How to deal with toxic family members – 8 coping techniques to protect your wellbeing
Knowing how to deal with toxic family members correctly isn't easy – but not knowing can have a devastating impact on our mental health.
Despite what Instagram may tell you, a lot of us struggle when it comes to spending time with relatives. Whether it's a passive-aggressive parent who’s got you walking on eggshells or a manipulative grandad drowning you in guilt, family time can be tough as hell.
Unfortunately, forever avoiding certain relatives isn't always an option. So Four Nine decided to ask practitioner psychologist Dr Rina Bajaj for some advice on how to deal with toxic family members.
How to deal with toxic family members
Explaining how relatives can affect our wellbeing, Dr Bajaj tells Four Nine: "When we experience a toxic family or home life this can have an impact on how we feel and how we perceive ourselves.
"This experience can leave us questioning ourselves, and can lead to the amplification of our 'inner critic'. Over time, this can impact both our self-worth and self-esteem."
If you find yourself in this predicament, Dr Bajaj advises considering the following coping techniques.
1. Pay attention to how certain people make you feel
As Dr Bajaj explains, some people drain our energy and make us feel worse, while others energise us, and make us feel supported and safe.
"Mutuality is important in every relationship," she stresses. "So, notice the amount of energy that you're giving out. In particular, pay attention to if you feel people are taking more than they're giving back, or if you feel your energy is depleting.
"It is easy to step back into family dynamics, and the role that we've always played," she adds. "So that's why it's important to be consciously reflecting on this. Remember that you're not responsible for other people's feelings or behaviour. You can just control yours."
"Self-care is important," Dr Bajaj adds. "You deserve to invest in yourself as it helps to energise you, and shows you that you’re worthy. Think about what self-care looks like to you and then start to prioritise this."
Dr Bajaj says you can make a date in your diary if you need to, and that some self-care is better than none at all.
She explains that it can be physical, including activities such as, exercising, stretching, and sleeping. But it can also be emotional or social.
3. Don't compare yourself to others
"Comparisons do nothing to uplift you," Dr Bajaj explains. "You don't need to compare yourself to anyone else. You're good enough just as you are. So focus on you, your needs, and your desires."
This can be especially helpful in dynamics where you find yourself pitted against other family members.
One way to combat constantly comparing yourself to your relatives is to create your own 'positives list'. Dr Bajaj explains: "This is a list of all the positive things and qualities and values that you have. Aim to get to at least 20 items.
"You can keep adding to the list, and look at it regularly to remind yourself that you're worthy, and deserve love."
4. Be mindful of critical thoughts
When contending with toxic family situations, where you feel attacked or misunderstood, it's important to be mindful and challenge any critical thoughts.
"When a critical thought arises, notice it and then try and think of a more balanced thought," Dr Bajaj advises.
"You can also go back to your positives list to help you to challenge any critical thinking."
5. Try a kindness and compassion exercise
Dr Bajaj explains that such exercises help you show more kindness and compassion towards yourself, and the people who are toxic in your life.
To practice one, you visualise yourself (to invoke feelings of forgiveness and self-compassion), or another person, and repeat the following phrase out loud or in your head: "I hope you’re well. I hope you’re happy, I hope you’re safe, I forgive you and I let go."
Doing so can "help minimise any intensity of emotions," Dr Bajaj says.
6. Think about your support network
When experiencing a toxic home life, Dr Bajaj stresses that it's important to consider your support networks, and try to create a balance there.
"Who are the people who light you up?" she asks. "Try and spend more time with people who uplift your energy.
"This will help you to manage your mood and to feel safe and engaged. And limit your time with people who drain you."
7. Remember you don't have to say yes to everything
If you have several upcoming social engagements with difficult family members, it's important to recognise that you don't need to attend every one.
As Dr Bajaj advises: "It's ok to say 'no' to take care of your own needs. You can say no if it harms your mental or emotional wellbeing.
"If you're trying to put in healthier boundaries, start by saying 'no' to smaller things, and then building on this as your confidence grows."
8. Consistency is key
Dr Bajaj says that we must also note that this past year has been challenging for all of us, on account of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. This, of course, is more difficult if you have a toxic family life. Support yourself by keeping some consistency in your routine in order to help you feel grounded.
"This can help to provide you with some containment, either practically, emotionally, or physically," Dr Bajaj explains.
"You can work on the things that are in your control. This can include getting enough sleep, eating healthily, exercise and grounding techniques, which involve deep breathing, mindfulness, and muscle relaxation."
Have you found these coping techniques on how to deal with toxic family members helpful? Let us know, on the Four Nine Facebook page.