What To Do If You're Trapped In A Toxic Family Situation, Royal Or Not
During a tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry reveal they were trapped in a toxic situation. Quite literally, as Markle was advised to remain inside palace walls (pre-pandemic, we should add) and keep a low profile to evade the tabloids, but she felt trapped mentally as well—suffering through the emotional turmoil of an unhealthy family environment but unable to see her way out.
While the word toxic can be overused, identifying toxic family dynamics and beginning to work through those situations, as the couple shared on Sunday evening, is tough but important. It's a common occurrence among the queer community, when family members can be unaccepting and, at times, abusive. And that's just one example. But just like Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, you can nudge your way out of an unsafe family environment. You always have options, and you're never alone.
We should note: There is no right or wrong way to deal with toxic family situations. Every experience is nuanced and complex, and you should do whatever best serves your mental health. But in case you don't know where to turn, we tapped experts for a road map:
1. Set boundaries, and enforce them.
Setting boundaries is important—but enforcing them is a different ballgame. When a toxic family member tries to push your boundaries, having clear consequences is key. According to clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, it can be as simple as, "If you do (action), I will (consequence)." Many experts even recommend writing your limits on a piece of paper; that way, you'll know exactly how to articulate your needs in real-time and how to respond when someone crosses the line.
"Know you have permission to do that," she says. "The only way to get the life of peace and sanity that you want is to give yourself that by asking for it." Of course, it's much easier said than done, but as Neo notes, "It's all about practice."
If you have reached the point where the healthiest option for you is to cut ties (or what experts call no-contact), you do also have the right to protect yourself from those who cause you such pain—even if they are family. "Not only do you dread the interactions, but you worry about them before and after the encounters—it's needlessly exhausting," says Perpetua Neo. "It's OK to outgrow these people. Know that in some cases, you might want to choose the people you call family."
If you do opt for a limited or no-contact relationship, try to prepare for your next move as best you can. This includes the logistics (are you comfortable articulating your plans face-to-face, or would you prefer to send a voicemail or even an email?), but also managing how you'll handle that relationship—or lack thereof.
"This might mean blocking them via all communication options and not checking up on their social media," says Neo. "It's a needless hemorrhaging of your energy."
If you must maintain contact (say, there are kids or shared responsibilities involved), Neo recommends keeping interactions as simple, brief, and to-the-point as possible. "Tell them things like, 'I will only answer (topic).' And if they engage in word salad—a very confusing mélange of words designed to screw with your head and suck you in—tell them to reword it clearly." In other words, have a game plan so that you feel strong and prepared when you do have to meet.
3. Find your support system.
Removing yourself from a toxic family situation can feel isolating—you may even grieve the relationships lost. That's why securing a support system is so crucial for healing: Some even build their own community of loved ones—a "chosen family," if you will. To cultivate a healthy support system, Neo suggests the following:
- Create a tangible list of what you need. "The 'duh' stuff you expect in a relationship, like decent manners and kindness," she notes, as well as standards and boundaries. "Often people from toxic families find it difficult to articulate these, or they may even feel bad. In this case, think about what your younger self would have needed—that'll provide rich information."
- Start to build relationships, even if it feels daunting. Again, it's much easier said than done. Building healthy relationships takes time—especially if you're starting from scratch. "Of course, you may not luck out immediately, and you may be tempted to give up," says Neo. "Remind yourself, it's a numbers game. With every interaction that's good, bad, or meh, it's data. That data tells you what's going right, what can be different, and what aligns with you."
- Feed the relationships that serve you. When you do find those relationships that align with what you need, nurture them. "Learn the art of relationships and communications, especially if you hail from a toxic family of origin and you might have poor boundaries yourself."
4. Own your past.
"Our past can be a source of shame and trauma, and if you don't own it, it will own you," says Neo. She explains that those who experience trauma might be subconsciously attracted to similar situations—a phenomenon known as repetition compulsion. "The brain draws us to such situations to try to resolve the trauma," she says.
The key to stopping this spell, she notes, is to truly understand the "why" of your situation (and have compassion for yourself and your experience). "Then your brain has a story and can close it," Neo adds. "You can [understand] the behavioral pathways you need to unwire and the new ones you'd like to wire. This way, you can have healthy relationships."
Again, there is no right or wrong way to evade a toxic family environment, and it may be best to seek out professional help, if you can. The most important thing to know is that you aren’t alone, and you will find your voice. If you’re currently struggling and are concerned for your mental welfare, you can also always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat with a counselor.
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