How to Navigate No Contact Boundaries with Toxic Family Members

Practical tips from a first-hand trial and error account.

Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

No one wants to write this. No one wants to read this. No one wants to be at a point in life that brings them here to this topic. Let me acknowledge that first. I know that if you are here you don’t want to be. And I know that because you are here you have given considerable amounts of effort and thought to what your best options are.

The unfortunate truth is that many of us are here and many of more of us should be. Our society has told a common but deeply harmful lie: family is everything, blood is thicker than water. This deeply held belief is internalized by most of us. It leads to a plethora of problems starting with thinking that we are at fault when familial situations or relationships aren’t meeting our needs. This belief can ravish our lives and our relationships outside of the nuclear family unit, too.

The year after I got married, I stood in front of the Hallmark card section at my local Walmart. When I lived closer to my mother I could skate by the over celebrated Mother’s Day by making a quick visit to her home, often delivering a potted plant or some other simple gift. Living in a different state, this was impossible. I was unprepared for the emotional upheaval this seemingly simple task of picking out a card would bring.

I lost track of time. Carefully choosing one card after another, only to close each one and place it back on the shelf. Cards labeled funny would certainly offend her and I knew it. Cards labeled ‘from the group’ wouldn’t work either because there was no group — all my siblings still lived at home. Ones labeled ‘from both of us’ would be untrue. She wasn’t a mother figure to both of us — hell, she was barely a mother figure to just me. All the pretty words jumbled inside the rest of those cards were false. I never dreamed of growing up to be just like her. I absolutely would have still been the woman I was without her influence. And, yes I certainly could imagine what my life would be like without her often irrational, volatile, victim mentality, emotional outbursts that I had tiptoed around for as long as I could remember.

I left feeling defeated and heavy. A dark cloud had descended upon my day and didn’t ever fully lift for 10 years after this. I decided I simply wouldn’t send a card. It was too painful to face the wall of beautifully curated sentiments that reminded me what I was supposed to feel like but didn’t.

Shortly after this, I struggled to explain the dynamic to yet another therapist in a long line of therapists. I stopped listening when she said the familiar phrases I had heard all my life. Be forgiving, have compassion, and she’s your mother, she loves you — I left her office feeling patronized and believing still that I was to blame. For 7 long years after this, I found these same sentiments repeated by every therapist, pastor, mentor, friend, and my own husband. Furthering my belief that I was to blame for not being able to accept whatever my mother’s version of love was.

Many events led to my decision of no contact.

Starting with the book Mothers Who Can’t Love by Susan Forward. In it, Dr. Forward details what she calls “types” of mothers. I eagerly consumed this book. I cried through it. I felt confused by it. My mother was every type listed in the book — further complicated by her own unresolved trauma and abusive marriage to a man who is not my father. I learned words like enmeshed, toxic, and emotionally immature. I finally felt heard and validated after all those years of struggling to feel like there was something inherently flawed in me. Staying in a relationship with my family, especially my mother was incredibly unhealthy for me and I could see now how it was sabotaging my life.

Dr. Forward and many other psychology experts warn against deciding to enforce no contact boundaries with family members without a therapist. Personally, I chose to forgo this warning. It is extremely important to note that this choice is not safe for everyone and you should never choose to pursue this in a situation where violence may be an outcome. Equally important to note is that a strong support system is necessary for navigating this dynamic.

Change Social Media Settings

The first change I made was to block all family members from my social media accounts. This is doable without officially blocking by changing visibility settings. Utilizing this tool also allows you to change the privacy settings for each post if you want to.

This can be a good choice in the beginning as you ease into navigating no contact. It allows for information to be controlled by you while making no dramatic fuss to family members you are seeking to sever ties with.

Mute Contacts

Most Smartphones have the option to mute notifications from specific contacts. This stops the emotional reaction that can be elicited from a text or call notification. The capability to choose if or when an unexpected notification comes through can break the cycle of reacting emotionally and allow for space to decide how, if, and when you would like to respond (if at all).

Most toxic families and their members thrive by continually ruffling emotional feathers. In my situation, it often starts with a message in some form from my mother. When I choose to not respond immediately, other family members are alerted to my dismissal, followed by a groupthink mindset of rapid, back to back messages. The end goal is always to get every one else on my mother’s perception of her side. A tactic used again and again that ultimately drives a wedge between me and the rest of my family.

Evaluate Online Interactions

The addition of overly enmeshed social media with toxic families has proven to be severely damaging since its conception in the early 2000s. In short, it grew to encompass nearly everyone you ever met in life. To limit what your family knows about you or what you sharing online, evaluate the other connections you have that may be shared.

For me, this meant deleting a lot of people from my social media. Shared contacts between my mother and I, including her best friend that I adored. I attempted to leave this relationship as it stood online but soon found it was yet another avenue my mother used to violate my boundaries. This is not the best choice for every situation, but it was for mine.

Affirmations & Support

I hate affirmations. I reluctantly hung a scrawled list of them next to my bathroom mirror at the beginning of this journey and they could not have been more pivotal in my staying grounded. The same is true for a well rounded, fully loving support system.

We are psychologically wired to seek approval from our parents. An evolutionary skill that made the difference between survival or death. When we grow up with parents that cannot meet emotional needs, our concept of love, relationships, acceptance, and self is severely skewed. We look to mothers especially to reflect all that is good within us. If your mother cannot enforce this for you, it can be terrifying to move forward with no contact.

I often thought along my journey that if my mother couldn’t love me through the worst parts of my life, who could? The answer was me. I could love myself for the first time ever. I could change my perception of who I was really rather than who my family made me believe I was. Learning to love myself in the absence of a biological group of folks who were inherently supposed to was difficult and painful. In the end, it made it easier to accept love too. I could never have achieved this without those daily affirmations that served as a reparenting tool.

Final Thoughts

The decision to go no-contact with family members, especially parents is ripe with complicated emotions. It is not the right choice for everyone and for every situation, but it was the right choice for me. Though excruiatingly difficult, you will immediately started to see all the good parts come to fruition.

You can stop doubting or second guessing yourself. Stop planning your life around “if/then” scenarios that centered around your parents (or other family members) disregulated emotions and hurtful reactions. You will learn to stop seeking approval from others. Have the confidence to chase your dreams and succeed. Or stop having volatile emotional outbursts in your own marriage. This list could go on and on.

Aside from learning to love yourself, it is most important to say that distance from no contact allows for compassion. Both self-compassion and compassion for family members that is not attainable otherwise. No contact does not have to be forever. It can be temporary, but it does need to be long enough to break those emotional reaction patterns that keep you stuck in a cycle of knowing your family is toxic yet not being able to stop yourself from engaging.

If you’re ready to embrace that for yourself, please join me here. I dive into generational trauma, how to heal, and how to navigate it.

If you’ve gone no-contact, read about hoovering from toxic families here.

Resident black sheep. Generational trauma explorer. Survivor. Advocate. Old enough to have a skincare routine.

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