It can be extraordinarily difficult to determine whether or not your family has a toxic dynamic. Some behaviors are more obviously abusive; if they’re hypercritical, make biting comments, or if they use threatening language or violence, you will likely have a gut feeling that something’s not right.
But other behaviors are far less obvious, which can have you questioning whether or not your relationship with your family is a healthy and happy one. Not sure what you’re working with, exactly? “When discussing toxic family dynamics, the golden rule is context,” explains Naiylah Warren, LMFT, therapist and clinical content manager at Real, a therapy-based mental health platform. “Every family system — with the exception of very obvious behaviors like abuse and/or violence — will have their own view of what toxic is based on various factors like social norms, family traditions, even specific customs.”
The TL;DR here: Family dynamics are complicated, and some toxic behaviors are super subtle, particularly given that toxicity is cyclical, frequently passing through generations if the cycle isn’t broken. “Think about the family as an ecosystem,” says Warren. “There are things that must happen each day to keep that ecosystem functioning. Families are the same in that there are behaviors and rituals that keep the family functioning as it always has. The behaviors that we see have been passed down or developed to help to keep that system functioning.”
Here are some low-key signs your family dynamic might be toxic.
1. You feel uneasy when you’re around them.
If you dread having to make a phone call to your parents or feel unsettled just being in the same room as someone in your family, that’s a solid sign they’re not a healthy influence in your life. If you can, practice awareness of your emotions and your physical state before you see them or when you’re around them. The body does, in fact, keep the score, so don’t ignore that racing heart, sweaty hands, pit-in-your-stomach feeling you get during interactions. Your body might be trying to tell you something important.
2. They give you the silent treatment.
You know that being interrupted when you try to engage in conversation is an unhealthy behavior, but if your family member completely disengages and shuts you down, that’s equally as problematic.
Everyone has their own way of handling conflict, and plenty of people genuinely need to step away from a situation and take some time and space to cool off. But if your loved ones cut off contact without warning or explanation or try to silence you, that’s a sign of an unhealthy power dynamic.
3. You feel like you have to be a different version of yourself around them.
If you feel like you have to hide or downplay your accomplishments or facets of your identity (say, your sexuality, your career choices, or even your hobbies and interests) for fear of being criticized, your family probably doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Even low-key or passive-aggressive digs — such as eye-rolling or backhanded compliments about anything from your appearance to career challenges — can be signs of toxicity.
“Developing a support system is crucial in helping you get your emotional and relational needs met,” says Warren. But it’s worth remembering that support can come from many different sources, including friends, a therapist, neighbors, trusted co-workers, etc. You’re not broken if you don’t find that within your own family.
4. Their behavior or demeanor feels unpredictable to you — you never know what you’re going to get.
It can be utterly exhausting when you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around a family member out of fear of upsetting them or shaking up the family dynamic, but it should never come at the expense of your own emotional well-being. “Truthfully, it is very typical that in close relationships, particularly with family, we tend to experience them through many more states/phases than we may other people in our lives, thus exposing us to a wide range of their behaviors,” says Warren. If you’re on edge about interactions large and small, you might have an uneven dynamic on your hands.
Similarly, Warren notes that coercive behavior, e.g., feeling forced to take sides during conflict and/or feeling punished for staying neutral, is equally manipulative.
5. You’re holding onto things from the past.
When you recognize that behaviors aren’t healthy and you start taking steps to understand them, such as going to therapy and/or practicing self-care, if you’re still feeling unresolved tension about things that happened years or even decades in the past, it’s a sign that the family dynamics haven’t changed. “A huge step in healing from family conflict or trauma is to define what healing means for you,” says Warren. “Of course, individual and/or family therapy can be a great tool to provide you the space to process and tools to facilitate healing as defined by you, but it is an individual choice to decide to detach from or develop workable boundaries that prioritize our safety.”
6. They believe their behavior is “tough love.”
“Tough love” really only serves to foster pervasive shame and guilt that can last for decades if not a lifetime. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your loved ones to treat you gently and with kindness, and you are not too sensitive for wanting that for yourself.
7. You find it difficult to disconnect from them.
If you’re a fully grown adult and still feel guilty about having boundaries with your family, it’s possible you’re heavily enmeshed with them. Says Warren, “Enmeshment describes a relationship that prevents individuals from having a sense of personal identity.”
8. They rely on white lies/omissions of the truth.
Sure, big lies make it challenging to trust anyone, but a pattern of smaller lies or omissions can be equally as toxic and might be indicative of a deeper unhealthy dynamic at play. It could be a low-key form of gaslighting, i.e. making you doubt or question experiences you know to be true, valid, and real.
9. You feel like the worst version of yourself around them.
Being around your loved ones should make you feel at ease and safe to be who you are, and if you find yourself resorting to behaviors you know are toxic (such as engaging in gossip or comparison talk just to “keep up”), that might be a sign of a larger issue. “When family members compare themselves or others, it can create a hotbed of issues such as feelings of insecurity, resentment, and create rigid roles that certain family members feel like they must live up to,” says Warren.
Even casual gossip can start to build up unsettled feelings — after all, if they’re gossiping about others with you, what are they saying about you to others when you’re not around? “It is a very typical practice that families will ‘debrief’ after family events by talking about certain conversations they had, sharing stories of others, or even sh*t talking, but while in some cases this can feel uniting in the moment, over time it can create discomfort, tension or conflict during future interactions,” says Warren.
10. They make broad, sweeping generalizations about you.
Despite what they might say, no one knows you better than you do. Constantly hearing things about yourself (such as “you’re making things up, as usual” or “you always/never do this”) will only breed self-doubt and chip away at your confidence over time.
11. They say the right things, but you don’t feel the love.
Your loved ones might try to gloss things over with nice words or even grand gestures, but if they repeatedly display a lack of empathy or understanding for who you are as a person, you’re well within your rights to set any boundaries you need to grieve, heal, and grow on your own terms.