Blood may be thicker than water, but you can't drink it. We are told throughout our lives that family is the most important thing. I constantly find myself working with clients who are deeply entrenched in the dynamics of toxic family systems. Helping them navigate these turbulent waters can be difficult, but well worth the effort.
With the holidays approaching, family dynamics became more and more salient as we arrange Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas parties. Families often put us in the difficult position of choosing between family loyalty and maintaining our own healthy boundaries. Family dynamics are heavily influenced by cultural values. Some cultures put a very high value on the closeness of and loyalty to family while others do not. If you come from a culture which places a high value on familial loyalty and your family is fairly toxic this can create a real bind to your own mental health. What does a toxic family look like? Toxicity in families can take as many forms are there are families, so it would be impossible to list them all. I will list some of the more common forms I see, but you can be your own best judge. In general, if your peace of mind is compromised during interactions with your family there are at least some unhealthy dynamics in play. If you are a mature, intelligent, functional human being until you reunite with your family, then you turn into a quivering blob of angst and incompetence, you probably have some toxicity going on. Learning to maintain healthy boundaries can help you separate yourself a bit from the deep eddies of family dynamics that can literally pull you under.
Family roles kick in when we reunite with our families of origin. If you were always the "problem" child at 17 you may still be put in this role even though you are now 45. You may feel you have grown out of this and moved on, but the family has some need to keep you in the scapegoat role. If you are the hero in the family you may feel enormous pressure to keep up your facade of being competent and successful despite feeling otherwise. The lost child of the family may have grown up to be a competent and outspoken adult. But when at home with the family they disappear into the wallpaper. If the family system has a Victim-Persecutor-Rescuer script in play you may get sucked back into that role or game. Now add in a few spouses who don't understand why your behavior has suddenly changed or why you have started treating them differently and things get really dicey. Add in a history of substance abuse, domestic violence or sexual abuse and things may get completely out of control.
Toxic families often have very enmeshed or diffuse boundaries. This is how you get sucked in. Learning to say "No" can help you create or reestablish a healthy boundary between yourself and the family role or script. Does your family's Christmas start in November with a lot of drama? "Well I won't be there is so-and-so comes." "I can't believe you invited what's-her-name!" "Do you know what your sister said to me?"
Drama is usually at least a 3 player game. And it requires you to get sucked into at least sharing, if not carrying, someone else's emotions. If one family member is talking to you about a problem they are having with another family member, that is a red flag. If there is a lot of emotion behind it, that is a second red flag. Why aren't they addressing the problem with the person they are upset with? Why are they telling you? Are they wanting you to fight the battle for them? Do they aim to turn you against the other person? Are they scapegoating one member?
Just Say "No"
Before I continue it is important to say that you should always use your own judgement when dealing with family issues. If you come from a very violent or dangerous family you need to carefully consider whether it is safe to interact with them at all. If your family dynamics are so toxic that saying "No" or standing up for yourself puts you at serious risk of mental, emotional, sexual, physical or verbal abuse think carefully before continuing. Your safety should always come first. Some families are so toxic that interacting with them at all can be a danger to your mental or physical safety.
Even in families which are only mildly toxic, changing family patterns can be very difficult. Old habits die hard. It is important to remember than you cannot change others, only yourself. Work on your own behavior and maintaining your own boundaires - not in trying to "save" or "correct" someone else.
If you find yourself in a "triangle", one person is coming to you to complain about another and possibly turn you against the third person, redirect the conversation back to where it belongs and refuse to engage. "Mom, if you are upset with Mary you should talk to her about it. Telling me does no good." And change the topic.
If family members threaten not to come to a holiday event, so be it. It's their loss. You can't control other people. You also cannot allow them to control you. Just say "No" to getting hysterical about it or being manipulated by it. I have one colleague who finally had enough after years of family members threatening not to come home for Thanksgiving if so-and-so was going to be there. She just said "No" to being dragged into that game. She decided she was going to have a Thanksgiving dinner at her house - period. And whoever wanted to come could. And whoever did not come was fine too. So be it. But whether anyone came or not, there would be a Thanksgiving dinner served at 12:00 noon. When she announced her decision to her family chaos and drama immediately ensued. People threatened not to come. Some said they couldn't make it to her house and tried to change the location of the dinner. Some said they couldn't make it at that time and tried to change the time. She shrugged it off. Thanksgiving dinner would be served at her house at 12 noon. Come if you like. But families don't give up so easily. About half of them refused to come. The half which did come tried to engage her in disparaging the ones who did not come. She said just said "No". She would not engage in scapegoating people who were absent. Some tried to come early or late in an attempt to push the time earlier or later. She just said "No". Thanksgiving dinner was served at 12 noon. Thos who were early had to wait. Those who arrived late and were served cold leftovers. But guess what happened the next year? They still tried to have power plays and suck people into old dynamics. They still tried to change the time or location or who would be allowed to come. Those things die hard. But she held her ground. And the next year, they knew she meant it. So they huffed and they puffed - but they showed up - on time.
If your family engages in name calling, making fun of people, labeling or disparaging others - just say "No". If they do this to you or your children don't laugh and go along or explode and cause a scene. Walk away. Refuse to participate in it. Draw the line. And tell them, "I don't allow people to talk to my children that way." "Please don't call me that anymore. It's not funny." If they don't stop, walk away. Go to another room or leave the area. Refuse to go along with it. You may have to leave the event all together to convince them you are serious about it stopping. So be it.
If your family is so toxic it is a threat to your safety you may have to completely disengage. If the family Christmas erupts in violence your "No" may have to be to the invitation to come at all. There is no excuse for violence and you should not be expected to participate in or be subjected to it. If Dad is a roaring drunk and ends all holidays meals by breaking up the furniture and eventually hitting someone, why would you expose yourself, your spouse or your children to this?
Stop being at the mercy of family dynamics. Figure out what games are being played, what dynamics are at work and take responsibility for what part you play in them. Then make choices about how to deal with - like the intelligent, mature adult you know you are capable of being.