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").


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


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”


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


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


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


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

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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