In the previous blog post (Were You Raised in a Toxic Family? (The Signs)), we looked at specific behaviors that are common in toxic family systems, like competition/jealousy, overreactions, acting like victims, comparisons, inability to respect boundaries, constantly talking about themselves, and draining energy of the people around them. There are plenty more behaviors found in toxic family systems, and if you're interested in reading about it, you can click here.
If you live in or come from a toxic family, having a healthy relationship with the toxic member(s) can be incredibly challenging. It can be difficult to figure out where they end and you begin. You've lost so much of your own autonomy, and the guilt and pressure of having relationships with family members "because they're family" can weigh heavy on our decisions, access to our lives, and our ability to set boundaries.
In this blog post, we're going to look at specific steps you can take to heal from your toxic childhood.
The Grey-Rock Method
The grey-rock method is when you act as uninterested and unphased as possible. When you act bored and disengaged, people who are toxic don't find it as exciting to try and manipulate you, and they'll move on to someone else or they'll change the subject on their own.
This takes some practice, because for years, the toxic person has intentionally discussed subjects or used specific words in order to manipulate you and get a reaction, so it might be second nature for you to react. When they're speaking to you, speak in a neutral tone, give generic answers to their questions, don't make eye contact, and talk about subjects that are relatively boring. If you think the toxic person is trying to get a rise out of you, emotionally disengage. I like to call this process "becoming the observer." Pretend you're an observationist who's studying them. People who are observing don't allow themselves to become emotionally aroused by the person they're observing because they're gathering material on their observation. It's sort of like a psychological experiment. If you can remember that you're an observer to every interaction with the toxic person, it will help you execute the grey-rock method.
Letting go is the same as detaching; it doesn't mean you necessarily are avoiding your toxic family or erasing them from your mind. It means that you're giving yourself emotional space from them. It's learning how to not take things personally (because in toxic family systems, everything is a personal attack or criticism), not feeling responsible for peoples wants, needs, or feelings, and not feeling obligated to spend time with your family every chance you're free. You also don't have to spend time with them at all if you don't want to. Letting go gives you the ability to learn what healthy boundaries with your toxic family look like for you.
Know Your Conversational Triggers
There are certain topics of conversation in toxic families that keep the toxic person coming back for more. They look to discuss topics that could potentially cause emotional reactions or behaviors, or there might be a topic you'd like to talk to the toxic person about, but every time you do, they say something intentionally manipulative about the topic that leaves you feeling triggered.
Keep track of the specific conversational topics you know leave you feeling triggered, and don't talk about it with them. Find other safe people in your life who you can talk to about those subjects if you need to. If the toxic person brings up the triggered subject, grey-rock and change the subject immediately.
Have Go-To Phrases Ready
It's inevitable that someone in the toxic family system will discuss a topic with you that triggers you. It can be helpful to have go-phrases on standby, ready to intervene and save the day at a moment's notice! You can repeat these phrases whenever someone in the toxic family gives unsolicited advice or starts talking about something you don't want to talk about. Here's what that might look like in conversational format:
Mom: I'm not sure why you're going on vacation with their family and won't go with us. We haven't been on a vacation together in years. You should come with us. Think of how much fun we'll have!
You: I'll think about it. So, how has your vegetable garden been doing? Gotten any crops yet?
Or, you could try this:
Brother: You really should stop spending money on vacations. Vacations aren't tangible, anyway.
You: Maybe you're right. So, how have the kids been?
In this scenario, "I'll think about it" and "maybe you're right" are the go-to phrases, and then the subject is immediately changed to something else. By using go-to phrases, you're essentially shutting down the conversation and moving on to something else.
If Necessary, Go No Contact
Going no contact or ending the relationship you have with your parents is usually the last straw. This occurs when nothing else has worked and everything else has been tried over and over again. It's very difficult for adult children to get to this place where they make the decision to end their relationship with their parents, but sometimes, it's the healthiest thing they ever do.
There can be a lot of pressure on the person choosing to go no contact to feel like it's an all-or-nothing decision. Going no contact doesn't necessarily mean you'll never speak to your parents or the toxic family member again. It can be a day by day decision, and you can implement it when you start to feel it's necessary in order to protect yourself from the toxic person.
Coming from a toxic family system is challenging on multiple levels. It affects our own autonomy, causes CPTSD, and hinders our ability to have healthy relationships with others.
It takes time, but it's possible to have relationships with toxic people when we set boundaries, enforce those boundaries, and do what we can to protect and stand up for the little kid inside of us who didn't have anyone to defend them against the toxic family system...until now.
At Root Counseling, we're passionate about helping people heal from toxic families, create healthy boundaries, and gain the freedom, independence, and peace they deserve. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.