right match for you and give it time and be open to being challenged. Remember your family story is unique to you and is worth listening to. You need to dig deep to see the impact it has on who you are today and the relationships you have as an adult.
Reshaping your stress response from toxic relationships.
Love them or hate them, you can’t choose your family and they will inevitably shape who you become - for better or worse. A toxic relationship in your past may have been unavoidable, but you have the ability to take it as an opportunity for personal growth.
The only person you have control over is yourself. Your thoughts, feelings and body’s reactions say a lot about how a relationship impacts you. Once you can identify how your body and mind react to a relationship and you realise it is a toxic one, you can change it. Take control of your relationships and you can take control of your emotional wellbeing.
Over to you
Have you been in a toxic relationship? Is there a toxic member of your family? What do you do to get you through tough times in your family? We all have unique ways of coping. Feel free to share what has helped you, I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below and share on Facebook.
Don’t forget if you want to try the 30-day Big Exhale program to help retrain your breathing to help deal with a toxic relationship use the coupon code toxic at check-out to get $30 off the full price.
Emma Ferris is known as a breathing guru and is the creator of The Big Exhale 30 day breathing course. She’s also called wellness nut, entrepreneur and a woman on a mission. Drawing on a 12-year career in physiotherapy, as well as expertise in pilates, acupuncture and stress management, Emma Ferris is teaching the world to find their calm and stress less at The Butterfly Effect.