We have all had toxic relationships. They may have been with friends, family members, partners, neighbors, colleagues or bosses. These are relationships that deplete you of your energy, infuse you with negativity, bring unnecessary drama or conflict to your life, and trigger feelings of low self-esteem, insecurity, resentment, frustration or irritability.
It’s important to realize that toxic people are often unconsciously making you feel how they feel about themselves, in other words, it is more about them than it is about you. I like the expression, “Relationships are like elevator buttons; they either bring you up or bring you down.” It’s important for all of us to routinely take inventory of our support systems and care enough about ourselves to free ourselves from toxic relationships. This creates space to establish and nurture positive relationships.
As human beings, we’re all attracted to what is familiar. We may have unconsciously recreated old dysfunctional relationship patterns from our roles in our families-of-origin in our current personal and professional lives. As we become more conscious and move forward in our lives, we need to reevaluate these relationships, empower ourselves to shift our boundaries or to even end these relationships altogether.
Dr. Phil says, “We teach others how to treat us.” If we care about ourselves and have positive self-esteem, we are going to set healthy and appropriate expectations, limits, and boundaries in our relationships. Like attracts like. The healthier we are, the more we will attract healthy people and positive relationships into our lives. I believe that people come into our lives for a reason—even those people who bring negativity or challenges. Even difficult relationships are blessings, as they are opportunities to learn and grow in a positive direction.
In my practice, I advise clients to consider the following regarding toxic relationships:
1) Is the person/relationship temporarily or chronically toxic?
If you are in a relationship with somebody who is going through a difficult life challenge, such as a divorce, an illness or the death of a loved one, they may be in a bad space and temporarily toxic. With these relationships, it is important to set healthy limits and boundaries for yourself in terms of how much contact and support is healthy for you to offer them. You can also encourage them to get additional support by reaching out to others in their support network (such as their friends and family), or seek professional support from a therapist, doctor or spiritual advisor. Remember the toxicity of this relationship is probably temporary and will pass. However, if the person’s toxicity is more of a chronic personality style or relationship pattern, it’s likely not pass and will need to be addressed more seriously.
2) How close and important is the relationship?
The closer a toxic relationship is to you, the more important and more difficult it may be to address. For example, a toxic relationship your partner or mother is a more challenging and delicate situation than a toxic relationship with a neighbor or coworker. It’s important to run a cost/benefit analysis of your toxic relationships to assess if what you wait you gain from the relationship outweighs the cost.
If a toxic relationship is with somebody in your outer circles who you gain very little from, I recommend that you consider clearing your life of this relationship as best as you can if not altogether. For example, if it is neighbor that brings you down, shift your boundaries from having closer to contact to having little or no contact by simply waving hello rather than engaging in gossip over the fence or agreeing to go their house for dinner.
If a toxic relationship is with somebody who is very close to you and/or you do benefit from the relationship, communicate honestly and assertively with them to best promote a healthier dynamic between the two of you. For example, you may need to speak honestly with your mother about your concerns and give her the opportunity to learn and change. If she cannot, then you have the choice to change your boundaries in that relationship by possibly decreasing the amount, type or frequency of contact you have in an effort to make the relationship more manageable and less toxic in your life.
3) Which factors can you control and which can you not?
You can control your own boundaries (the amount of time or information or frequency of contact), your communication, your behaviors and your responses. You cannot control the other person. When in doubt, reflect on the Serenity Prayer.
You can do your part by speaking honestly, assertively, diplomatically and using I statements to express your feelings and set healthy boundaries. Then it is up to them to change or not. Then it is up to you to decide if you can still have them in your life or not. If you find yourself repeatedly expressing the same needs and setting the same limits over and over again in the same relationship to no avail, seriously consider relationship counseling or ending the relationship altogether.
The endings of relationships can be hard. Many of us want to avoid the pain of processing the termination of a relationship. Problems do not go away unless they are addressed. You must care enough about yourself to free yourself of negative relationships. You must have the courage to find your voice and address these relationships honestly and directly. You must also have faith that by letting go of these people, you are freeing up your energy for new and positive people to come into your life.
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Last reviewed: 29 Oct 2013