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Why You Should Be Unapologetic About Setting Boundaries With Toxic Family Members

Love & Relationships

Recently, I decided to give the relatively new ABC series A Million Little Things a shot. While I'm the fence about tuning in regularly, I believe it was totally meant to be that I watched this particular episode. The part that's relevant to what I'm about to discuss is, there was a woman who had just shared with her husband that her uncle had molested her when she was a preteen (then basically tried to buy her silence by funding her restaurant as an adult).


When she went to the hospital to finally confront him about it, she discovered that he had literally died a few hours earlier. Meanwhile, she and her mom always had a very strained relationship. Come to find out, a part of it was because her mom had been molested by the same uncle, her mother's brother, and never said anything about it either.

Whoever came up with that "keep it in the family" mentality is mentally unstable, to say the least.

Listen, if you're a Christian reading this, the Bible clearly instructs us to "confess and be healed" (James 5:16). Confessing—bringing things out into the open—brings forth healing. Shoot, even if you're not a bible believer, there is NOTHING healthy, logical, or beneficial about enduring abuse from a family member in silence. All it does is give the victimizer the power to keep harming you (and probably others) over and over again. (It also ups the chances of you hurting others too because sometimes "hurt people hurt people").

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I say this with complete and total conviction because I have quite a few toxic family members on both sides of my bloodline. If you're not sure how to tell what that looks like, the video "6 Signs You're Dealing with a Toxic Person" will provide all sorts of light bulb moments. The cliff notes are—people who constantly play the victim, are emotionally abusive, are pathological liars, are control freaks, who don't respect boundaries and are negative? If they exhibit one, some or all of these traits, they are considered to be toxic individuals. Do you know a relative like this? Probably so.

Related: We've Said A Word About Toxic Fathers, But What About Toxic Mothers?

Toxic is poisonous and poison kills. That's why I don't think anyone should be made to feel bad for setting clear and firm boundaries with family members who are toxic. Here's a deeper explanation into why I say that.

1.If ANYONE Should Be Synonymous with “Safe”, It’s Family

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Although I hate to say it, some of the individuals who've caused the most damage in my life are blood relatives. Sexual abuse. Physical abuse. Verbal abuse. I had an entire side of my family who didn't want me to know they were related to me while they worked with another side of my family who co-signed on keeping it on the hush. What in the world?! And my molester? When I finally said something about it, all I remember is a meeting to decide what would be best for him, not me, when it came to how to handle the matter. TOX-IC.

I recently had a conversation with someone who is like family but not family about them thinking that I should be willing to "let things go" for no other reason than those people are my family. Meanwhile, I'm over here like, if there's anyone I should keep a safe distance from, it's them because they are family.

I say that because, if there is any place on the planet where we should feel safe, it should be in the presence of our relatives. If that's not happening for you, that's worse than a friend or a complete stranger violating you. An abusive family member should be the ultimate oxymoron. Therefore, if your family is not a safe place, don't feel the least bit guilty about doing what you need to do to create a safe space for yourself. It's not being "mean." Self-preservation is very wise.

2.Continually Subjecting Yourself to Abuse Is NOT “Honorable”

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Have you ever met a family that is CRA-ZY but because they are church-going folks (maybe even in church leadership), people automatically give them a pass? The adults can act like complete maniacs, but the moment a child of theirs reflects their behavior, the adults refuse to take any responsibility or accountability? Instead, they decide to bring Scripture up into it. You know, something along the lines of "I don't care how poorly I treat you or have treated you in the past, the Bible says to 'Honor your parents'" like that's some sort of automatic trump card? Uh-huh, the same Bible that contains the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12) is the same Bible that also says, "do not provoke your children to wrath" (Ephesians 6:4).

It's kind of a long story, but the origin of honoring your parents, at least biblically, ties into honoring how they raised you to be (Proverbs 22:6). If they had even a little bit of sense, that included loving yourself, respecting yourself and standing up for what was right. ABUSE IS NEVER RIGHT.

Only a toxic individual would tell you that it is honorable to tolerate abuse.

Should you set out to humiliate your crazy family members? No. But are you dishonoring them by removing yourself from their poisonous ways? Also no.

3.You’re Here to Break Generational Curses, Not Perpetuate Them

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People are human. Humans are flawed. This means that all of us have stuff in our family line that is, unhealthy, to say the least. But if a parent is serious about their position in their children's lives, they want them to do better than they did, not worse.

I remember when I was dating this one individual and a spiritual mentor of mine asked me to tell him more about the guy. I said, "He's smart. He's sweet. His family is really unstable but…", to which my mentor immediately said, "Ohh…so, he's the least crazy of the crew." I'm gonna use a metaphor to explain his point another way. If you're constantly around people with the flu, it's going to be really hard not to catch it.

There are some things on both sides of my family—controlling/manipulative women, sexual abuse, chemical dependency, multiple divorces, off-the-charts pride, suicide, constantly playing the victim—that I've seen literally passed down from generation to generation. I don't want it passed it down to someone else via myself and so I've taken measures to make sure that it doesn't.

I've witnessed, firsthand, that when you're around mental/emotional/spiritual sickness a lot, it can start to look healthy—or at least, not as sick as it actually is. Sometimes, you've got to set boundaries so that you can tell the difference between what/who is good for you and what/who isn't. For your sake and the sake of the ones who will follow you.

Break the curse. Don't be the curse. That's a motto that I unapologetically live by.

4.Blood May Be Thicker Than Water BUT Poison Is Thicker Than Blood

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There's someone I know who has so many amazing traits. He's also one of the biggest commitment-phobes on the planet. The main reason why? His family. I've never seen a group of people so needy as it relates to one person. They truly take dysfunctional to another level!

One time I told him that I didn't think that he would ever get married until his mom passed away. Why? Because he's basically her boyfriend (emotionally and financially, that is). I also told him that his family wears him out so much that he can't even process having a family of his own because when he thinks of marriage and kids, all he sees is the drama he's had to endure.

He doesn't deny any of this. At the same time, he doesn't get counseling to learn how to say "no" more often and not be so readily available to grown folks who need to figure out how to solve their own problems, pay their own bills, and live their own lives.

I say that he needs counseling because his defense for remaining so close to the dysfunction is "blood is thicker than water." My response? Poison is thicker than blood. Never mistake toxicity with loyalty. If you're putting up with things in your family that are hindering you from living a healthy, productive, and independent life, something is off. VERY OFF.

Don't look for your toxic family members to tell you this either. That wrecks how they are able to benefit from your ignorance. Like I said, poison.

5.You Need to Teach Even Your Family Members How to Treat You

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I have a particular family member who used to come to the place where I pay my own rent and rearrange furniture, invite people to my place without asking me first, try and literally tell me when I needed to come home, interrogate me about my relationships—it was insane. Because they are "an elder," I used to let other people (people who, in hindsight, I believe were probably just as unhealthy as the elder was) tell me that I should let it all slide simply because the individual was older than me.

NOPE. When it comes to the saying, "You teach people how to treat you," there is no relational status on that; it applies to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles—just as much as everyone else.

As someone who is continually healing from childhood PTSD, something that I've realized is when you grew up without a lot of healthy boundaries being modeled and given to you, you have to start from scratch and learn them later in life. As you do, you start to realize that it's pretty much only abusers (neglect is a form of abuse, by the way) who think that "boundary" is a dirty word. Healthy relatives celebrate other relatives having boundaries because that's what helps us to truly thrive.

All a boundary is, is a limit. If you've got relatives who think you shouldn't have any or that your limits should not apply to them—one, that's a sign that you've got some pretty toxic people in your life and two, it's a clear indication that it's totally OK to set even more limits with them. No apologies needed.

Featured image by Getty Images.

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Originally published on February 28, 2019

Mental health awareness is at an all-time high with many of us seeking self-improvement and healing with the support of therapists. Tucked away in cozy offices, or in the comfort of our own homes, millions of women receive the tools needed to navigate our emotions, relate to those around us, or simply exist in a judgment-free space.

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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