Toxic relationships are not based on love and respect.
They often sound like this:
These are my statements. I had to admit to myself after I journaled the above that I was a toxic relationship junkie.
It was time to face and break the pattern of my own extremely harmful dating scenarios. It took me years of joy and suffering to muster the courage to get myself out of my habitual relationship hell.
I’ve learned that just because I can spot a person who isn’t good for me a mile away, doesn’t mean I’ve developed the discipline to stay away from them. I’ve learned that knowledge, awareness, therapy, self-help books and meditation are great tools but only disciplined actions create lasting changes.
I remind myself of this every time I consider dating someone new or reengaging with someone I knew wasn’t good for me the first time around. I’ve learned that not every relationship is fixable and I can’t save others.
Suffering is a great teacher we love to hate. It can spiral us into utter despair or catapult us into positive change.
My Buddhist teacher once said, “The Buddha wasn’t interested in sheep. He didn’t want his students to believe or have faith in him because he was Buddha. Test the teachings and try them out. If they work, keep them. If they don’t, let them go.”
Relationships, like many other experiences, follow that same principal. Relationships can bring us so much joy and growth, and sometimes they can be downright harmful to our health. When our relationships take a turn for the worse we are often left wondering what we can do.
Those who are toxic for us are not always aware of their behavior and we shouldn’t use this as an excuse to stay in an unhealthy situation with them.
Many people suffer from legitimate personality disorders as diagnosed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental disorders) such as antisocial personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder that hinder their ability to empathize with others. Others are just unaware and stuck in unhealthy behavioral patterns they learned in childhood.
If a relationship has gone sour, at first it may seem easier to shift the focus off ourselves and call another out on their bad behavior. It also seems easier to address the symptoms of our unhealthy relationship instead of the relationship itself.
A friend of 20 years announced to me she had quit drinking for four months. When I asked her what the impetus was, she said she was drinking profusely to deal with the relationship she was in. I gently reminded her she could use the same impulse control she used stop drinking to disconnect from the harmful relationship. Her excuse was, “it’s complicated.”
Complication in this scenario is a combustible combination of fear and low self-esteem that we must face like the imaginary ogre it is. Walking into the shadowy parts of ourselves is a courageous choice that will ultimately free us from the bondage of toxic relationships.
The power of awareness shines brightly in the shadow of our pain and suffering. Once we are willing to turn on that light, there are a lot of lessons we can learn. The greatest one is how to see the reality of the situation as opposed to what we fear, wish, hope or desire.
I read the other day that consciousness and awareness don’t come without a little suffering. And it’s important to understand that there are some harmful relationships like with a parent or a boss that are a little trickier to navigate because the emotional or situational stakes are different than someone we are dating or just friends with.
We need to ask two questions when considering what to do when we realize we are in an toxic relationship:
All too often those of us who are in harmful relationships seek a sounding board or someone to empathize with in our current harmful situation. We go to therapy, our friends or family, life coaches, motivators and mystic healers to seek confirmation or justification of our feelings rather than change the situation.
Unless we are in the kind of relationship where the abuser has spent time gaslighting us, a tactic often used by those who have narcissistic personality disorder, this type of empathy or justification often won’t change anything. A pat on the back feels great, it temporarily soothes and calms our anxiety and hurt feelings, but it will not change the circumstance of the harmful relationship until we desire to change.
Know this though; If we needed to seek out someone outside our troubled relationship to discuss what’s been bothering us, it’s harmful enough to warrant a change. Validation and empathy may help give us the courage to change, but we have to be willing first and foremost to act on it.
Here are a few signs that continually occur if you are in an toxic relationship:
Some we get into unhealthy and harmful relationships:
But that doesn’t mean we are broken. It does mean we have to prioritize our joy and happiness over our suffering and familiarity in order to start to make some changes.
We should use our understanding of why we do what we do as a catapult to make change. Once we discover the reason for the habitual pattern, we can tend to the weed in our beautiful garden at take care of it at its root.
Even though harmful relationships take two, we only have the power to change ourselves. We cannot change another, especially if they are unwilling or unable. Working on ourselves will help bring a sense of power into the feelings of victimization and powerlessness these deeply harmful relationships often trigger.
Remember, we must be willing to walk away if circumstances don’t change for the better.
If we are in a detrimental work-related relationship that isn’t life threatening, or breaking the law, and our livelihood depends on it, outside of looking for another job, we will need to learn how to set firm, respectful boundaries with ourselves and others.
We can start to learn how to distance ourselves emotionally, step by step. We can often avoid the drama associated with these kinds of work relationships by reminding ourselves not to take another’s aggressive or rude words and actions personally. If we are treated poorly for no justified reason by another it reflects more about who they are not who we are. (Although workplace bullying is a step beyond that and should be taken seriously.)
Love and respect are available for each and every one of us to find, the moment we are willing to develop the courage, self esteem and self worth to let go of what isn’t working.
Author: Heather Dawn
A version of this blog originally appeared in Heather Dawn's column on Elephantjournal.com