Every family has the occasional argument. But if you’ve always felt like you become your worst self when you’re back at home, your family could be treading on toxic territory. “Toxic people are draining; encounters leave you emotionally wiped out," says Abigail Brenner, M.D. "Time with them is about taking care of their business, which will leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, if not angry. Don’t allow yourself to become depleted as a result of giving and giving and getting nothing in return." Sound familiar? Here are nine ways to find out if you have a toxic family and how to deal.
Signs Your Family Could Be Toxic
1. They get jealous or try to compete with you. Your mom dreamed of being a dancer, but she became a travel agent. Then when you were cast as Clara in The Nutcracker at age 12, your mom spent hours showing you videos of her old ballet performances and ended up getting a headache on the night of your big debut. While it might seem ridiculous that a grown adult would be jealous of a 12-year-old, it’s a dynamic that people in toxic families know all too well.
2. They overreact. OK, your dad was justifiably mad when you were running around the house at age nine and broke an heirloom vase. But if he is still regularly flying off the handle for completely reasonable things you do as an adult (like getting stuck in traffic and arriving 15 minutes late to his barbecue), this relationship has “toxic” written all over it.
3. They compare you. You and your older sister are two completely different people. But because she’s a doctor with three kids and you’re a single receptionist at a doctor’s office, your brother loves to try to pit the two of you against each other. Your sister takes the high road, but your brother’s constant teasing still makes you feel insecure and attacked.
4. They act like victims. Sometimes, parents can’t help but guilt trip their kids. (“What do you mean, you aren’t coming home for Thanksgiving?”) But there’s a difference between expressing disappointment and creating a toxic environment by blaming everyone else for their feelings. If your mom refuses to talk to you for a week because you decided to spend Thanksgiving with friends this year, you could be in toxic territory.
5. They don’t respect your boundaries. You love your sister, but she’s always been impulsive. She’s made a habit of showing up at your family’s house, unannounced, expecting to be able to crash on the couch for a couple of days. Because you love her, you give in, but even after asking her to stop popping in without calling, she continues to do it.
6. They’re always right. Your parents have hated every person you’ve ever dated, and it’s starting to feel like no one is going to be good enough. They have similar opinions about your career goals, friends and pretty much everything else. If you’ve articulated that you’re happy with your life and the people in it and they still won’t stay out of your business, then your relationship with your parents could be verging on (if not already) toxic.
7. They give ultimatums. A parent’s love is supposed to be unconditional, right? But your mother is constantly setting conditions that feel suspiciously like threats. In fact, you’ve heard the words, “if you don’t *fill-in-the-blank,* you’re not my daughter anymore,” more than once. Toxic behavior? Yep.
8. Conversations are always about them. You just got off a 45-minute phone call with your sister only to realize that she didn’t ask you a single question about your life or how you’re doing. If she was dealing with a personal crisis or had some exciting news, then that’s one thing. But if this happens pretty much every time you talk, then this relationship could be toxic. (Particularly if she accuses you of not caring about her if you try to shift the conversation to yourself.)
9. They drain your energy. Do you feel totally exhausted every time you interact with a particular family member? We’re not talking about feeling like you need to be by yourself for a little while, something that can happen even with people we love being around (introverts in particular can find interactions draining). Interacting with a toxic person can leave you feeling defeated since their dramatic, needy and high-maintenance tendencies can suck the energy right out of you.
How to Move on from a Toxic Childhood
1. Detach. Give yourself some space—but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write off or avoid your family. “Detaching is an emotional concept and has nothing to do with physical proximity,” says Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT. “It means not reacting, not taking things personally, and not feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings, wants, and needs.” Now that you’re an adult, you’re not obligated to hang out with your family every free second you have…or even at all. Set the boundary that works for you—say, lunch with your dad every two weeks—and remind yourself that it’s OK to keep as much emotional distance as you need to.
2. Avoid triggers. If you’re inundated with flak from your parents about deciding to be a musician, then stop talking about it around them. If they bring it up, cut down the conversation as soon as possible and change the subject. Here’s how the conversation could go:
Mom: I never understood why you couldn’t get a stable, well-paying job like your sister. Did you know that an entry-level job in the tech world starts at six figures? How much has your music made you this year?
You: You’ve already told me your opinions about my music, and I’d appreciate if we talked about something else. Did you find that dresser you were looking for?
Mom: No, I haven’t found it yet, but I’m going to Ikea on Thursday.
3. Try the Grey Rock Method. We first discovered this handy trick on psychologist Nadene van der Linden’s blog, Unshakeable Calm. In a nutshell, it’s a tool to prevent toxic people from escalating a situation. Act as boring, uninteresting and disengaged as possible and toxic people will find it less exciting to try to manipulate you and choose another target. It takes some acting chops, but you don’t have to be Meryl Streep to master it. During every interaction with the toxic person, the trick is to speak in a neutral voice, talk about boring subjects, don’t make eye contact and give short, generic answers. And if the toxic person tries to get a rise out of you, don’t engage emotionally. Find out more about the Grey Rock Method here.
4. Keep a go-to phrase on stand-by. We get it—dealing with a toxic family member is tough and you never know what’s going to set them off. That’s why it’s useful to have a phrase or two handy that you can repeat whenever they give you unsolicited advice or ask you to do something. For the former, we like the phrase, “You may be right.” And for the later, try “I have to think about it.” Here’s how it works:
Dad: I don’t know why you spend all that money on [blank]. You should invest in [blank] instead.
You: You may be right. So, what should we make for dinner tonight?
Sister: I need you to plan a birthday party for me.
You: I have to think about it. I have a lot of things going on in the next couple of weeks and need to see if that’s doable for me.