Ask The Therapist: “How can I deal with toxic people, especially if they are from my own family?”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained therapist. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

‘How can I deal with toxic people, especially if they are from my own family? My brother recently got married and since then, my sister-in-law has completely manipulated our relationships. She keeps on complaining, backbiting and trying to turn us against each other. This is affecting me a lot, more than any other family member. What can I do?’ 

Shahrukh’s Response:

Dear Anon,

I imagine it must be extremely challenging and emotionally exhausting to be around someone who is toxic and manipulative. We’ve all heard of the existence and cultural trope of difficult in-laws, but you don’t really expect it to happen to you until it does. Luckily, there are ways to deal with toxic people – depending on the situation, you might opt for either a passive or an active approach. Let’s explore this further and see what we can do to help you.

Passive Approach – Rise Above

Sometimes we may find that people are not willing to accept their shortcomings, and are still stuck in their own patterns. As such, communicating issues to someone like this might do more harm than good. In order to keep yourself safe emotionally, it’s worth creating some distance between yourself and your sister-in-law. If you have to see her often, this might be challenging so prepare yourself for interactions, and stay aware of any anger and frustration that might be coming up. While she can be manipulative, you know better and you can take your power back by showing that her games have no impact on you.

  • Consider speaking to your parents and/or other siblings: It can help to have a few allies on your side. If you feel that she is beginning to impact your other relationships, it’s best to address the relationships she’s beginning to impact, perhaps even getting a feel of how other family members are perceiving her behavior.
  • Stay mindful and reflective of your feelings: You’ll begin to notice that you’re responding to certain behaviours from your sister-in-law. You might notice feelings of anger and frustration coming up, and that’s completely okay – try to explore what it is about her that’s bringing about these feelings. Oftentimes, these feelings can be a response that one has to certain parts of a person. Try to see what it is about her that really gets to you and why.
  • Strengthening the relationships around you: Manipulation tends to work on relationships that are more fragile in nature – it’s possible that because your sister-in-law’s attempts at creating a wedge between you and your family has been successful, it could highlight certain weak points in the family dynamic/setup. It may help to nourish your family bonds, and keep as open a communication with them as possible.

Active Approach: Time To Face The Music

If you feel that the situation calls for a more aggressive approach, it’s time to address the issues. There are several routes you could take, and because this is a family matter, it’s worth staying mindful of what the best option for you might be:

  • Speaking to your brother: If you feel that talking to your sister-in-law is too challenging, and less likely to amount to anything progressive or fruitful, the next best thing is to speak to your brother. It’s important to stay mindful of how you approach the topic. It’s best to emphasise your feelings, rather than placing blame or pointing fingers. Try to name specific instances where you felt that there was manipulation, or where you felt like your relationship was impacted. Make it clear that your intentions are not to stir any trouble, but rather that you want there to be harmony in the family. 
  • Having a conversation with your sister-in-law: When approaching your sister-in-law, it’s best to address the tension rather than starting to accuse her. The latter could lead to a lot of defensiveness from her, and it might make things worse. Come in and say that you have noticed a bit of tension between you and her, and that you would like to talk about it. If she is not aware of what you’re talking about, you can further explain by naming certain instances where you may have felt that she was acting strange around you, or around your family. If all goes well, you both will accept your role in the family dynamics and try to move forward. If, however, things don’t go as well, know that you did your part in trying to resolve things. 

Anon, navigating through relationships that are toxic is tough, and I hear that. It’s even tougher when it’s related to your in-laws because those relationships are linked to others. While you cannot control how your sister-in-law acts, you can definitely take your power back and explore what is going on for you, your family and the dynamics that are playing out now that your sister-in-law has entered into the mix. The interesting thing is that when someone new enters into the family, it changes things – and stepping away from good or bad, it’s more about noticing and being mindful of how things have changed, and what those changes might be highlighting. I do hope that whatever happens, you are able to find peace within your family. I hope this article was helpful to you. Best of luck, and stay in your power!

The above article is written by Shahrukh Shahbaz Malik who is trained in humanistic integrative counselling at CPDD in the UK and currently has her own private practice in Karachi. The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They do not necessarily represent the views of Mashion, nor do they represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment or therapy.

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