Dealing with unhealthy family & friend relationships: A brief how-to.


The problem of how best to deal with difficult family members or friends comes up routinely in therapy sessions. This applies to relationships that are sometimes manipulative, shaming, lacking in boundaries, or emotionally abusive. There’s often a heavy dose of the “shoulds” in these sessions: “I should be able to attend this family gathering; I shouldn’t care what my mom thinks, I should be able to talk to x on the phone for ten minutes, etcetera. The fact is that wanting health in one’s relationships with one’s family and friends is a very normal desire, and fair to aspire to. 

How to approach taking care of yourself when dealing with unhealthy family/friend relationships? Here’s a few suggestions:

Prioritize Yourself First.

If this suggestions sounds nutty to you, there’s a good chance that your relationship could use some tweaking. As I’ve mentioned in many previous posts, self-prioritization is not the same thing as selfishness. Even if your mother tells you otherwise.

Take care of yourself first, and then decide how you might be able to extend yourself to others. Make sure your health is prioritized. Take time for relaxation, socialization, exercise. Rest. Consider what’s being asked of you, and decide if it makes sense for you or not. Then, after all of that, attend to what’s being asked of you (if you choose to). This is respectful to all involved. Including you.

Say No. Often. With Gusto. 

Saying No can be a real challenge when our friend or family member lacks boundaries, applies guilt tactics, or doesn’t accept No as an answer. This does not mean that we default to saying Yes to avoid all the trouble of the No. This means that we gently try out No in ways that feel comfortable to us, until we can apply the No more regularly and comfortably. 

No is a complete sentence. You do not need to provide a lengthy explanation or validate your No. If something feels wrong for you, practice applying a direct, firm NO and see how it feels. Word has it that No gets easier with practice. 

Listen to Your Insides.

Your gut knows what’s up. Chances are, if you feel twisted, anxious, fearful, physically ill, etc. about something, it’s because there is a part of you that would have a hard time with doing it, and doesn’t want to do it. We don’t always need to do exactly what our parts tell us, but it is important to give them the respect of air time, hear out what they have to say, and then decide from our calm, rational Self how to best take care of them. 

This means you don’t ignore our feelings, tough it out, get over it, (wo)man up, or whatever other unhelpful phrase might be employed here. Respect your feelings enough to listen to them, and take measures to take care of them. Sometimes this means not taking a phone call. Sometimes this means opting out of an unhealthy conversation. Sometimes this means setting a strong boundary at holidays. All of this is okay.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag.

There is often a rule in unhealthy family systems that we don’t talk about our problems with other people.To my mind, this is the most dangerous element in unhealthy family systems, and the most telling. This rule acknowledges that something is going on that is not okay, and then asks the child (adult or otherwise) to pretend that this isn’t the case, or not to air out their dirty laundry. 

To quote Ann Lamott, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Your family (or friendship) is not Fight Club. There is nothing to protect here. Telling your story is healing, so tell everybody. Tell your trusted friends and family members, tell your therapist. Tell the press if you want to. Don’t hide secrets for unhealthy people. 

If All Else Fails, Limit Contact.

Limiting contact is the final frontier, and can be a hard choice to make. This is hard, and that is fair and also okay, and a good reason to be gentle with yourself if you are considering communicating with someone less, or cutting them out altogether. 

I want to be very clear in strongly validating that it is a completely healthy and viable choice to remove someone from your life that is causing you emotional harm. The bar does not have to be set at physical harm (which it often seems to be, for some reason). If a person in your life is emotionally damaging you, it’s reasonable to consider making the cut. Consider sharing your experience with trusted people (see Let the Cat Out of the Bag) and allow their validations to support you if you make this tough choice. 

Navigating unhealthy relationships can be emotionally taxing at best, and damage one’s physical and mental health at worst. You can take steps to protect and care for yourself. Consider it. 

Originally posted on my blog, Common Humanity, at Psych To read more, visit
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