I have brought this topic of how to handle toxic relationships up in blogs before with regard to having toxic relationships with those in your life. I have also brought up the fact that we, ourselves, may be the toxic one in the relationship. There are times however, such as with a family member, where we have to figure out the best way to keep ourselves separated and disentangled from certain people. Is it really a possibility to avoid them out right?
The use of the word toxic to describe anyone is a bit harsh. What I refer to is actually the dynamics of the relationship as being toxic. The person who is extremely toxic in your life may just be peachy-keen in someone else's eyes. Unfortunately, the negativity of a toxic relationship can affect not only your mental and emotional, but your physical health as well. If you are dealing with a sibling for instance and there is manipulation involved in the pretense of drama, jealousy, past emotional hurtful experiences, you can leave a run in with them having acquired a full-blown migraine or case of IBS just over a dinner together. It can leave you drained and make you feel emotionally bad about yourself or send you back into a condition of PTSD.
We don't like to think these things about our own family members. Our flesh and blood relations are supposed to be our refuge. So often, we blind ourselves to the reality of the fact that we bent over backwards trying to smooth things out and acquiesce at family gatherings with the optimism that it will be different this time. We live with the hope that things will change, or that they have changed, or that we will all of a sudden be able to deal with them in a different way than the past.
It is important to be clear and do what I call a reality check in these situations. This involves the need to take a deeper look at ourselves to see what we are bringing to the table. Are we ourselves bringing toxicity into the situation or holding onto deep-seated resentment from earlier situations that we refuse to let go. Perhaps we are not seeing the efforts they are making to reach out to us, and we choose to ignore their efforts and hold a grudge instead of letting the past be the past. We want to lay the blame on them for being the toxic one and think that they're the ones that are not capable of change. This could be very true, yet sometimes it is ourselves causing the relationship to continue in a toxic manner.
In using Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, they teach us to make a chart of our thoughts, feelings and emotions towards the topic, and then on the opposite side what we consider the other person's thoughts, feelings and emotions to be towards the topic. The middle or the grey consists of facts. For someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, this can be a difficult exercise. We ingrain our emotions, which we use as the funnel or the eyeglasses through which we see life. Anything that comes against someone with BPD may immediately become distorted and taken personally, thereby leaving out factual ingredients that may have much bearing on the relationship or situation. Use of this chart I described above, gives us a way to start trying to see situations as they really are. The simple activity of putting things on paper helps to clarify the situation. Trying to see things from the angle of the other person involved also helps to bring in a certain facet of clarity that we normally do not take into consideration because of our disorder.
When we react the way the person makes us feel, claiming that they make us feel depressed, negated, abandon, whatever the feeling may be, we have an immediate pretense going into the situation. When we do that to ourselves, no matter what the person says or does can make us feel bad about ourselves. We feel their comments are meant to make us feel guilty, regretful, or ashamed about ourselves.
It is important to try to allow for a clean slate when going into the situation with this person instead of holding on to what may or may not be a truthful summation of how this person feels about us. If we do not, we can end up spiraling into depression or a panic attack just by thinking of interaction with this person.
We may set ourselves up in an attack mode just thinking of how the person acts, talks or behaves towards us. It may be their normal manner and the way they treat everyone, yet we see it as directed explicitly towards us and we are ready to lash out before they even open their mouths. We are at an impasse if this is the situation and instead of enjoying family gatherings, we leave feeling drained, exhausted and beaten up. We throw our hands up in despair and claim that there is no solution.
I remember for many years feeling disengaged and as if I were not a true part of my family unit. The fact that my parents gave up custody of me to the foster care system and I did not reunite with them until I was 18 or 19 years old was not a help. When the reuniting did occur, it was only natural that I held deep resentment and disdain toward these people who actually gave me up as a family member. I often felt weird and completely different from them. I found it very difficult to converse with them or feel like I could be my normal self around them. I would often take the stance of showing a different persona or being fake around them as I was not willing to immerse myself into a relationship with these people that hurt me so badly.
Through DBT therapy and Cognitive Therapy, I learned different ways of being able to engage with them. For instance, setting boundaries or limits on the size of the family group gathering is one way. Other ways can be to limit the duration or fix a location where you know or can assume that people will not be able to act out in full display of their emotions. An example of this would be a public environment versus meeting at someone's house.
There are some family relationships where I have found that I cannot have actual face-to-face or physical contact with the family member. That's where phone calls or texting, email or even a card or letter comes in. I have had to realize that with certain people, I cannot be around them. New rules of engagement needed to be set, along with boundaries that would help to rebuild the relationship or keep it to a minimum.
I have also found that it is often predictable, almost a pattern that ensues after doing the same relationship dance with someone for a long period. When you know for instance that those two glasses of wine are going to set that person into a mode of conversation where they will feel free to start letting their hair down and going back into predictable patterns towards you, then the wine is not able to be a part of the meeting. I found myself rethinking patterns with certain people and learning how to plan for the ultimate storm that could happen if those patterns set in.
Unfortunately, in certain circumstances and with certain people, we must cut ties completely. Although I hate to say this, I have found it to be true. It is a very drastic conclusion to a relationship, but sometimes a very necessary one. It is a choice to make if you find that there is no way possible of conducting a non-toxic relationship with this person no matter how hard you try. Sometimes you have to acknowledge you aren’t the only one in the situation who may be suffering from their own mental disorders and no amount of analyzing your own thoughts and feelings will fix their issues.
I had a friend who was much older than I was and I looked up to her for guidance and mentoring on many occasions. Truly idolized her and tended to copy her even down to the purse she carried. I feel that she saw me as someone who adored her and did her bidding. When I started to grow and develop in my own personality and healing through counseling, my way of responding to her changed from the usual pattern. She began to show a very narcissistic side, or I started to notice that side for the first time. Our weekly coffees or dinner dates out with our husbands started to become very volatile and toxic. If I did not comply with her advice and chose to make a decision on my own that was contrary to her opinion, I heard about it, loudly. She began a passive aggressive means of trashing me on Facebook, and other public ways. The rumors were getting back to me of malicious things she was saying about me when I was no longer her adoring fan.
I chose the method of writing an email to her and explaining how I felt the direction of our relationship was going. I brought out the fact that I felt it was not going in a good direction and I was starting to become very uncomfortable being around her. Try as I might to come to a middle ground with this person, we were unable to find that ground. The result ended up blocking each other on Facebook, and having no further communication whatsoever to a friendship that was once a very big part of my life that ceased to exist any longer.
Looking back at this situation in retrospect and thinking of what I could have done differently left me emotionally drained and sad. The fact of the matter is that overtime, people change. Our opinions of people change. Perhaps we get to know them better or witness them in different situations to notice how they respond.
Cutting ties completely with this woman was a very hard thing for me to do. It was very necessary however. You might find in certain relationships this is the case. I felt grief and sadness, as I missed our friendship and yet I knew that my perception was right.
I also had to take ownership of the toxicity that I brought to the relationship. Honesty is imperative to help us understand ourselves better and walk in congruence. We cannot always just take a victim stance and pretend that there are not two sides to a coin.
In conclusion, take some time to examine your current circle of friends and family under the harsh light of reality. Do the exercise on paper I explained above and take responsibility for what we bring to the table in the relationship. This is essential and mature. If you should find yourself as I did at one point in my life, being the common denominator of most of the conflict in my relationships, it might be time for you to change. I have referred to this, as the mirror experience before in my blogging, and what it really comes down to is self-examination.
Taking a personal inventory is hard but very necessary for all of us. When you find yourself this summer with picnics, 4th of July, weddings, baby showers around the corner, take some time to self-examine. Decide in advance what boundaries you will use in these situations. Conclude what you will and will not attend in accordance with who will be attending. Set aside the alcohol and other things that might lead to the patterns I discussed. Reflect on how you can take charge of certain situations and be proactive before they happen. Good luck in your decision making!
With you on the journey, Alice