Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members or Friends: An Unpopular Position on Putting Yourself FirstJan 25, 2022
Cutting ties with family or friends: An unpopular position on putting yourself first
Pumpkin spice and the holiday season are knocking on our doors.
Most people think of the holidays as a time of forgiveness and reconnection, love and light. For others, it’s a time of anxiety realizing they will once again find themselves feeling obligated to see a certain family member who leaves them feeling drained or emotionally battered. What happens when the love and light we need to give is to ourselves? At what point is it okay to cut ties with someone you feel intentionally or unintentionally obligated to stay in relationship with?
My view may be unpopular but, for me, the answer is that my first obligation is to myself, so if someone makes me feel unsafe, demeaned, degraded, breaks my spirit or I feel sick in the pit of my stomach when they are around, I have permission to discontinue my relationship with them. I do not believe that just because someone is related to us through DNA or family ties or even marriage that we should automatically give them a “pass” for however they choose to behave in our lives. We each have the choice, and perhaps the responsibility, for the behaviors we accept, allow, or tolerate in our space and in our lives. It’s important to note that I’m not talking about a one-time argument or just having differing views. I am talking about someone who’s behavior is harmful to our soul, someone who is consistently or habitually unhealthy in our space.
One example of how this was highlighted for me this year was around social media and my “friends” responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. As the people on my social media feed revealed the truths of their characters, I reevaluated friendships, familial relationships, and even casual acquaintanceships. Some rose up and showed up in beautiful ways. Others’ silence spoke volumes. A few shockingly spewed hate. I “unfriended” anyone from in-laws to old school friends. For me, where I drew my boundary was “if someone is not rejecting racism and standing up for and with the lives, rights, and treatment of people of color I am ‘unfriending’”. It doesn’t mean I have to hate them or wish ill on them. It does mean that racism is a non-negotiable that I will not tolerate in my presence. What I am about and what energy I choose to entertain in my space is my responsibility. How people behave in my space matters.
You may be thinking, “well it’s easy to “unfriend” someone from behind a laptop but what about someone who I see frequently like a closer family member or partner?” I realize this is a very personal choice and each of us has to determine the answer for ourselves and on a case by case basis, of course. Sometimes choosing to honor our own spirit first may even upset someone else in our lives. Telling the truth might bear uncomfortable consequences. You might also be asking, “can I turn my back on someone and still be a spiritual person?” We absolutely can. Whether we still love them but our soul is telling us they are toxic in our life or if we don’t have any love for them at all but have historically felt obligated, we have a choice with each and every person in our lives how to be in relationship with them. Those options include “from afar” and even “not at all”.
At the end of the day, the most important relationship is the one we are having with ourselves. Through spiritual self-development, I have learned that any relationship in my life is a reflection of the relationship I am having with myself, within myself.
Relationships reflect our beliefs about ourselves, our self-worth, as well as the stories we tell ourselves about our past. Sometimes what is working within me is highlighted and sometimes it is my shadow side that needs to come to the light. As I am writing this, I have just settled into a cozy Spanish cottage that is my new home where I will nurture, heal and recharge myself after stepping away from a ten year, on and off, romantic relationship. I am again getting to practice the lesson that it is my responsibility to decide what I will or will not allow, accommodate, or tolerate in my space. Despite my best efforts over several years to create boundaries, attempts to request a change in his behaviors, and even attempts to “love and light” myself into accepting behavior that was unkind and unloving it became clear that my self-worth was, once again, out of balance. I had to make a choice. I could continue to take part in and enable these unhealthy patterns or I could give myself permission to take the action that was the most loving for me.
If I am being honest, I struggled with and sat with everything for a long time, all the while still putting my best effort into the relationship, determined and convinced that holding everything together was the most important outcome. If I could just continue to love my hardest maybe I could somehow do the work for both of us. While I was always hoping for things to improve, my actual soul searching intention, my prayer, and the intention I set before meditating, was to “shine the light of Truth on my life--I am willing to see the highest and greatest good”. Even I was repeatedly taken back when that still small voice within me kept nudging at me with truths like, “apology without changed behavior is just manipulation”, “at what point do your needs matter?”, and “so how many of these flags do you need before you decide you matter?”. I started to evaluate myself and the type of life I wanted even deeper but from the perspective of “I matter too”. Just typing those words bring tears to my eyes. I matter too. I wasn’t raised to look through that lens and as an empath with codependent tendencies I can tend to forget it completely. I started asking, “if I truly believed I matter too what would be the most loving choice for me”. Once I was willing to see from that perspective everything I needed to know was illuminated. The nudges came stronger and even more clearly. All the ways I was settling for crumbs of love became painfully apparent. There was a tipping point and the strength to choose me swelled up inside me until I finally showed up for myself, stood in my power, and ended the relationship.
I will offer one possible spiritual reframe to consider that may help you get past any feelings of guilt around releasing an unhealthy relationship of any kind. What if that challenging person has shown up as a teacher but the lesson is actually about self-worth or self-love? I invite you to try out that explanation instead of wallowing in the “why”. “Why do they behave this way?” “Why won’t they change?” “Why does it have to be like this?” Allow yourself to feel the emotions that are rising up within you but also give yourself the space to shift towards acceptance. Be available for the truth of what is rather than wallowing in the “why” that will never be answered to our satisfaction anyway. What if part of their purpose was showing up in our lives to trigger that piece of us that is ready to be acknowledged and healed? What if someone showing up with unkind speech, for example, was showing up as an opportunity for me to stand in my power and finally “get” the lesson that I matter too? We always have the option and the opportunity to choose how, and if, we will remain in relationship with someone, no matter who it is. It’s not about being in judgment of anyone else. We are all human and, while we are all serving as reflections of one another, the way people show up really says more about what’s going on inside them than the way they feel about us. The way they choose to behave speaks about them but what we choose to allow, accept, or tolerate in our space is all about us. Whether it is a relationship with a romantic partner, a parent, a sibling, or even a friend we are each worthy of choosing to have only those people in our personal space who show up in integrity, kindness, and respect. We do not need to issue excuses or free passes to treat us poorly to anyone for any reason.
Hopefully, we each have far more relationships in our lives that enrich, support, and color our journey than not but I am here to hold space for you in reevaluating the ones that don’t. In case you need to hear someone say it, you have permission to discontinue relationship with anyone who breaks your spirit, bruises your soul, or devalues you. You matter. Your heart is precious and your soul has a purpose here. You are worthy of inner peace and self-love. Those truths supersede any blood relation, commitment, or perceived obligation to any person. By breaking the ties that bind us to unhealthy relationships, whatever their origin, we affirm to the Universe “I matter too”. And so it is.