We all learn that we will like only some people. The rest we will either dislike or be indifferent. Some of those we like will be friends. The others…well, we may have to discover ways to minimize contact.
Family is different though. It’s often difficult or impossible to avoid social contact with toxic family members. here may be serious reasons to dislike and avoid them, even mothers, fathers, and siblings. There’s nothing morally wrong with that.
Yet a lot of my clients feel guilty for not maintaining contact with close relatives. “Blood is thicker than water” is the mantra that comes to mind. There exists a misconception that we can always depend on family or that love implies being a doormat for their unreasonable demands. This is codependence based in shame, not a healthy interdependence with clear boundaries.
As a priest I heard plenty of stories from people in that predicament. Decades of parental or sibling, or child toxicity wore down those who were trying to do the right thing and get out from under the control they felt. They often cited the biblical command: “Honor your father and your mother.” This has often been misinterpreted to mean a child must become a martyr to the dysfunction of parents, and vice versa.
There are many reasons to dislike family members, yet still love them. Addictions, abuse, toxic shaming (always feeling defective), control, bullying, anti-social habits, a lack of self-care, chronic illness, unemployment…these and many more issues generate anger, resentment, fear, and a lack of self-esteem in everyone involved.
Many people rationalize the situation: “No one is perfect. We all have our faults. He/she can’t help it. It’s a habit. I’m supposed to help them.” Most of the time such shame-based thinking only further victimizes and infantilizes everyone involved.
You can change your perspective:
1. Admit to yourself that you don’t like the person. It’s not morally wrong to dislike someone for reasons of your own. Be courageous and validate your own feelings. A professional therapist or life coach can help with this kind of truth-telling.
2. Disliking a parent, sibling, or child does not make you defective. If you feel guilty over such feelings, chances are it’s not guilt (I did wrong), but toxic shame (I am wrong/defective). Check into your experience to determine who imposed toxic shame on you when growing up.
3. Say what it is about the person specifically that you don’t like, without judging yourself. “I really dislike the way she expects me to be perfect. I hate that he abused me as a child. I am depressed for being bullied in school.”
4. Clarify your values and boundaries to discover how they’ve been violated. Accept the fact that you will not change the toxic person. Let go of the emotional hold he/she/they have on you. Resist the temptation to feel like a victim.
5. Forgive yourself for not being perfect, for not being able to fix the other person, for not being the “perfect” child, spouse, parent, or sibling. Feel the regret and sadness and let them go. Separate your emotional reactions from the bad behavior. This takes lots of practice.
6. Hold fast to your boundaries. If the toxic person attempts to cross them, be clear and firm. Give them the message that things have changed. Reclaim your life, your time, your home, your possessions, and your need for safety.
7. Try not to judge. No one deals effectively with everyone else’s issues, especially toxic ones. You may need to call in help from family members or professionals to assess and aid the situation. This is especially true when adult children are caring for infirm parents or children with whom they are having toxic experiences.
8. You don’t have to be friends. Family members are not always as close as other friendships. Making peace with this reality does not compromise our love. It just readjusts how best to give and receive love.
So how do you learn to like toxic relationships? Ultimately, it’s a about self-care, liking yourself enough to change your behavior. Eventually you may even begin to appreciate the good even in toxic personalities. You may even forgive them and yourself and know that it’s best to keep your distance from them.
When you neglect your needs for the sake of others, you’re only becoming a martyr or a victim to a useless cause. You may believe that your ‘reward’ will come later, but in the meantime, you’re driving yourself to distraction by trying to change the unlikeable people in your life. And sometimes, for the sake of our own emotional health, it’s best to walk away without looking back.
Need to talk? I’m here for you. firstname.lastname@example.org or text me at 813-449-3904
My book can help: Life Interrupted: Taking Charge After Everything Has Changed
Excellent article, Michael. Thank you for some very helpful suggestions and tools to use.