10 Signs You Might Have a Toxic Brother, from Gaslighting to Playing the Victim

toxic brother cat

At their best, brothers can be someone to bounce ideas off of or gang up—jokingly, of course—on your parents when they have questions about how to use “the damn Facebooks.” At their worst, they can be cesspools of negativity (just like any human being, honestly). If the latter situation sounds familiar (no pun intended), you might have a toxic brother.

Toxic patterns vary from person to person, but there are a few textbook characteristics to look out for, therapist Irina Firstein tells us. “Toxic behavior is behavior toward other people that makes them feel bad about their life and themselves,” she says. “It is characterized by criticism, control, manipulation and guilt.” From turning everything into a competition to refusing to take responsibility for their actions, find ten signs of a toxic brother below.

6 Signs You Have a Toxic Workplace

10 Signs You Have a Toxic Brother

1. Everything Always Feels Like a Competition

Siblings are sometimes competitive with each other and, to an extent, that’s totally normal. What’s not normal is if it seems like every little thing is a competition to your brother. Every time you call him to talk about a fabulous date with a guy you’re really excited about, he inevitably steers the conversation to be about the even more wonderful person he’s been seeing. Any healthy relationship should be a two-way street, and if your brother is incapable of celebrating your wins—big or small—there’s an issue.

2. He Doesn’t Respect Boundaries

Your brother has always had a hard time knowing his place. Whether it’s showing up for dinner unannounced or letting you know that the way you’re sleep training your toddler is all wrong, he doesn’t seem to know how far is too far. You often give in because you love him (he is your brother after all), but even after asking him to respect your time and space, he continues to do it.

3. He Gets You to Apologize for His Shortcomings

Here’s a classic red flag scenario: You expected an apology from your brother for something he did, but you end up apologizing to him. Let’s say your bro blew off the lunch plans your mom made for the whole family. When you confront him about it, he launches into a long story about how he got roped into an extra project at work and then he had to cat-sit for his neighbor and then the cat hid his car keys. You feel for him, and you want to be there for him it’s just…there’s always something with him. Not to mention you’ve now completely glossed over the part where he stood up your family...

4. He Always Seems to Have Ulterior Motives

When you ask someone a question ("Hey, want to grab a drink tomorrow?"), you don't have any ulterior motives. When a toxic person asks a question, though, they might be setting a trap. (What they say: "Are you free for dinner tomorrow at seven?" What they mean: "If you aren't free for dinner tomorrow at seven, I'll be mad at you for the rest of the week.") "Their modus operandi is to get people to do what they want them to do," says Abigail Brenner, M.D. "It’s all about them. They use other people to accomplish whatever their goal happens to be. Forget what you want; this is not about equality in a relationship—far from it." 

5. He Takes More Than He Gives

Your little bro agreed to come to your kid’s dance recital, but then she spent the entire time complaining. He wouldn’t stop talking about the uncomfortable chairs, the lackluster performances and all the other, more fun things he could’ve been doing. Basically, he isn’t afraid to tell you what a miserable, awful time she had. You feel badly, so you promise him to take him out to dinner to make up for it. While it's easy to write him off as being cranky, if he regularly makes everything about him (and insists you take care of his needs above your own), he's a toxic person, plain and simple.

6. He's a Terrible Listener

Every good relationship—whether it’s with a friend, partner or your grandma—is based on a balance of sharing and listening. Toxic people have apparently missed that memo. When you start to confide in your brother (or even try to engage him with a quick anecdote about your life), you’ll quickly notice his attention drifting to something else. Before you know it, he’s interrupted you, changed the subject and wrangled the conversation back to something that he finds more interesting: himself.

7. He Tells You You’re Overreacting

Holy gaslighting, Batman! At its core, gaslighting is a communication technique in which someone causes you to question your own version of past events. In its milder forms, gaslighting creates an unequal power dynamic in a relationship, and at its worst, gaslighting can actually be considered a form of mind control and psychological abuse. Many toxic people use gaslighting to maintain some sort of control over the people around them. Let’s say you were passed over for a huge promotion and you call your brother to vent. Two minutes into the conversation, he tells you that he doesn’t understand why you’re so upset. Saying “you’re making too big a deal out of this” is grade-A toxicity.

8. Nothing Is Ever His Fault

Sometimes, family members can’t help but guilt trip each other. But there’s a difference between expressing disappointment and creating a toxic environment by blaming everyone else for their feelings. In his book 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life, Bill Eddy identifies HCP (high-conflict personalities) who have the potential to wreak havoc in the lives of the people around them. A common thread among these people is a lack of ability to change or to see their part in life problems. “They mistakenly believe that all their problems just happen to them—as if they dropped from the sky—and that there’s nothing they can do about it,” he explains. “They chronically feel like a victim in life.”

9. Every Conversation Finds Its Way Back to Him

You just got off a 45-minute phone call with your twin brother, only to realize that he didn’t ask you a single question about your life or how you’re doing. If he was dealing with a crisis or had some exciting news, that’s one thing. But if this happens pretty much every time you talk, then this relationship could be toxic.

10. You Feel Bad After Spending Time with Him

It’s OK if, after spending a bunch of time with someone, you want a bit of alone time. But if you start to notice that you’re leaving outings with your brother feeling completely drained, something might be up. Immediately after spending time with him, ask yourself, "Do I feel better or worse than when I left the house this morning?" If you consistently feel worse, those interactions are toxic.

3 Ways to Improve Your Relationship with Your Brother

1. Manage Your Expectations

We would love a world in which siblings were all inseparable, but the thing is, that’s not realistic. Some brother-sister duos will be the best of friends, while others will merely tolerate each other. If you’re looking to improve your relationship, be realistic about it. Maybe you’re not meant to be BFFs—that’s OK. What can be a bummer is getting your hopes up for something that’s never going to happen and being disappointed when it inevitably doesn’t.

2. Learn to Forgive

Hanging on to feelings of resentment is bad for you—literally. Studies have shown holding grudges increases blood pressure, heart rate and nervous system activity. Alternatively, embracing forgiveness can improve overall health by reducing stress levels. Beyond physical health, letting go can improve one’s mental health, relationships and career trajectory. Resenting your brother could manifest in you yelling at your own kids at the drop of a hat. From changing your perspective to downloading a meditation app, here are eight exercises to help you let go of resentment.

3. Give Yourself Space

This doesn’t necessarily mean cutting your brother off completely. “Detaching is an emotional concept and has nothing to do with physical proximity,” says Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT. “It means not reacting, not taking things personally and not feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings, wants and needs.” Now that you’re an adult, you’re not obligated to hang out with your family every free second you have…or even at all. Set the boundary that works for you—say, lunch every month—and remind yourself that it’s OK to keep as much emotional distance as you need to.  

9 Toxic Dating Habits You Might Have (& How to Fix Them)

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...