I’m of the opinion that family is the most important thing we have in life — but also that to be considered someone’s family is an earned title. Bloodlines don’t come with a baked-in hall pass for toxic or abusive behavior, and “they’re family” isn’t sufficient reason to feel forced into keeping a harmful presence around.
For many people with toxic relatives, the holidays can be a trying time, especially when seeing people you care about also involves seeing a family member who’s toxic. At times like these, you may want to consider setting boundaries with that person in advance of seeing them. And if explicitly communicating your boundaries isn’t something you’ve tried previously, who knows — the other party may prove themselves to be more understanding (and therein potentially less toxic) than you would’ve expected.
After all, we can’t expect people to simply intuit what our boundaries are. More often than not, it’s our responsibility to communicate those. Here’s how to get started.
1. Identify what your needs are — and recognize their importance.
If you’re someone who struggles with setting boundaries, part of this may be rooted in a belief that others’ needs deserve to be placed above your own. Fear of hurting the other party (or a related party) may be wrapped up in the prospect of boundary setting, and you’d rather sacrifice some part of your own well-being versus cause others strife. This is not a sustainable way of living, however, and it’s only harming yourself and your ability to have healthy, meaningful relationships in the end.
So, take the time to first identify what your needs are in a given relationship and acknowledge the inherent worth behind those needs. Ask yourself what you’re willing to tolerate — emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically. What are you unwilling to tolerate? That divide is where your boundaries will take root.
2. Know where you can access support.
Before you go further, be aware of your support systems lie. Setting a boundary with a toxic person — especially if it’s someone you’re related to — can feel scary. Even though the need for a boundary is truly between you and the person on the other side of it, it may be helpful to loop in trusted family, friends, or a therapist in advance of your conversation. Let them know how they can support you.
3. Be both gentle and firm where it counts.
Whether you’ll be communicating your boundary in person, over the phone, or even over email depends on your particular circumstance, of course. But regardless of what form the conversation is taking place in, it’s paramount that you’re prepared to be direct and firm with your language. This doesn’t have to mean coming from a place of aggression or anger, although it may feel natural to slip into that with this person. Instead, try to employ kindness while also leaving no room for question as to precisely where your boundaries lie. Make “I” statements as much as possible in place of “you” ones, and use affirming language that points to hope only if appropriate. For example: “When you do or say thing X, it makes me feel Y way. I’m not comfortable with you continuing to do or say X thing, and I’m hopeful about what our continued relationship can look like going forward with you respecting that.”
4. Include a consequence.
An important part of being firm in your communication is making clear that if a boundary is crossed again, it’ll come with particular consequence. This may sound severe, but in moving the conversation away from purely nebulous, feelings-based territory to include definitive and actionable pieces, you’re creating more clarity and, in turn, giving the other party a better shot at success in executing.
5. Remember that their reactions are just that — their reactions.
A healthy person will receive your boundary with acceptance and even happiness — after all, understanding the way people want to be treated can only lead to deeper and more fulfilling relationships. A toxic person, on the other hand, may likely process your communication of a boundary as a reason to feel betrayed, angered, or defensive. Among toxic family members, in particular, you may be told that refusing to accept negative behavior is a form of turning your back on family and is therefore dishonorable. Know that by communicating what you need, you are, in fact, doing the very opposite by honoring the prospect of a continued, healthier relationship with that person. How they choose to react to this future hope, and to your current needs, is a function of themselves that is wholly separate from you. Don't take ownership of it.
6. Take care of yourself.
Having boundaries is in itself a vital form of practicing self care, but in the moment, the action of setting one can feel draining. Have a plan in place for doing something to nurture yourself following a boundary-setting exchange, whether that’s going to the gym, watching a movie, or having a long call with a close friend. When we take care of ourselves, the relationship we have to our needs and the value of those needs is stronger, and so is our ability to build and maintain boundaries.
7. Learn the signs that a boundary has been crossed.
So, the other party responds well to your initial communication and sounds willing to respect your need for a boundary. That’s great! However, boundaries require continued maintenance and repeat check-ins with yourself — they’re not a one-and-done event. What are your personal signs that a boundary is being crossed? As an example, for many people it comes with a physiological component, as the body goes into fight-or-flight mode. Whatever your particular signs are, be cognizant of those as your relationship moves forward with this person. And be prepared to enforce your previously stated consequence in the scenario your boundaries feel violated.
8. Always be willing to walk away — especially if your interactions with the toxic person exist within a bubble, like a holiday.
Sometimes, if a toxic person isn’t a regular, reoccurring part of our lives and simply someone we have to ask to pass the mashed potatoes once a year, taking on the emotional labor of setting a boundary may be too big an unrewarded drain on ourselves. Not every relationship in our lives is up to us to save. And that’s okay. Let’s say you communicated to Uncle Jerry that this year, you would really, really like for him not to talk politics at Christmas dinner, as you see the world differently and when he says X things, it makes you feel Y way. Christmas dinner comes, and Uncle Jerry produces a list of political talking points from his proverbial pocket, baiting you. In a situation like this, if you need to — just walk away. Don’t feel bad about it. In the end, you don’t owe an indulgence of toxic behavior or tolerance of disrespect to anyone, whether that person is horrible Uncle Jerry or even a parent.