Last week I discussed the state of your mental health has a lot to do with whom you surround yourself. I challenged you to observe the people with whom you spend your time in order to see if these were healthy or unhealthy (toxic) friendships. I discussed this from a point of choosing who you give your time to. Friendships should be a choice as to whether or not you want to be friends with a certain person.
What happens if the toxic people you could identify last week were not friends but family? This is not a choice, is it? Or is it? Does someone being related to you or to your significant other give that person the right or freedom to be toxic in your life or cause constant chaos? Do you have to “put up with it” because they share your last name? There is a saying “you can choose your friends but you cannot choose your family”. This is true but you can choose how you are going to let others treat you, family or not.
When it comes to toxic relationships with family members the one thing I always help people establish are boundaries. What are the boundaries? Why do you put up a baby gate at the bottom of the stairs for your learning to walk toddler? Why do teenagers have community curfews to be in by 11 p.m.? Safety. Boundaries are about safety measures. Even in family relationships, boundaries are about providing safety. There can be different boundaries in place for those family members that provide discomfort or upset feelings for you. You can decide how long you are willing to be around this person. You can decide where you want or don’t want to be around this person (e.g., your house, their house, community setting). Only you can make the decision about boundaries because only you can decide what is tolerable/acceptable for you. If you know that staying in the presence of someone longer than an hour will result in the rest of the evening being for the sole purpose of building yourself back up, don’t stay an hour. Know your boundaries. Listen to your experiences with this person. Trust your head and your gut.
Family relationships should not be hard but they certainly can be. Sometimes the ones we are hurt by the most are related to us. Why? Many reasons I suppose, but I think the biggest is communication and not setting boundaries when there are obvious differences as well as forcing yourself and the other person to endure too much togetherness. This is especially true when the two of you do not agree on who hurt whom and who needs to own it. This can certainly be the root of the problem.
I wrote a while back about forgiveness and received a lot of feedback on that article. Forgiveness is very difficult but it is a necessary part of moving on and forward with YOUR life. Forgiveness is not for the other person but for YOU. This is especially true in family situations where seeing family members who have done you wrong continue to be a part of your life. You cannot go through life being bitter and angry over the past. Well, I guess you can but you have to decide if you will give power to the person who has wronged you. That’s what you are doing when you cannot let go of past hurts. You continue to give the person who hurt you the power to continue to affect your life and your well being. If the other person chooses to then that is on that person. You can only do what is best for you and not expect other people to do the same thing. It certainly is easier said than done but when you accomplish this and you can tolerate the toxic people in your life (because you cannot really cut all of them out completely if they are related somehow) then you allow yourself peace. You can walk away from encounters holding your head high and knowing that you continued to be who you are despite the toxicity that may have been floating around the room, instead of walking away perseverating on every detail of the conversations and the looks that were shooting around and how uncomfortable you were.
Again, friendships and family relationships do have a sense of choice to them. You get to choose what you will and won’t accept as tolerable behavior towards you. You get to choose if this person is toxic for you and if he/she should no longer have a place in your life. If you cannot choose to completely cut the person out of your life then you get to choose the boundaries that you will have around you that will allow you peace in the presence of the toxic person. When you feel you have choices in difficult situations it takes the helplessness out of the equation and places you in the driver’s seat to decide what is best for you.
Kari Swanson is a Master’s level clinician with 25 years of working in the mental health field. She is the founder of CORE–Choosing Openness Regarding Experiences which is a non-profit organization with the mission to provide mental health awareness and suicide prevention education to Warren County.