How To Deal With Toxic Family Relationships

“Blood is thicker than water.”

You hear people say how important family is, how their love is absolute, and there are no other people in the whole world who love you more and who will always be there for you.

But what if your family is toxic, and instead of helping you and making you a better human being, their love is suffocating you?

When it comes to relationships, we’ve become more aware of the signs that determine what is toxic. And while we still have a long way to go, it’s becoming more common to leave the toxic person.

But when it comes to a toxic family, the lines get blurry because most of the toxic behavior is masked as “love” and “concern.” Or we’re simply told that it’s the generational difference and that we should get over it.

Some of the most common types of toxic behavior in families are:

  • Picking on your weaknesses and vulnerabilities

  • Restricting your lifestyle, even if you’re not a kid anymore

  • Competitive environment between siblings and infighting

  • Ignoring the abusive behavior or pretending it doesn’t exist

  • Manipulation and gaslighting

You often hear that it’s normal for families to fight, for siblings to compete with each other and that the criticisms you receive are constructive.

As I was growing up in my family, I was often told that any of the behaviors mentioned above are normal. And that me being unhappy with our family relationship was my issue, and not theirs.

It took me two years to learn that my family was, in fact, toxic. And that most of the things I’ve learned from them, I had to unlearn to lead a healthy and happy life.

Life before realising my family is toxic

Recognizing toxic behavior in any relationship is hard, while you’re still closely related to the people involved. For the longest time, I made excuses for my family’s, in particular, my grandmother’s behavior.

Since I was little, I was critiqued for how I dressed, how I talked, how much I weighed.

I was always told that my grades were not as good as they could have been, even though I was amongst the top students in my class. I won the national creative writing competition and wrote multiple plays for school events, but it was never enough.

I was told that the way I laugh is not appropriate for a girl because it’s too loud, too much. My grandmother even critiqued me for the way I put my feet when I walk and that it was too manly. I spend the whole summer training to walk on my tiptoes, graciously like a lady.

All of it was done in the disguise of love and care about me and my future. Because that’s what family does — we take care of each other.

In my personal life, I also balanced the tiny line of being my true self and trying to appeal to my grandmother while being the golden child.

I was torn between their wants and mine, and I thought that it was me who was a problem.

The toxic family will do this to you — they will make it look like it’s you who’s the problem and not them. It’s you who is the black sheep in the herd and that you should be the one to fix it.

Like most people in toxic relationships, I continued this destructive behavior trying to alter myself to their standards because I needed them to approve of me. I needed their love and support.

What was I if I didn’t have my family’s love and support? What was I going to do if they reject me?

Why do we seek approval from our caregivers?

My therapist opened my eyes when she explained to me why we want our parents and caregivers to like us.

It’s a natural response for a child because when we’re born, we’re dependent on them, and we need them in order to survive. So, of course, we want them to like us because if they don’t, they won’t ensure our survival.

“In other words, it’s “normal” for you to be pulled towards wanting your parents’ approval because doing so would have protected you as a cave baby 100 000 years ago, and the software of the brain remains the same today.” — Dr. Rebecca Ray on why we seek our parent’s approval.

This same notion caries with us through life because it’s part of our primal brain, and we don’t have a lot of control over it. Unless we understand that it’s our primal brain making decisions for us.

For me, learning the real reason why I was desperately clinging to my toxic family, trying, again and again, to get their approval even though I was struggling with it, was such a relief.

Because once I realized that it’s just a part of our brain and survival mechanism, it meant that I can do the work and mindfully change my need for approval.

Saying goodbye to your toxic family

Step 1: Understand that their way of life is not the only way

When I graduated high school, I got into two universities with very two different programs. The first one was my dream university, and I would go to study fashion and become a fashion journalist.

The other option was a good university, and I would study PR and advertising so I could go work as a publicist, and my grandparents would be proud.

My grandparents didn’t believe in being a writer, and they didn’t believe in working in fashion. It was something reserved for the lucky ones, and I wasn’t one of them, which meant I would never be able to make a living.

So, naturally, I said goodbye to my dream university and my dream job and went on to study PR.

I had this unshakable belief that my family knew better. That they knew how life works and that their way is the only way. My grandparents had more experience than I. They have lived their life for many years and have accomplished a lot of things.

So, they must know better, right?


There is no one way of doing things or living your life. In fact, there are plenty. And for each person, it will look different depending on who they are, where they live, and what environment surrounds them.

Most often, toxic families tell you that you can’t do something because you’re not good enough or it’s not the right path for you. They say that your dreams are stupid and that you’re not special enough to be one of those people living their lives unconventionally.

During my therapy sessions, I’ve spent hours untangling my thoughts and fears about what life actually looks like, trying to understand that there is no one way to live your life.

To battle the fear and toxic beliefs, I looked for proof that there is more than one way of living your life outside. I read books, memoirs, personal development, and business books that had tons of social proof that I can, in fact, live my life on my own terms.

Seeking out people with different mentalities than yours and different experiences is the best way to overcome the fear of stepping outside the “normal” life limits, and it helped me tremendously.

Once I believed that my grandparent’s way wasn’t the only one, I was finally ready to take another step.

Step 2: Decide how you want your life to look like

On my very first therapy session, after I finished rambling and hysterically balling my eyes out, my therapist told me to sit down and write my life goals. What do I really want from life?

You see, because I tried pleasing my family with my life, but I couldn’t completely let myself go, I was stuck in this limbo between what I want to do and what they believe I should do.

My grandmother wanted me to go into politics because it was her lifelong dream that didn’t come true. But that’s alright — I was the new hope for my grandma to finally live her broken dreams through me. It sounds like every cheesy plot of every 00s teen movie, right?

By the time I reached the age of twenty, I knew my grandmother’s dream better than my own. It was hard sitting down to write my life goals when I wasn’t sure what it was anymore.

It took me a few tries, with three to four months in between, to refine the life goals I have for myself. Life goals for myself and my life and not my family and what they believe is right for me.

I also had to re-learn what being an adult means to me.

You see, I believed everything my family told me about life — if I go to university, graduate, get a corporate job and then start a family will I be able to be a proper “adult.”

Because I wasn’t doing everything they told me I should be doing, I found myself being 24 and feeling like a child. I didn’t have a degree, a job and had just moved back home to sleep on my mom’s couch.

I was a failure in their eyes, so I was a failure in my own eyes as well.

But that’s the thing — you’re only a failure when you stop trying.

Step 3: Understand that what they want for you it’s not for your good, but theirs

People are selfish. They don’t want you to change because of how it affects their lives. This was also a gem my therapist shared with me during our sessions.

I realized that what my family claimed was for my own good was actually for theirs. They didn’t want me to pursue a creative career because it meant an unknown path for them, where they wouldn’t be able to control me.

They didn’t want me moving to a different country because they would lose their grip on my life and wouldn’t be able to control how I live my life.

Recently, my best friend and her husband got a dog. The storm such a simple action created in their families was incredible.

Suddenly, their decision to adopt a dog became the biggest issue because a dog is a lot of responsibility. How are they going to have nice furniture at home? How are they going to be able to go on vacation when there is a dog at home?

Do you know why their families reaction was so negative?

Because them going and adopting a dog, on their own, without consulting their families was taking away control from their parents. Their negative response to the dog was their way of trying to get control back over my friend’s life.

So, next time when someone from your family critiques your personal decisions in life, know that they’re not doing this to better your life, but rather because they’re trying to keep you in check for their own sake.

Step 4: Don’t waste energy explaining

Before, when my grandmother used to ask me how is work or studies when we had dinner together, I would elaborate on every detail, wanting to share my life with my family. It would never end well because they would critique each and single detail, always offering their input.

My family is very cutthroat. You give them a reason, and they’ll tear you to pieces. I don’t condone conversations and don’t engage in baiting anymore.

I don’t give any more details about my life than I need to. I don’t leave space for them to include their opinions anymore.

Now, when my grandmother calls me and asks me how is work, I tell her: “It’s very good.”

Because I don’t explain what type of work I do or how my days look, she doesn’t ask any more questions because she doesn’t know what to ask.

It was game-changing for me because I save a ton of energy trying to explain and prove my point.

People are going to believe you only if they are willing to listen, so don’t waste your breath trying to explain yourself to people who don’t want to listen.

Step 5: Build the wall. Brick by brick.

It might sound terrible, but I’m very lucky for the quarantine that happened in 2020. It was the thing that allowed me to drew the line and set boundaries.

Before that, I would always go visit on the weekends, and in the summertime, I would stay for a few days because my family has a large house in the suburbs.

I would hate it, but I had to do it out of obligation.

When the quarantine was implemented, we didn’t visit my grandparents for months because we were following orders. And it was the best thing ever because I got to see what life looks like when they’re not in the picture.

Setting boundaries is hard though, I know that. We don’t want to feel guilty or disappoint people. But it’s crucial if you want to distance yourself from your toxic family.

You can start small.

Instead of attending every dinner and event, attend only a few that are important. If you’re expected to visit and stay overnight at your family’s home, explain that you can’t do that anymore because you prefer to sleep at home. Your home.

Start widening the gap.

Now, you don’t completely cut them out if you don’t want to if there is no need for it. But start keeping the distance and communicating only as much as you feel comfortable.

Wrapping up

“The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”

Navigating family relationships is tough, but it’s crucial to recognize when the relationships are not serving you anymore.

You’re an adult, and you know what your life should look like better than anyone else.

My life has changed so much since I let my toxic family go. I finally work the job I always wanted to, and I make decent money with it. I get to play computer games when I want, and it doesn’t make me any less of an adult.

I also don’t worry about my laugh; I think it’s awesome.

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