Dealing With Toxic Family Members

Joe Aoleo moved from Rhode Island to Key West, Florida after retiring from his job as a firefighter / EMT. Aside from his quest for warm weather, he was relieved to be away from his family – all of them.

“All of my siblings were in control, never got it wrong, never apologized, lying,” Aoleo says. “There has never been physical violence in my house. But it was [like] a thousand small bills.

What is toxic behavior?

Toxic behaviors run the gamut, says Sharon Martin, a licensed clinical social worker in San Jose, California. She is the author of The CBT workbook for perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook, which is due out soon.

Common traits of toxic people include:

  • Don’t worry about your feelings, needs or rights
  • Act tough and critical
  • Calling you names
  • Violate your boundaries over and over again
  • Refuse to compromise with you on anything
  • Acting in law
  • You always have to be right
  • Feel the rules don’t apply to them
  • Make unfair demands on you
  • Do not take responsibility for your actions
  • Blame others for their mistakes or faults
  • They rarely say they’re sorry for something
  • Wild mood and behavior changes, and raging sessions
  • Lying to you and / or making you feel guilty to achieve your goals
  • Manipulating yourself to control yourself or taking advantage of you and others to get what they want


“Toxic behaviors exist on a continuum,” says Martin. Genuinely toxic behaviors are part of a pattern of abuse or disrespect for others. These are not isolated incidents. “

Sadly, toxic people rarely change their behavior or want to. “They may lack self-awareness or respond with denial when faced with their mistreatment of others,” she says.

Aoleo says his family members were all vying for control. “I was also a control freak back then,” he says. “But I knew I was and I knew I had to change. They did not do it.

“The guilt was still there,” even when it came to his daughter, Aoleo says. “My daughter was, and probably still is, a master of the cuteness-to-guilt-to-anger method of being right. She once told me that I had to be nice to her because she was all I had to take care of me when I was old. I told him I would put a bullet in my head before I let that happen. And I’m pretty sure it was all about the money I loaned him and never collected – again.

Set clear boundaries

It can be difficult to identify and set boundaries if you come from a family that doesn’t honor or respect them. However, you decide which treatment you will accept now. Martin suggests exposing your needs and feelings directly. You could ask a family member to change their behavior, for example by saying, “Please don’t curse me.”

“It usually doesn’t work with toxic people because they aren’t motivated to change their behavior,” she says. Instead, the border reminds you to protect yourself from their ways. For example, you can hang up the phone or block your brother’s number if he continues to insult you on a call.

Keep your distance

One way to stay emotionally at bay is to limit the amount of personal information you share, says Martin. Say that your sister is laughing at you and making sarcastic comments after you open up to her about a problem you have. It is your signal to share as little as possible with her in the future.


Plus, you don’t have to answer private questions from family members. It’s okay to say, “I’d rather not talk about it.” So don’t do it. Likewise, avoid asking questions about their personal life. Commercial information on major family businesses only.

Try to avoid arguments at all costs. “Toxic people will try to get you into an argument to distract you from the real issues,” Martin says. “They will often turn things on you, blaming you for their toxic behavior and never taking ownership of their behavior.”

Many people find that limiting or ending contact with a toxic family member is the only way to protect themselves, Martin says. “You are not a bad person or a failure if this happens.”

Aoleo kept in touch with one of his sisters while he lived in Florida, but he didn’t feel very close to her either. On his decision to move to the Big Island of Hawaii, he also severed ties with her.

“I am now the only one in my family who does not live within 50 miles of any other family member,” he says.

Other useful tactics

Other steps in your game plan to help you make firm choices, clear your guilt, and move on with your life may include:

  • Don’t expect anyone to be perfect, including yourself.
  • Stop trying to fight old battles. There is usually no way to resolve them.
  • Defend your territory. For example, if your family is expecting you to show up on vacation and you want to go out, say “no”. Don’t leave the door ajar with a “maybe”.
  • Let go of your wishes for the life of your family members. You can’t make them change their mind or change their plans.
  • Once you’ve decided to change your own behavior, be prepared for strong reactions from family members and even friends. Try to predict what responses you might get – such as crying, guilt, yelling, or even threats – and decide how you are going to react.

How to move on

Find strong support, says Martin. Find friends and new people to share with, such as a therapist, a 12-step group, or another circle of support.


“Dealing with family members who exhibit toxic behaviors is stressful and emotionally draining,” she says. “Make sure you take good care of yourself both physically and emotionally.

Your physical security is essential. “If you are dealing with someone who has hurt you or threatened to hurt you or others, you may need to call the police, avoid being alone with the person, or create a plan to leave quickly. , if necessary.”

For Aoleo, peace of mind trumps staying in touch with family. “I’m not mad at them, I don’t care,” he said. “Family doesn’t mean much to me. They’re just people like everyone else, but you feel obligated to them for no real reason. I no longer feel this obligation.

He found space and calm in a relaxed community in the Hawaiian rainforest. “My job has taught me to deal with fires and common sense has taught me to flee my family,” he says. “Now I’m a happy, almost always wet guy, living with a family of controlling, almost always wet dogs, in my paradise on the edge of a volcano in the middle of our largest ocean. Perfect.”

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Jothi Venkat

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