This article isn't about two siblings that have grown apart through the years, or the typical awkward-for-everyone sibling rivalry.
While those situations can be difficult, toxicity is a set of behaviors that can be harmful and affect the whole family dynamic.
Toxic relationships can be found in nearly every type of relationship - family, friends, co-workers, romantic relationships, even the dog we love who keeps biting the hand that feeds him!
It’s usually in close relationships that toxicity can be the strongest.
I’ve found it in relationships where there is some kind of dependency. For example, at work when your livelihood depends on a sh*tty manager or you're with a business partner who has alllll the red flags listed below.
But what if it’s your sister? Or your younger brother for whom you feel a sense of responsibility?
What if there are extenuating circumstances?
Let’s say your parents passed away. Or they would disown you if you made a fuss over the elephant in the room?
There are many paths on the Road of Denial, and this one is bumpy as hell.
It’s a cycle that you’re trapped in.
So often, families ‘normalize’ each other’s behaviors, even if those behaviors are harmful to everyone.
The insanity is that it happens over and over and over. There are no foreseeable solutions in sight, and for the good of the family you all do your best to act as if everything's fine.
It’s in the 'best interest' of the family so your brood stays intact.
This isn’t about your family - this article isn’t for them.
It’s not for your mom who feels your pain (but still does nothing), or your co-worker who complains right along with you.
This article is for YOU.
Believe it or not my friend, you are HALF of the problem.
And on your side of the street, where your behaviors are concerned, you are 100% responsible.
I mean this in the best way. The greatest thing about understanding this is that it gives you CHOICES.
This takes you from feeling trapped to seeing that you actually have options.
This takes us from being a part of the problem to finding a solution.
It's the road to recovery.
Let me help paint the picture more clearly.
You may be the sibling who appears to have her sh*t together, but you are ENABLING AF. Here’s how I know...
I was there. I understand in a way I couldn’t possibly fit into words.
The problem with toxic sibling relationships is that we feel a commitment to that person. We aren’t just friends. We're blood.
We share history. Heritage. Legacy. The family name.
Or as I say in the face of most problems, "Now, What?"
What can you actually do?
First things first, identify the problem.
Take the sister-lovin/daddy approval/co-dependent glasses OFF and see if any of the traits below describe your sibling.
Ultimately, you have to sacrifice your needs in order to keep the relationship going.
If you’re afraid of their reaction when you consider setting a boundary or speaking up, that’s a sign you're dealing with someone who has more than entitlement issues.
Trust your instincts. It's not a fabricated story that you're telling yourself, you've grown up with this person. Trust your judgement.
These behaviors point to toxicity and it's probably affecting other areas of your life. It's time to take a closer look.
When you have a toxic sibling, you may eventually realize that you wouldn’t let ANYONE treat you like this, so why are you letting them?
This confuses a lot of people, at first. Trust that you WILL get it (after a few years of continued practice) ;)
One of the biggest lessons I learned many years ago and it’s helped in both business and personal situations - saying no to something you don't want is actually saying yes to something you really do want.
"Boundaries essentially say 'this is how I love you and myself at the same time," Deanna Fernandez, MHC, NYC-based therapist says.
It’s actually a requirement in all relationships. If you’re fearful of setting and maintaining boundaries, that’s a good indication the relationship is toxic. If your sibling continues to violate your boundaries, that’s also a good indication the relationship is toxic and you should prioritize your health/safety over the relationship."
If you’re confident to speak up, have a clear idea of what you want BEFORE you have that conversation*
*Not suggested at Thanksgiving dinner.
Instead of focusing on what you DON'T want or on all the ways you think they're wrong - focus on what you DO want.
When you speak up, clearly state your needs.
This isn’t about confronting your sibling. This is about you speaking about you.
Take time to really think about what you want to communicate.
Maybe they intimidate you. Or they guilt trip. Or they’re highly reactive or defensive. Or they always have to be the victim in their story.
That's all normal for toxic behavior.
You can still speak up.
Your needs are important too.
The best way to go into a conversation like this is to write about it over and over again until you can see the situation with ZERO blame.
If they’re not immediately receptive when you have the conversation, let it go and have faith that the new seeds have been planted.
You are giving them the gift of connecting with you. You are offering an opportunity.
In most cases, an honest conversation is healing for everyone.
If they seem like they got it, give them the benefit of the doubt.
In extreme cases, or with toxic siblings who suffer from personality disorders or traumas they’ve never recovered from, these seeds will not take root.
Trust their reactions to be valuable information to help you make decisions.
You may have to repeat this conversation a few times through the years, but THAT’S what being family can really be about.
Don’t give up on yourself or on your own desire to have a connection with your sibling. Try not to give up on their ability to fix it.
Even if it keeps breaking.
As family, we can help each other along the way, through the good and the bad. We have each other’s back.
But go back and reread that...
We have ‘each other’s’ back. Your back is important too.
If they can’t or won’t hear you, if you are still mistreated or feel threatened by them, you still have options, including cutting ties.
If a sibling knows they're doing something wrong but keeps doing it, you might want to consider family counseling if they're open to it, says psychotherapist Gary Brown, Ph.D. Even if you can't reach an agreement on everything, you may be able to establish a truce that allows you to peacefully coexist.
Then, unfortunately, there are those cases when the other person isn't able or willing to change. In these situations, you should determine how much contact you're willing to have with them. You might be okay, for example, being at the same family gatherings with them in a group setting but not talking to them one-on-one.
Cutting off ties entirely is a last resort and shouldn't be done during a heated situation like a fight, but there are a few situations where it really is the healthiest thing to do, says Brown: When you feel like your safety is at risk, when the damage done is beyond repair, and when they're outright abusive. If it makes you panic just to see their number on your phone, that's a sign you're better off disconnecting and salvaging your mental health.
Whatever you decide, don't feel guilty for setting boundaries, says Schafler. After all, by distancing yourself from a sibling who won't accommodate you, you're also giving them the space to behave the way they want to, even when it's not to your liking. "It's not loving to ask someone to do something that they're unable or unwilling to do," she says. "If your sibling has expressed or demonstrated their unwillingness or lack of ability to meet you where you are, it's your turn to loosen your grip, focus on your own life, and allow the other person to step into their own sense of personal accountability."
Brown also warns against letting a sense of familial duty keep you in a situation that compromises your well-being. "You aren't here to take abuse from anyone," he says. "Blood relative or not makes no difference."
Set boundaries, speak up, stop dramatizing.
Do your part.
If that doesn’t work, you can cut contact.
When you’re little kids, you HAVE to be with your sibling.
But you’re not a little kid anymore.
You are an adult.
You make the decisions now.
Your boundaries say "this is how I love me AND you at the same time."
Becca Starr is a life coach and inspirational speaker helping clients make extraordinary changes with small shifts and big courage.