“Bad Moon Rising”: How to Cope with Toxic Family Members

It is an unfortunate misconception that all families are perfectly loving and nurturing. For too many of us, toxic individuals populate our family systems. Even more, there may not always be ways to avoid these people. It’s not always possible to cut
toxic people out of our lives.

While it may seem impossible to foresee peace any time soon, there are some things to keep in mind if you wish to follow the route of reconciliation. If you wish to have a discussion with a toxic family member, it’s important to make sure that they will want to resolve it too. If they don’t, then it would do no good anyway. If they are open to discussions, keeping in mind your own perspective and worth is essential. How you felt about an argument wasn’t your fault. You deserve to feel validated. This is important to remember if they are unwilling to give you that validation. It is also wise to try to see things from their perspective. How were they feeling with what happened in the past? Using “I” statements and actively listening to what they say is important. The last thing you would want to do is become overly defensive or blame them. While they may be at “fault” it’s important to know that we all look innocent in our own eyes.

However, when it comes to abusive family members, this is not always possible or even recommended. With abusive people, they won’t see the pain they’ve caused as painful at all but justified because you’re “too stupid, overly sensitive, etcetera.” In these cases, when tension is guaranteed in their presence, there are a few mindfulness techniques to help ease stress. Here are a few ideas that may be helpful in these unpleasant situations.

1.) Focus on your breathing. The wonderful thing about this technique is that it can be done anywhere at any time. It can be as easy as starting with breathing in through your nose for five seconds and breathing out through your mouth for five seconds. Another variation you can take is breathing in and holding the breath at the top, then breathing out as if blowing out a candle. Self-massage while breathing deeply can do wonders as well.

2.) Attempt the “body scan” meditation exercise. This mindfulness tool refers to the process of noticing your body’s stressed and relaxed states. For example, clenching your fist, noticing how that feels, and then relaxing it. More extensive practices entail doing this process with every body part. But, in the heat of a moment, even just noticing where your body is tense is a form of the body scan. For example, are your teeth clenched? Are your shoulders all the way up to your ears? Are you grasping? Noticing these simple changes can remind you to soften and release.

3.) Become mindful of your surroundings. With this tool, you would be attempting to come outside of your thoughts and into your environment. How is your body moving through space? Can you feel your feet connected to the earth? For example, if you’re having a tense dinner with someone toxic, take the time to notice the taste, texture, and temperature of your food. An extension of this tactic is referred to as “grounding exercises” where you make a list in your mind of things in your environment, such as five things you can see, four you can feel, and so on.

4.) Visualize a relaxing, protective environment. In the heat of the moment, it can be more difficult to attempt this one, but it’s always worth a try. If there is an unshakable tension in the air, try to imagine a relaxing image like a beautiful meadow in the morning sunrise. Listen to the bluebirds, feel the sun on your skin, smell the flowers, and become as immersed as you can. It can also be helpful to visualize a shield protecting you from someone’s toxicity. For example, you can be holding a shield like a superhero, casting a magic spell that protects you, blocking unkind words with gauntlets, or whatever else you can imagine. For example, with my own abusive family member, I imagine they are a small, cranky goblin that can’t reach me.

5.) Repeat positive affirmations. This tactic is more cognitive in nature but can do wonders as well. Simple affirmations like “I can do this. I am at peace. They can’t hurt me. I am strong. I believe in myself,” and so many others can be used in situations like these. If your toxic family member is verbally abusive, this can be a great practice opportunity. For example, if they say “Your hair looks terrible” you can think “No, it doesn’t. I am rocking this look. They can’t break my confidence.” Come up with your own list catered to how your toxic family members make you.

All in all, self-care is absolutely paramount before, during, and after dealing with
toxic family members. Whatever helps you feel relaxed, distracted, and joyful should be worth pursuing. For example, after dealing with an abusive family member for Christmas, I had a “second Christmas” where I did all that they would have scoffed at: made cookies, drove around looking at lights, watched Christmas movies, and was myself again. Before dealing with dysfunctional family systems, it can seem like a losing battle. But, it doesn’t have to be. You can regain control of how you respond. And when it comes to toxic people, that can be enough. It takes practice, but in the end, you will have regained your sanity.

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