Trying to navigate life with a toxic parent? If so, 2016 can be the year in which you learn to deal with them in a healthier way, change your relationship, and possibly even become a happier person. I know, it sounds even less likely than getting in shape to run a marathon by February — but there are some resolutions that may be able to help you make some good, necessary changes. (If you're unsure about what a toxic parent is and whether yours qualifies, we have a number of resources to help you figure it out).
If you need a little push to decide to make this a better year in dealing with your toxic parent(s), consider this: The phrase "blood is thicker than water", which English speakers use to justify the primary role of the family, actually originated as a phrase that was closer to "the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb" — which means the bond of friendship in battle is more powerful than family ties. In other words, it means exactly the opposite of what we were all raised to think it meant. You don't have to be in thrall to your family; blood doesn't have to be thicker than anything — particularly if that blood is toxic.
The nine toxic family-related resolutions below may inspire you to build better boundaries or protect yourself from a toxic parent's drama — but if you can't put any of them into action in your own life, don't worry. That does not mean that you are a failure, a bad child or flawed in any other way. You're in a difficult position and you have my full sympathy. And if you ever do feel more capable, these resolutions are waiting for you — unlike most resolutions, they're good year-round.
1. I Will Try To Break Free From My Toxic Family Dynamic
Your feelings about your family have not been created in a vacuum. Rather, they are a product of your family dynamic, or pattern of behavior: somebody does something, another person reacts in a specific way, and everybody fulfills their traditional roles within the family. All families have a dynamic, but toxic dynamics are harmful: perhaps your family dynamic involves giving constant attention to one toxic parent and ignoring the needs of everyone else, or falling into screaming arguments after a family member starts in with a guilt trip or a criticism.
These are long-entrenched patterns, with roles generally assigned to every family member. Which is why trying to break free of your family's patterns — whether by cutting off contact with with certain family members, making sure other people are present whenever you spend time with specific family members, deliberately avoiding certain topics, or whatever else — is one of the most important steps you can take towards breaking out of the cycle of toxicity.
2. I Will Establish Firm Boundaries
Do you have a parent who often verbally abuses you? Manipulates your emotions? Ignores your emotions? Generally acts like an *sshole to you? Not OK. One of the most productive ways to deal with family members who engage in this kind of behavior is to establish boundaries.
Boundaries are your limits — and you express them by making it clear, when someone violates them, that a line has been crossed and that you are not willing to go any further. 2016 can be the year where you make it clear to yourself exactly what you're willing to take, and what you're going to do if a toxic family member oversteps that limit. Putting down the phone, leaving the room, changing the topic or traveling away from them are all decent boundary-setting practices. Assess your own life, with trusted friends or a mental health professional, and figure out what boundaries would most benefit you.
3. I Will Not Forgive Before I Am Ready
Susan Forward, the master of toxic parent psychology, makes an interesting point about forgiveness in her book Toxic Parents: many of us forgive before we're sincerely ready, or before our toxic family members have shown any propensity to change — purely because we think we should. They're our parents (or sister, brother, aunt, uncle, or cousin) and we love them, we think, so why not forgive them?
Because, Forward points out, we are allowed to be angry, to be brutally disappointed in the people close to us – and we are also allowed to engage those emotions honestly. If you've done all that and now honestly feel as if you're at the point where you can forgive your toxic family member, that's awesome. But if you don't genuinely feel like you can forgive them, you're not a bad person.
4. I Will Be Honest About Their Capacity To Change
Getting a toxic parent to change can be as hard as getting blood from a stone. Harder, probably. Toxicity in adults is often so set-in, so seriously part of their make-up, that challenges to it are seriously threatening and will often be resisted. Psychologist Marisa Peer put it bluntly for Psychologies: "You cannot change who your mother is. You cannot fundamentally change the relationship: it is as long as your life. The toxic mother is either in denial or so skilled at deflecting your needs or justifying your relationship that you are unlikely ever to talk her round." This can apply to parents and toxic family members of all kinds.
The odds that your family member will suddenly wake up and go "Oh, hey, I was rubbish; I'll be better now", with the apologies and new future that entails, are low. So don't stake your hopes on them changing. Instead, focus on things you can change — like how you interact with them, and how they make you feel.
5. I Will Reach Out And Get Help From Others
Finding a therapist is often an important first step in breaking the hold of a toxic family member on your life. If you can't afford or aren't able to see a one-on-one therapist for other reasons, you can get yourself onto support group message boards, and buy some books about toxicity and parents (if you can't afford to buy books, many libraries carry the most famous self-help books about toxic parents, like those by Susan Forward, and there are numerous awesome articles about narcissistic parents viewable for free online). You can also tell friends who'll understand.
Children of toxic parents often feel as if their condition must remain a secret, because many of us were raised to believe that our negative parental relationships are our fault, or something that we should feel ashamed about. But your toxic family isn't your fault, and you deserve to be heard by people outside the family who can help and support you. Build your support network so you aren't alone.
6. I Will Prioritize My Own Feelings, Not Those Of My Parents
One standard hallmark of a toxic relationship between parent and child is that the parent's emotions are considered the only important ones, taking precedence over everything else; the child's emotional needs are barely even registered, or are openly mocked and pushed down. This often produces a long-lasting sense of invisibility — and is why many children of toxic parents often run right back into line the second their parents snap their fingers, to care for, wheedle with, suffer under, or otherwise be driven by their parents' feelings and decisions.
Though this may be the dynamic that you were raised with, this does not mean that it is true. You are not selfish or "bad" for disobeying, disagreeing and deciding your own emotions are more important to you than your parents'. You are just a normal adult.
7. I Will Find Safe Spaces
This is particularly important if you still live with your parents, or live in a place that they can easily access or control (like a house that belongs to your family, or an apartment where they help out with rent). You may feel like you have no choice but to be totally vulnerable to your toxic parent every hour of the day, but that's not true — you can establish safe spaces where they can't control you.
And you can establish these safe spaces any place you want — from a traditional psychological support group, to a dance class, hobby club, or even your work place. It's important to forge physical and mental spaces outside of the toxic family dynamic, to make it clear that your family is not your whole life and certainly not your whole identity.
8. I Will Practice Non-Defensive Reactions
Family dynamics are often most visible in how we react to our parents — and usually, with toxic parents, those reactions aren't fun. We get angry, we feel guilty, we wheedle, we get defensive, we protest weakly: all we're doing, according to Forward, is reacting to our toxic parent, rather than genuinely expressing ourselves and our needs. We're still letting them pull the strings.
The key to getting out of this cycle is to learn about what psychologists call non-defensive reactions. They're used in professional mediation a lot, and they're supposed to be emotionless, and represent a refusal to be drawn into the fray. When you use non-defensive reactions, you're being unflappable and sticking to your guns. You can make up your non-defensive reactions off the cuff, or you can use a pre-rehearsed "script", if that helps you. "I'm sorry you feel that way" is a classic non-defensive response, and an infinitely useful one.
9. I Will Allow Myself To Be Angry And To Mourn
Just realized that your parents are toxic? That's awful! I know! It'll be OK eventually — but right now, it's fine for you to have negative emotional reactions to this discovery. You might still be having emotional reactions to this information years later, in fact, which is also fine. You may find yourself incredibly miserable or furious at your parents; these are fine and normal emotions, and you're allowed to feel them.
You're also allowed to grieve for the positive parenting you didn't have, and for the healthy love you never experienced. Toxic parenting isn't just about blow-ups at Thanksgiving; it's also about a great loss to your childhood self. You may never truly "get over" that. But therapy and support can help you live a better life after it — and make no mistake, a better life is possible. Make 2016 the year that better life begins.
Images: Walt Disney Pictures, Giphy