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Ask Izzy: On chosen family, knowing your worth, and cutting toxic ties: "I feel like I'm not being seen by the ones I love."

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Photo by Askar Abayev / Pexels
Photo by Askar Abayev / Pexels

Ask Izzy is a biweekly advice column about relationships, mental health, and sexuality. Written by Isabel Mata — a Seattle-based lifestyle writer, podcast host, and mental health advocate — Ask Izzy offers tangible expert advice so all readers can have stronger relationships, better sex, and healthier mindsets.

Dear Izzy,

I'm a masc-presenting Trans/Nonbinary person with a huge family. I've got five siblings, something like 75 cousins, and a whole slew of aunts and uncles — not counting close friends that have been adopted by our clan as part of the family.

Despite our size, we're all close. News travels fast, and we all keep up as much as we can with each other, despite life getting crazy.

I've been out for years, and I'm proud of who I am and how far I've come, but I still feel like I'm not being seen by the ones I love. They still don't get my pronouns right, and I get the sense that when I'm not there, they don't use my chosen name. It can be really draining to have the same conversation repeatedly when I'm not being heard.

I love them, truly. Family is everything to me. But I can't help but think that interacting with them too much is bad for my mental health. I feel small. I end up just ignoring the low-key transphobic and homophobic remarks, knowing that if it were anyone else, I wouldn't let it slide. Cutting ties altogether seems selfish somehow.

Is there a way to keep these bonds strong without sacrificing who I am?

— Family Matters on I-5

Dear Family Matters,

I am so sorry that your family has treated you this way and left you thinking about cutting ties. It is the hardest thing you can do, and I understand that it is a difficult decision to make.

But your gut is right when you say that interacting with them is bad for your mental health. The truth of the matter is that you deserve to be treated with kindness, love, and respect. Period. By your family, friends, acquaintances, and any people you cross paths with.

Thinking dialectically, it's important to know that you can love your family and know that you do not deserve the disrespect that they are showing you. Doesn't make it any easier, but thinking in shades of gray offers some flexibility.

Maybe cutting ties completely isn't the solution. But if every interaction you have with them leaves you feeling belittled and alone, then it's time to take yourself out of the situation. You shouldn't have to keep repeating yourself. If your family truly respected you, then they would listen the first time you told them your preferred pronouns and name. After that, it becomes a conscious choice to do otherwise. And that's not okay.

My advice is to find the balance that works for you. Maybe it's having visits with smaller groups of people, instead of attending large family gatherings. While it might seem like there are unspoken rules about having to show up to everything, that's just not true. Just because someone shares your blood does not mean you are obligated to put their needs before your own.

This is where the concept of the chosen family comes in. You are in the driver's seat of your life, and you get to decide who is worthy of your time and energy. If you are not sure who those people are, go back to your core values. Maybe it's respect, equality, and acceptance. Find people who share those same values and prioritize those relationships.

Remember, quality over quantity. You only need a few good people in your inner circle, and I guarantee that those relationships will leave you feeling more filled up than any time with your current family seems to.

The bottom line is that you can't change certain family members' behavior, but you can limit their access to you by setting boundaries on the relationship. For example, if they refuse to use your correct pronouns, then they are no longer welcome to your time. The challenge will be following through on these boundaries and being comfortable with the response you get when you take a stand.

It won't be easy in the beginning, given how much our society values traditional blood family structures, but it will get easier. In the meantime, start building your chosen family based on the values you hold closest to your heart. Surround yourself with people who lift you up, and you will find the peace you are searching for. It exists, I promise.