The Subtle Art of Self-Preservation: How to Cope with Toxic Family Dysfunction

Family Dysfunction

There’s no such thing as a perfect family, a family in which everything is love, support, kindness, and fun. Of course, there are families who have healthy relationships with one another — but even then, the reality is that families can argue, hurt one another, bring each other to tears, point fingers of blame, and make big mistakes. If these incidents are the norm — especially when a family member’s behavior can be described as controlling, neglectful, and abusive — that is a sign that family dynamics are unhealthy, that there is a level of toxic family dysfunction. 

Over time, toxic family dysfunction can take a serious toll on your own physical and mental health, so it’s critical that you are able to balance family time with your wellbeing. If “toxic” is a word that feels like an appropriate descriptor for one or more of your family members or consistently negative patterns of interaction, you will want to hone the subtle art of self-preservation. Although I am not a therapist myself, I am sharing with you some simple, therapeutic interventions that have helped me protect myself from toxic family dysfunction. 

6Identifying Toxicity

The first thing you will have to do is to identify toxicity in your interactions with your family.

When you’ve grown up in a dysfunctional family, this part is easier said than done. If you’re having trouble differentiating toxicity from an unremarkable, “normal” conflict between family members, take a minute to get in touch with your feelings. “Pay attention to how you feel before and after you see or talk to this person,” suggests clinical psychologist Dr. Juli Fraga in an piece she recently wrote for Vice. She explains that you might experience of symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD when you interact with a toxic family member. These are not “normal” reactions and signal that something is awry.

Toxic family dysfunction is different for everybody. You might have siblings who can’t seem to resist ganging up on you over your life choices. A parent who won’t stop denigrating your spouse. A child who constantly works to convince you that your political or religious beliefs are wrong. A family member who insists that you are disrespectful or ungrateful every time you express your own, opposing opinion on an issue. If there’s a pattern of behavior or a topic of conversation that you associate with negativity, anxiety, depression, anger, or distress, identify these as toxic to you. Keeping an actual log of whatever triggers you can help you to keep a clear head and recognize how these incidents arise.  

5My Struggle to Define Toxic Family Dysfunction

A writer for The Guardian pointed out that “’toxic’ is neither a personality type or a diagnosis” but rather “two sets of values colliding.” The reality is that toxicity is subjective. What drives one person up a wall might simply elicit a shrug in another. This understanding of the concept really helped me to identify toxicity in my life. As the half-Korean, Midwestern daughter of a Korean mother who has a completely different set of cultural values than I do, I have personally struggled to define what is toxic about our relationship because I tend to try to empathize with and excuse negative behavior, even if it involves putting undue blame upon myself. What my mother thinks is a culturally normative interaction can be utterly distressing to me, and believing that neither of us is necessarily “right” used to prevent me from identifying our toxic family dysfunction. 

We clash over many issues, from superficial to existential, but the issue that I believe best illustrates the nebulousness of toxicity is a trivial one: skincare. I rue the day that my mother discovered K-Beauty. A typical present-day interaction between the two of us is when she reaches up and runs her hand along my forehead or cheek to tell me how rough my skin is. How red and splotchy it looks. How my freckles are fine but I should really tone them down because I could be so beautiful, really. She insists she’s never seen anything like my face before and begs me to go to a dermatologist or to at least wear BB cream. Even Korean men do it, she explains. She goes on to remind me how nice my skin was when I was younger (especially before I had freckles, which was when I was in preschool), how I used to love wearing makeup (which I inexpertly caked on to cover up teen acne), how I must have gotten these genes from my father (whom she divorced many years ago), and how none of my friends will tell me the truth about my face because they don’t care about me the way that she cares about me. She gave birth to me, after all.

My reaction? Hysterics. Anger. Tears. When I get upset like this, my mother pits my bicultural identity against me, insisting that as an American I’m too sensitive; Korean girls don’t react to their mothers this way about something as superficial and normal as a conversation about skincare.

To complicate matters, this blistering assessment of the condition of my face is in stark contrast to the real compliments I get from friends and even the occasional stranger: “You have such great skin!” These positive comments actually don’t make me feel better, but rather leave me feeling more confused. On a bad day, I will stare at my face in a mirror and see myself as Deadpool, believing that the compliments were in fact morbid congratulations for letting my full hideousness shine, not doctored and not photoshopped. I have utterly lost the ability to form my own conclusions over what I believe I look like, a clinical diagnosis in the psychiatric and dermatologic world called monosymptomatic hypochondriasis, or delusions of dysmorphia.

I’ve wrung my hands over identifying toxicity in my family, but learning that it can occur any time there are two sets of values colliding gave me the confidence and perspective I needed to name my toxicity. It was also a huge relief for me to finally learn that having a warped sense of reality is common among people who’ve grown up around toxic family dysfunction.

My mother would be inclined to argue that I’m the toxic daughter who can’t accept a simple, well-meaning observation without flying off the handle or taking her comments as a personal attack when in fact they were made out of love. But ultimately, what it comes down to is as simple as this: Is an interaction negatively affecting your wellbeing? Yes or No. It doesn’t matter if it’s culturally normative for my mother to comment on my skin in the context of K-Beauty, or if she means well, or if I am the “toxic” one. Clearly, this recurring argument over my skin has negatively affected my mental health, and that is what makes it toxic family territory. End of story.

4Acknowledge and Let Go

Once you have named your toxicity, get to know it better. Acknowledge what you believe is at the root of what is upsetting you. What are the deeper issues at play? Control? Fear? Jealousy? Trauma? Once you acknowledge that these things are what they are, you can understand that many of these issues are likely going to be out of your control and that it is beyond your capacity or responsibility to fix them. This is also the time for you to assess how much of a role you are playing in your toxic family dysfunction. Is there anything you might have been doing that has been fueling the toxicity? Do you react with passive aggression? Do you lash out and bring up past trauma to change the subject?

Don’t get too hung up on this part; simply acknowledge what you think might be true. Then, let go. Let go of blame, of your impulse to try to fix things, of any illusions that your family will ever fit your ideal of harmony and love. In my case, from my perspective, the toxicity originates with control issues, an obsession with perfection, my personal insecurities, and even individualist versus collectivist ideals in family interactions. But I could be totally off-base; maybe my mother is simply a skincare addict. Maybe I do look like Deadpool. It doesn’t matter anymore. Wherever the toxicity is coming from, it has to end, and the only thing that I can really control is how much of it I let in.

3Boundaries Are Your Friend

By taking a step back and understanding that toxicity is a symptom of things that are largely out of your control, you’ll be better able to determine how you want to build your self-preservation practices. One of the best things you can do is to create boundaries.

Once you know what toxic family dysfunction means to you, you will want to set some boundaries to assert and protect yourself from the harm that it causes. This is not something that you are doing out of anger or punishment, but rather out of self-care. Think carefully about what your intentions are when setting these boundaries and why you believe it will help you avoid toxic family interactions. A therapist can help you create boundaries that are effective and healthy. Again, you are not trying to “fix” your family here. You are acknowledging what is toxic to your wellbeing and you are creating boundaries to protect yourself. 

A publication shared by Brown University’s Counseling and Psychological Services warns that your family members may react negatively to these new boundaries; you may want to anticipate these reactions in order to stay one step ahead of them. For example, if you have a family member who is openly critical of how you are raising your child in a way that makes you feel anxiety over your ability to be a good parent, you may decide that the topic is not up for discussion. If your family member does not respect your wishes, you can explain that you are ending the conversation there — leave the room, end the phone call — and tell them that they can try again another day. 

Your loved one may try to insist that this proves their point, that you’re a bad parent. Or, they may try to paint themselves as the victim. Whatever the case, hold firm to your boundaries and remember that while you cannot control how they feel or act, you can try to manage how much toxicity you are subjected to. Repeat until you’ve created new patterns that overturn old, harmful ones.

2Get in Your Happy Place

Coping with toxic family dysfunction can be much more challenging when you’re not feeling 100%. Get plenty of sleep, practice mind-body interventions to manage stress in other parts of your life, and do whatever you like to do to feel radiant and on top of the world. You may need to practice extra positive self-affirmations in the week leading up to your family encounters, or fit in a last minute session with your shrink. Getting into your happy place isn’t going to make you invincible to toxicity, but it will help you better manage your part in escalating situations.

1Substance Abuse

Having a family member who grapples with addiction is an objective indicator of toxic family dysfunction and will require you to do much more than read through a self-help blog post. If substance abuse is at the heart of your family’s toxicity, you especially need to realize that it is not up to you to “fix” your family, even though it’s nearly impossible for them to do it on their own. Whether the substance is alcohol, a legal or illegal narcotic, or even nicotine, curing an addiction is beyond your sole responsibility and well beyond your power.

However, much of the literature out there surrounding substance abuse suggests that family does in fact play a key role in a loved one’s recovery and that substance abusers fare better with the support of their family than on their own. Regarding alcohol specifically, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism points out that although family members can negatively impact an individual’s recovery from alcohol abuse and trigger a relapse, they can also be powerful agents for change. For those of you who are able to take part in this recovery process, one of the added benefits is that you will be reducing your own risk for developing issues surrounding alcohol.

Whether you’re the child, sibling, parent, or grandparent of a family member who abuses alcohol or narcotics, it is important for you to reach out to an experienced resource in order to begin to understand what your role can be in healing your toxic family dynamics. Visiting the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Patients and Families homepage is a good place to get your bearings on where to start. First and foremost, they suggest you encourage your family member to get an evaluation from a doctor who has experience in addiction medicine. If your family member isn’t initially willing to get treatment, you can still begin to research treatment centers that you think would be appropriate for your loved one.

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