In our lives we often know people who we think are well meaning, their words or actions may be hurtful to us but we often brush off our own feelings in order to keep some semblance of peace with them. We can find ourselves making excuses for their behaviour, and we often look instead to ourselves, finding faults and defects within that do not exist in reality, but we nurture them in order to feel better about these people who hurt us.
These people who have such a strong hold on us are called Toxic People. They can be friends or co- workers but more often than not they are family. Usually it is a close family member like a parent or sibling, and often times, several of these toxic persons will join together to convince a family member that they are the person in the wrong, that the person who is not going with the “flow” of the family dynamic is in fact the toxic individual. That person gets a lovely title like, the family “scapegoat” the “screw up” the “troublemaker” to name a few. The irony is that the family member who refuses to tow the line and follow the secret family rules is the only one who is really in touch with themselves and what is actually happening in the family. Their knowledge, their belief that a toxic person or persons exists within that family structure, gives them a strength that they often don’t know they possess.
So how are you to cope if you are the family scapegoat? Do you try to convince your family to change? Maybe one day they will see how wonderful you are and love you for who you are? Wouldn’t that be nice? Unfortunately, life seldom works that way. The hardest part of having a toxic family or family member is that you have to come to terms with the fact that they will not change. I know some people will say that one should hold out hope, and indeed that glimmer of hope is what causes further fuel for despair. Years of trying to “make it work” with toxic persons and can also fuel self-hatred and low self-esteem.
Imagine for example, that your sister was the toxic person in your life. Every year you say “maybe” this year my sister will change. Maybe this year she will apologize and tell me that she loves me and that she was wrong to treat me so badly. Imagine that you even start the year feeling pretty good about yourself, but as the year goes on and December 31st rolls around and yet again you are left feeling let down by your sister, as that elusive “maybe” never happened. What does happen is that your despair deepens and your self-esteem lowers because once again, she did not accept you for who you are. You might say to yourself “well if my own sister doesn’t accept me, then maybe I am a really difficult person like she said. Maybe I am all those horrible negative things that she says about me! How could anyone love me if my own sister can’t stand me and finds so many faults with me? “
Toxic people are very good at twisting the truth, and toxic family is of course, the best at it. Your family knows so much about you, including all of your early history, so it is easy for them to pull out bits and pieces from your history and twist them to use as fuel for the fire of toxicity. Anything from your past could become fodder such as those piano lessons you stopped (you give up easily) your poor grades in school (you were always so lazy) that winter your brother broke his arm tobogganing with you (you are clumsy and careless). Often a toxic parent or sibling will bring up the same incident multiple times in order to remind you of your faults over and over again, as they attempt to reinforce their beliefs onto you.
So how do you deal with this type of relentless abuse? One of the best ways is of course to avoid contact with the toxic person or persons. If you are truly not able to do that or are not ready for that step, then the next method is to treat that toxic person as if they were a small child.
For example, your brother Billy once again brings up the story of how terrible you were at hockey as a child. He then goes on to imply that you are terrible at all sports and are uncoordinated as well. Your usual response to Billy would be to start to defend yourself, rapidly giving reasons and explanations for your skill set. Having to immediately defend yourself can leave you flustered and upset, the perfect place for you to be in to suffer another attack from Billy. So how do you deal with this? In a group setting such as at a family dinner, the best strategy in dealing with a person like Billy is to not respond to his taunting. Simply smile at him as if he were a small child and start a conversation with someone else at the table. If he continues to attempt to bring the story up, you can then turn to Billy wearing your best bored expression and remind him that he has told that tale X number of times already, and ask him if he has anything new to share. Continue to patronize Billy whenever he rears his toxic head, staying cool and collected.
It is often helpful to throw in a visualization technique as well. Imagine yourself patting Billy on the head as if he were a small child rambling on. Toxic people often love it when you get angry. It fuels their own self worth to feel superior that they have made you crumble. They will often use your anger as “proof” of your missing traits. Try not responding to their taunts and include visualization. For example, imagine Billy as a child having a tantrum, fists thumping on the floor, facing contorted screaming away. How silly he looks! Aren’t you glad that you are an adult?
There is a quote by Mary Anne Radmacher that I have always loved:
“Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, "I will try again tomorrow.”
Sometimes it is really hard to find your courage. Sometimes the toxic voices are so loud you believe the words they say and think that they are true, but they aren’t. Inside of you is a voice that yearns to be heard. If you have a toxic person or people in your life, then you have a choice to make. Either you cut them out of your life or keep them in it, but don’t allow them to have any control over you. You start doing that by not waiting for that “maybe” day. Even if they never see it, even if they never tell you that you are, inside, some part of you knows just how wonderful and loveable you are. You are not the one that has the problem, they are.
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