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September: Tara Talks

Is it okay to cut out toxic people in your life if it’s family? There are so many sayings out there like, “blood is thicker than water.” If certain relatives only bring toxicity to your life, how do you set boundaries while also doing things like enjoying holidays with your family?

Let’s start with brevity. If you’re asking a cut and dry, broad question about whether it’s OK to cut out toxic people, including family, then my answer is yes. It is absolutely OK to cut out toxic people from your life, even if they’re family. There is way more to say, but I want to be clear from the outset that toxic people can be cut out of one’s life. It’s messier than that, of course. Even when a situation seems straightforward, it’s not generally as simple when we’re in that situation. 

This second question — how you can cut those people out while also keeping them in your life for certain things like holidays — can also be simple to answer. In short, you can’t do both. If I’m reading this correctly, and you’re wondering whether you can maintain your boundaries while not creating any waves or rocking the boat within your family, then I can tell you it’s not doable.

Here’s the deal. The vast majority of people don’t like change. It’s unsettling and uncertain, and folks tend to stay away from uncertainty as much as possible. People like change even less when it’s not their idea, it directly impacts them, and they’re happy with the status quo. Further still, people are so entrenched in their systems and ways of being that they’ll do any number of things to keep other people (like you) right where you are. In most cases, the intention behind this isn’t inherently bad or evil or malicious or anything of that sort. It’s just part of how most humans operate. 

To get specific to you right now: You’ve got a “role” within your family system, and that system wants you to stay within that role because, well, even a dysfunctional system is functioning in a way. Just not very well. And for most people, functioning feels better than uncertainty, even if a new functioning would actually feel better than the current functioning.

So if you’re asking me whether you can keep your boundary with a toxic family member, maintain the family system, and walk away unscathed, my answer is no. You cannot have those three things at one time. Definitely not at first. There’s always a possibility that people will change over time, but if you’re the first of your family and the only one advocating for different actions or behaviors, then no, there is a very high likelihood that all three will not happen.

Stay with me, though. There are things you can try, although I can’t guarantee that they’ll make a significant difference. 

Let’s start with some questions that will hopefully help you to gain some insight. Honestly, you might even grab a journal or pull up a doc and start writing out your answers just to see where your thoughts take you. Really spend some time with these. 

For starters, I would ask myself: What am I trying to maintain by keeping my “family together?” What is it that I’m after? A feeling? A physical space? Nostalgia? Do I have a fear of unveiling underlying tension in the family? Am I after the illusion of family or do I have an actual loving and warm felt experience of being surrounded by them all? 

Secondly, I’d ask myself: What would make the experience of this toxic person worth it, if anything? If I continued to try to keep my “family together,” what would it cost me? What about in one month? Six months? One year? Three years? Follow those thoughts through to their logical conclusion. And again, write out your answers. Don’t think about what’s aspirational with these questions; think about what is. Answer these questions as if nothing were going to change with what exists right now. 

Third, I would ask myself: What’s the worst possible scenario when I set a boundary with this family member? How will I feel? How will I feel when the rest of the family tries to get me to change back? What will I need to maintain the boundary I’ve drawn? When I feel doubt or guilt about drawing the boundary, what will I need in order to remind myself that I did the right thing? 

See, the real question — the main one at the core of it all — is about your own limits. It’s simple, really. At what point have you had enough? Enough of the toxicity, enough of the discomfort, and enough of trying to play nice to keep a system together that is only hurting you. By cutting out a toxic person in your life, even if they’re family, you’re directly and indirectly saying that you’ve chosen health and functionality, and that you’re done with the nonsense. It is hard, period. It will be hard for longer than you want it to be. But I can guarantee you that when you break free and have had enough space, you’re going to look back and only wish you had done it sooner. 

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