“Create boundaries!” Is something we often hear when it comes to dealing with abusive and toxic people in our lives, but what does that mean, in practical terms? Here are a few concrete strategies I’ve learned over the years to successfully take back control from the toxic family members in my life:
Your phone is your friend
The beauty of smartphones is you can see exactly who is calling. The one important thing to remember is this: You are under no obligation to answer your phone, ever. If you’re feeling mentally strong enough to deal with that toxic relative who’s calling, by all means, answer. If not, don’t. Be cautious about answering phone calls from numbers you don’t recognize, because people can hide their number when calling you, and toxic people are not above using such tactics.
It can be super useful when the toxic relative leaves a message. That way, you can review it and decide if they’re calling about something you even want to deal with. If they sound angry and unhinged, you don’t need to feel guilty about not returning the call. In fact, this becomes a way to “train” the toxic person into understanding you won’t respond to their whacked-out attempts for attention, and you’ll only respond when they’re being respectful.
Texting can be incredibly useful in that you can very carefully think about and craft what you’re going to say. It also gives you a record of exactly what transpired in a conversation, so the toxic person can’t twist your words back on you later, something they love to do. And just like phone calls, you are under no obligation to answer abusive texts.
The real beauty of smart phones is you can totally block the toxic person from calling or texting you if you want. (If you don’t know how to do this, ask a young person to help you.) You can always unblock them later if you change your mind.
Meet in public
Meeting in public with toxic people generally works to your advantage because even most toxic people will behave better with other people around. Usually, their most toxic behavior happens behind closed doors.
Perhaps the best advantage of meeting in a public place is if the toxic person decides to misbehave or become abusive, you are free to leave. Restaurants, busy parks and coffee shops are all possible options. Just be sure to drive your own vehicle so you can make a quick escape when you’re ready.
Keep meet-ups brief
This one pretty much explains itself. Look, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend with a toxic person, because nothing is ever enough for them. Block out an hour or two in your schedule, put in your time and then leave. Don’t beat yourself up about not hanging around.
If you’re having to do a holiday with a toxic person, don’t let them stay in your house and don’t stay in theirs. Get a hotel room. Get them a hotel room if you can afford it. If you can’t, make up any excuse as to why that person can’t stay with you or why you can’t stay with them. Tell them you have bed bugs and your house is being fumigated. Tell them your toilets aren’t working. Tell them you can’t stay with them because you’re allergic to their cat or their dog. Tell them you can’t stay with them because you have some crazy phobia. It doesn’t matter what you tell them, just make sure you don’t give them the opportunity to be in close physical proximity to you for extended periods of time. (Toxic people love drama. Whatever you tell them, they’ll eat it up. Just be aware they’ll tell everyone else you have bed bugs even if you don’t. Haha!)
Get comfortable with lying — or at least be creative with the truth
In most cases, lying is obviously wrong. But when you’re dealing with someone toxic, the rules are different. You must remember that person has little to no respect for you, or the truth, or your feelings, or your boundaries. A toxic person will lie to you without a second thought. So don’t feel bad if you have to bend the truth a little (or a lot) with them.
If you know you’re not a good liar, keep your lies simple. If you are a good liar, then lying to a toxic person can actually be kind of fun. See how creative you can get with your lies!
Learn to withhold information
Toxic family members often have a way of turning your words, and your most personal life experiences, against you. Remember that you are under no obligation to reveal anything about yourself to anyone. Your toxic relative doesn’t need to know about your baby’s christening or your relationship problems or your most recent doctor visit. It’s none of their business. Learn to keep conversations light and general. Talk about a good movie you’ve seen or the new restaurant that just opened or how much you like to garden. (Don’t talk politics or the latest news if it’s going to start a fight.) Whatever you do, don’t give them ammunition to use against you later.
Manage your social media
Just like your personal life, you are under no obligation to share your social media with your toxic relative, and believe me, your toxic relative probably LOVES to pore over your personal media accounts looking for any sort of information to use against you. Remember that Facebook allows you to block individual people from seeing certain posts, and if things get too bad, you can block them altogether. Some people even go so far as to make up fake social media accounts for their toxic relatives to follow where they post inane, harmless content for the toxic person, while keeping other accounts under pseudonyms where they can be more real and free with their true friends. It’s been found that many teens maintain two separate Instagram accounts precisely for this reason. There’s nothing wrong with this. Protecting yourself first is key.
This one is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome. Toxic people have a way of making us feel small and powerless. At their heart, though, most toxic people are simply bullies. And most bullies will back down when you stand up for yourself. The first time you hold your ground against a toxic person can be terrifying. But it’s a skill you can build. The key is to not lose control of your emotions, because that’s exactly what they’re trying to get you to do. Be firm, stand your ground and most bullies will fold. Remember: You have a right to your privacy, your happiness and your sanity.
Cutting off contact
This strategy is by far the most risky, depending on the nature of your toxic relationship. If you’re dealing with someone who exhibits stalking behavior, cutting off contact can be dangerous. Be aware that if you decide to go the route of cutting off contact altogether, you have to be willing to get the authorities involved. Sometimes it’s easier to agree to occasional phone calls or in-person visits, as long as the other person is being respectful. As soon as they aren’t, you have the right to end the phone call or the visit, for whatever reason you want. But if you’re sure the toxic relative isn’t a physical danger to you, cutting off contact altogether is an absolutely viable option. In the past, people were very reluctant to accept the idea of cutting off toxic relatives, especially toxic parents. These days, experts understand cutting off contact is sometimes the best solution for the person on the receiving end of the abuse.