Recently I have encountered a situation that caused me to really reflect on myself and how I handle conflict. As a counselor I think about all types of conflict on a daily basis, from family, relationships, and especially internal conflicts. In this particular situation I had a family member contact me through messenger on Facebook about a post I had made days before. This family member rarely ever speaks to me and we have not seen each other in person for years. So when I when I first read the message I was confused by the question because it was about a humorous post and where I got it. They did not ask how I had been or what had been going on in my life. This person started off the message with “hey cuz”, and had contacted me in this manner before in reference to a book I had shared on social media. I remembered the song and dance of how they just wanted to question me and tell me their views on how I was wrong for liking the book or the author of the book because of their personal beliefs on the author. Speaking in condescending language, and this time was no different.
I made a choice in that moment to simply not engage, at least not in the form of debate or confrontation. I tried to change the subject and ask how he had been and how was life and explain that I prefer not to have those types of conversations on social media or through messenger. It was so odd to be asked such a random question and I wanted a family member vibe, not to feel like I was being trolled on social media. I figured if they were only going to reach out to me a couple of times a year and both were to engage in confrontation then maybe it was my job to respond differently if I wanted to feel better about it. Sadly, this attempt to connect backfired and I was left feeling misunderstood and realized this person did not care to know me. Even though this person is family, they do not know me, my character or my values and beliefs, and they made no attempt to know me. It was obvious they were making assumptions about me and had just set out to judge and teach a lesson. By the end of the brief interaction I was left defeated and a bit shocked. This is when I reflected on the many sessions I have had with clients on toxic people.
Often I have clients who encounter toxic people and too often these toxic people are their own family members. I have helped many work through the idea that sometimes, for our own mental health, we must make the choice to remove or at least distance ourselves from certain individuals and that includes family. It hurt my heart that my efforts to connect were rejected, but I quickly realized there would be no understanding or reasoning with this person. Two previous encounters had proved that the only effort made to connect with me was to teach me a lesson and talk down to me. The realization within myself left me feeling conflicted at first. I found myself reading over the conversation and questioning if I could have handled myself better. Finally, I realized that I had trusted my gut and in the end it had been right.
I knew from the beginning the intentions were not from a good place. Too often I see people trying to teach others a lesson from a place of superiority, without forming a connection first. Even as children we quickly learn that we must trust and feel safe and comfortable with a person before we can learn from them. What makes us think that will change as we grow older? I spend hours getting to know my clients before we transition into the homework and learning process of counseling. Any good teacher knows they must start as a student. To know a person is to love them and once the love is established then the meaningful conversations can begin. I feel fortunate that this is the first and only time I have encountered what I consider to be a toxic family member and I made the hard choice to remove them.
If you find yourself holding your breath in dread at the thought of being around certain individuals, or feeling drained and frustrated after encounters, then I encourage you to ask yourself if it is worth it. Setting healthy boundaries may be necessary at first, but if the negative vibes persist it is not worth your mental health to stay in an unhealthy relationship with anyone, even family. I hope by sharing my own experience that others may see that staying in it is not always necessary. I was able to walk away knowing I had tried my best but ultimately I have goals and vision for the type of life I want and those types of interactions are not a part of my vision.
With love, health, happiness (and strength to remove yourself from toxic relationships)