Nella Coiro

Forgiving & Releasing Toxic Family Members

(This blog is an excerpt from one of the chapters in my upcoming book.)


“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Maya Angelou


Sometimes the greatest chunks of adversity can be found in our backyard. Toxic family members can cause us a great deal of distress, and detoxing from the damage can be challenging, a source of adversity, and a difficult battle to conquer. Moreover, like a virus, toxic people infect and harm everyone around them.

We can’t fix toxic family members or our dysfunctional dynamics. However, we can detox the part of us that is attracted to these toxic people — the part of us that thinks they’re going to change —the part of us that struggles to face reality. And yet, it’s hard to detach from people who are a part of our family. It’s hard to walk away and leave them and our shared history behind us. It’s hard to face the reality that they add nothing to our lives, and are as toxic and dangerous as drinking lethal poison. 

At one point, when the pain of remaining in the relationship becomes overwhelming, your higher-self and your heart will tell you that you’re wasting your time, and losing pieces of your self-respect, and it is time to say goodbye emotionally and physically. The physical part is easy. The emotional part, especially forgiveness, will take some time and work.

Toxic people lie to you, disrespect you, use you, and demean you. The question is this: 

What is creating the struggle and the inner conflict that might be stopping you from permanently breaking ties with this toxic person?

  1. My delusional thinking and denial contributed to my own struggle.
  2. I ignored the fact that we had a dysfunctional history and family roles.
  3. I thought that if I could limit our contact and put some distance between us, then this might alleviate some of the stress inherent in our toxic relationship.
  4. I wanted to have a relationship with the sister that I fantasized about, and not the real person that she actually was. 
  5. I was overly focused upon the importance of our shared history.
  6. I didn’t want to face reality of the situation.
  7. For the sake of peace, I ignored her insults, innuendo and ongoing disrespect.

Perhaps you can identify with some of my reasons to help you understand why might be immobilized and still struggling with a toxic relationship.

A few weeks after I began dialysis, right after my first book was published, my sister severed ties with me by ignoring my phone calls and refusing to communicate with me directly. Instead, she hid behind her surrogates, who threatened and attacked me. She negated and ignored the fact that I’ve spent countless hours being supportive of her day and night. This toxic situation helped me to see that it would be unhealthy to consider ever having a relationship with her again, because her toxicity was infecting my life.

Many people wrongly assume that forgiving someone requires forgetting the offense that the person committed against us. This isn’t true. First, asking someone to forget the hurt that they have experienced is denying the seriousness of the offense. Can you imagine telling a Holocaust survivor who saw her child being taken to the crematorium, “You need to forget about that memory and get on with your life.” Anyone would find that advice outrageous! 

Asking someone to forget the pain of the offense is unreasonable and unrealistic. Keep in mind that you can still forgive, yet retain the memory of the offense and it’s associated pain. For example, just because I forgave my parents and especially my sister, this didn’t mean that I forgot the pain that they inflicted upon me. That would be impossible and unhealthy.

Memories are embedded in the brain though chemical and electronic impulses. Although we cannot always recall certain experiences consciously (like where we put our keys or our eyeglasses), those memories are still in our brain and could resurface at any time. This is especially true in the form of flashbacks when we have experienced traumatizing situations. It’s impossible to perform a “memory wipe” of our brains. We can’t hit a delete key and erase uncomfortable memories. I wish that we could.

Why forgive?
Forgiveness is something we do for us, and it has nothing to do with the offender, nor does it include reconciliation or any contact with the perpetrator. Therefore, we can also forgive people who are deceased. My parents have been deceased for decades, but I was still able to forgive them. If we choose not to forgive, then we are giving that individual power over us. Essentially, we are allowing them to “own“ us. We are letting them own our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, and our lives. Through forgiveness, we are detaching the dysfunctional chain that connects us to one another.

Forgiveness also does not always require reconciliation. There are some situations where it isn’t healthy to resume a relationship, especially if the offender is toxic. I know that I can’t have a relationship with my sister because she is way too toxic, but I am still working toward forgiving  her. It isn’t easy, and might take quite a while, but I want to forgive her for me. Although unfortunate, right now, I cannot have her in my life in her current toxic state. I wish her no harm, and I truly hope that some day she will get the help that she needs to heal from her own unresolved issues.

In my book, The Forgiveness Journey and the companion workbook, I empathize that forgiveness is an internal process that involves working through the hurt, grieving your losses, and letting go of the grudge. We choose to forgive, even though it can be difficult, for our own healing and peace of mind. Moreover, the offender is not a part of this process. Trust me, it takes time and work, and is more challenging when it involves family members.

Toxic Dynamics 

The dynamics are complicated when we’re dealing with family members, especially if we share a dysfunctional childhood history, and we have grown and healed, while they have done neither. Then their jealousy can add more toxicity into the mix. 

Further, if you are their designated scapegoat, they will blame you for all of their misery and unhappiness. This is a ruse. You need to know that their issues and discontent have nothing to do with you. Their life experiences, and their choices, have led them to where they are today.

Consider these signs:

  1. The relationship is abusive. Abuse has many forms, including mental, physical, verbal and emotional. The silent treatment and sending the others to attack you are also forms of abuse.
  2. Your sibling  gives you anxiety. If you were living with ongoing anxiety because you sibling is unpredictable, vindictive, histrionic, melodramatic, or narcissistic, then this is the time to exit the relationship.
  3. Your sibling is too crazy to reason with. It’s time to exit when crazy, no-win games dominate the relationship. These include the silent treatment, gossip, sending “flying monkeys “ to fight their battles, blame-games, and creating excuses and drama. 

In releasing toxic family members, here is some points to consider:

  1. You owe the toxic individual nothing.
  2. They do not have a right to abuse you simply because they are a family member. 
  3. You have a right to walk up way from the relationship without feeling guilty.
  4. You have a right to be treated with respect.
  5. You have a responsibility to take care of yourself and exit toxic situations.

Toxic families often revel in negativity, are often judgmental, and unapologetic, and they believe that they have a right to dictate how other people should live their lives. (Even though they don’t follow the same rules themselves.) They are not interested in repairing relationships, because they are more invested in the euphoria that they receive from creating drama and chaos. And this is why one must exit the relationship to avoid being trapped in their vortex of trauma drama.

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