Toxic Family Members: How can You Defend Yourself From Them?

We cannot just cut family members out of our lives. They're our blood and it's complicated. If you don't want to be manipulated, you'll have to defend yourself and set limits. Letting people know how you feel isn't being selfish, it's being sincere.
Toxic Family Members: How can You Defend Yourself From Them?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

We all have toxic family members, relatives that only think of themselves; they’re manipulative and play with our emotions.  It’s a complicated issue because these people have close ties to us, but what can we do to defend ourselves against them?

Toxic family members: when family overwhelms us

Experts say that having toxic family members in our personal circle can seriously affect our quality of life. If we have a friend who is selfish and manipulative, for example, we can always end the friendship and make new friends to bring balance and integrity back into our life. But what happens when the manipulative person is our own mother, brother or even spouse? It’s not easy and we understand that.

You can’t simply end a relationship with a mother, brother, or mother-in-law. That’s because there are a lot of complex and difficult emotions and feelings surrounding the issue. They’re our own flesh and blood and it’s difficult to break a bond like that, but many people have to do it for their own health. There are times when these relationships explode and these toxic relatives can seriously undermine our emotional balance.

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An example of this is parents who don’t allow their children to choose their partners freely and criticize their friendships and relationships. We all make mistakes; but what do you do when someone like your brother or sister brings something up or throws something in your face to hurt you? How do you act? We’ll give you some suggestions.

1.  Set limits:  Know what you want and what you won’t allow

A family riding their bicycles together

Let’s look at an example.

You’re going to your partner’s parents’ house for dinner and they’ve made something spicy. You know you don’t like spicy foods and it makes your stomach feel uneasy. But to not draw the attention or offend anyone, you prefer to stay silent and just eat dinner.

Now, every time you go to your in-laws, they serve something spicy until you have no choice but to announce “that you can’t stand spicy food”. You’ll probably hear something like, “Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

This is just a simple example, a way to show you how to let people know what you can and cannot accept.
If you can’t go to your mother’s every afternoon, or go shopping with your sister, let them know. If you don’t like someone telling you how to raise your kids, tell them. Let your voice be heard without scolding. Always speak with respect and care, you don’t want to burn a bridge by expressing yourself and your feelings. It’s not being selfish, it’s being sincere.

2.  Learn to be assertive without being condescending

Woman making a stop sign with her hand to illustrate setting limits for toxic family members

Sometimes we don’t want to hurt a family member, so we keep things to ourselves. Like when parents or grandparents complain of always being alone, yet the fact is that we’re always taking care of them.

With siblings that say we’re not supportive enough, we need to be assertive and with respect and care, tell them the truth: “I always come when I can and you know whenever you need me you can always call”; “You know that I’ll always be there for you, but don’t ask me for things that I can’t do. I’m also going through a difficult situation right now and I need you to be understanding of that.

Be sincere and caring, but tell the truth and say how you feel; let them know what you can and can’t do. Show them that you have needs they must respect.

3.  Support your family unconditionally, but remember to look after your own needs

Dandelions floating in the air

Family always comes first, we know that. But just as much as they’re a part of our lives, they can also hurt us and be a destructive presence.

There are toxic family members who were abused or mistreated during their childhood. Maintaining a cordial relationship them will never be possible, and that’s clear.

It’s essential to always care for you self-esteem; to know that you’re a mature, balanced person with a daily need to be happy. If someone in your family is hurting you, it’s important to set some distance to restore your integrity, sense of self and tranquility.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.