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Is it time to detox your relationships?


Do your relationships need a detox? We take a look.

Credit: Priscilla du Preez

When we think about detoxing we usually think about cleansing our bodies of the chemicals that build up in our systems or re-calibrating our minds to eliminate the toxic thoughts that keep us stressed and on edge. We rarely consider detoxing our relationships yet keeping the status quo with some of the people in our lives may be causing us mental, emotional and even physical harm.

A toxic relationship is most obvious in our most intimate pairings and at its extreme is defined as domestic abuse. However, toxic people exist at all levels of our interactions with others and they can be harmful in ways that are more subtle than physical violence. From a spouse to a parent, a sibling to a friend, a co-worker to a service provider, it isn’t the context of the relationship that is important; how that person makes us feel is the telling point.

From a spouse to a parent, a sibling to a friend, a co-worker to a service provider — it isn’t the context of the relationship that is important; how that person makes us feel is the telling point.

Sometimes, our toxic relationships make us passive and submissive and other times they can make us aggressive and abusive. Either way, harm is being done, leaving a scar on the psyche. While relationships can be toxic from the start, sometimes they degenerate over time, creating frustration, anger and resentment. If we don’t try to rebalance these relationships through good communication and compromise, or end them if the threat to our wellbeing is too great, we can be harmed and/or do harm.

Good people, bad relationship

Toxic relationships often involve one or more toxic personalities. Toxic personalities are well recognised by psychologists and behaviourists and there is a body of research that demonstrates the significant impact these people can have on those around them. Being able to recognise the individuals in your life who are toxic is crucial to protecting yourself from harm, as is having the tools to deal with them.

It’s important to say up front that a toxic relationship doesn’t necessarily mean the people involved are bad. Rather than it being a case of people being good, bad, right or wrong, it’s more often a lack of cohesion, of being able to communicate effectively or of social skills. Just because we need each other doesn’t mean we are very good at being together and it doesn’t mean we won’t hurt each other deliberately or inadvertently.

To survive and thrive, we need to surround ourselves with friends and family and co-exist in a positive way with others in the workplace. We interact with a large number of people every day and each one leaves an imprint of some kind on our souls. While many of these interactions are fairly benign and some joyful and uplifting, there are also those that deflate, aggravate or deplete us.

If the toxic person is someone you can easily avoid, your wellbeing can be protected without a great deal of effort on your part. When the individual is a family member or co-worker, or a friend or loved one’s partner, however, it’s crucial for your wellbeing that you can manage these interactions. These kinds of relationships cannot ever be easily severed — familial ties are laden with guilt and longing and they are intrinsically linked with our sense of identity — so you need to learn in these instances ways to protect and defend your sense of self and your level of happiness.

Toxic people

To begin to know how to protect ourselves, we need to better understand the threat, so we need to clearly define what a toxic person is. Lillian Glass, a US-based communication expert and author, describes them as those individuals who drain your energy, reduce your self-esteem, make you feel sick or inadequate or who undermine you. They are the people we like to see the back of, the people we dread having to deal with and the ones who bring out the worst in us.

These people exhibit behaviours and traits that make it difficult for others to feel confident and at ease. These traits and behaviours can be described as toxic and, while some of us exhibit them sometimes, others exhibit them too often. These individuals can be said to have toxic personalities.

Glass and others have identified a number of types of toxic personalities categorised by the way in which they create havoc among those around them. I have categorised them as follows based on the variety of toxic behaviours identified by Glass and her peers. Generally, we can say there is the person who is needy and self-absorbed, the person who constantly criticises or judges, the liar, the bully, the person who constantly meddles, the manipulator and the user.

Toxic Types 

You probably know some of these people and might recognise them from the following sketches:

The Needy: These people are constantly requiring your time and attention and nothing you ever do will be quite enough to satisfy them. Their problems are greater than anyone else’s and they will never be available for you when you need some support in return.

The Critic: They are constantly negative, either criticising everyone and everything or judging harshly. Nothing is ever exactly right and you cannot win when it comes to trying to cheer them up or point out something great. They will throw cold water on your ideas and successes and belittle the things that bring you joy.

The Bully: Just like the bullies in the schoolyard, these people do what they can to compromise your self-esteem. They know exactly where your tender spots are and use them to weaken you.

The Manipulator: This person can get you to do things you don’t want to do or don’t have time to do without giving you a chance to say no. They have a way of getting what they want when they want and don’t much care who gets put out for it to happen. Often their strategies are subtle and you’ll find yourself manoeuvred before you realise what has happened. Emotional blackmail is The Manipulator’s favourite tool.

The Liar: They are dishonest in the things they do and say. They let others down, are insincere and have no sense of self-responsibility. They have many excuses but cannot seem to really express any remorse for their behaviour.

The Meddler: This type is constantly in everyone’s business, making trouble wherever they go because they think they know best. They gossip and intercede in ways that are destructive and plead innocence when their efforts make a situation worse. They dress their behaviour up in concern and love yet their motives are not always noble.

The User: An opportunist, the user will callously use anyone they can to get what they want. The user can be subtle in their tactics, employing charm to make you feel less manipulated by their requests. They will not be there for you when need a favour in return.

While these descriptions may sound obvious, toxic people can be subtle in their work, quietly chipping away at your self-esteem. We often make excuses for them because we don’t recognise the true nature of their behaviour or acknowledge the long-term effect they are having on us. Habitual relationships, such as family, spouse or long-term friend, are notorious for being toxic without us realising it, making them dangerous in the long term.

Recognise the problem

In her book Toxic People: 10 Ways of Dealing With People Who Make Your Life Miserable (St Martin’s Press, 1997), Glass offers readers a series of diagnostic questions to help them determine the toxicity of a person/relationship they think might be harming them. Glass divides her questions into four categories of “symptoms”: emotional, behavioural, physical and communication.

Familial ties are laden with guilt and longing and they are intrinsically linked to our sense of identity, so you need to learn in these instances ways to protect and defend your sense of self and your level of happiness.

To begin the process, Glass suggests you think about someone in your life who concerns you or that you don’t like or feel comfortable with. With this person in mind, you can read through the questions and come to understand, based on your responses, whether that person is indeed toxic and if your relationship is toxic, too. If any of the people you deal with make you feel any of the following whenever they are around, they are most likely toxic and your relationship with them is toxic or becoming that way.

Emotional symptoms: When this person is around do you feel unattractive? Unintelligent? Depressed or drained? Do you feel tense or nervous, angry or upset? Do you feel judged or disrespected? Do you feel relief when they have gone?

Behavioural symptoms: Do you feel the need to drink when this person is around or has left? Do you feel the need to over-eat or not eat at all around them? Do you become submissive or aggressive? Do you try to avoid them?

Physical symptoms: Does being around the person give you a headache? Do you feel as if you can’t catch your breath or feel nauseous when dealing with them? Do you feel tense, have a racing heart or have a tightness in your throat? Does your skin go blotchy in their company? Do you recoil or flinch if they touch you?

Communication symptoms: Do you choose your words carefully or use a harsh tone when around them? Do you stutter or stammer in their company or get loud and angry? Does this person belittle you or verbally abuse you?

Taking action

Once you’ve decided whether or not this person is toxic you need to make a plan for how you are going to manage the relationship. Keep in mind that in most situations you cannot “solve” the other person; the solution must come from you. “You can’t change them,” explains Glass. “but you can change how you react to them, which will help you feel better.”

In order to feel better then, we need to develop skills to draw on. For Glass, these skills are about good communication. “If we know how to effectively communicate with others, our life becomes so much easier, less frustrating, happier, richer and more productive,” she says. Learning how to be assertive is key, as is being able to mentally “switch off” so as not to take on board what is being said. If we cannot separate our emotions from the words being said to us we will become defensive and reactive and this is not conducive to good communication.

Mindfulness

This practice is effective in managing stress and learning to live in the moment. Mindfulness is a technique that can get us more in touch with our experiences of the day-to-day, heightening them and expanding them. It can also be a method we can employ to distance ourselves.

For the purposes of managing our reactions to toxic people, we need to focus on becoming separate from the moment. When we separate ourselves from what is happening, we become more objective and less emotional and judgemental. We can depersonalise what is being said and done and minimise our responses. This isn’t to say we let ourselves be abused without defence; instead, we remain calm. We effectively build protective walls around our hearts and that sensitive part of our psyche to enable us to react “well” to what is happening.

If we do not try to rebalance these relationships through good communication and compromise, or end them if the threat to our wellbeing is too great, we can be harmed and/or do harm.

To practise mindfulness we need to take a mental step back, breathe slowly to calm our habitual responses and listen without judgement to what is happening. This allows us to “see” more clearly and respond more healthily, allowing us to make the best decision about where to take the relationship next. It gives us the opportunity to observe the other person in the moment to determine how we can best approach a response to their behaviour and words.

Elimination

In some cases, there is nothing we can do to effectively build a protective wall or manage our reaction/response to another person’s behaviour. Also, if a relationship is violent, we have no choice but to make a break. In these instances, eliminating that person from our lives is the only solution. In romantic liaisons, this means breaking up. Whether the relationship is toxic or not, this solution will cause grief and you will need to make sure you have plenty of support if this option is the only one left to you. Some kinds of relationships, however, don’t allow for this to happen. Sometimes “breaking up” is easier said than done, particularly if the toxic person is a family member.

If you cannot completely cut yourself off from an individual who impacts on you in a negative way you may need to create managed or controlled interactions. You decide when and where you see this person, you decide how long the interaction will be and you create boundaries so that if a line is crossed that interaction ceases immediately. This gives you control and control diminishes the damage others can do to us because it builds confidence and eases inner tension.

Confrontation

Effective communication skills can help us to confront another person without being aggressive or abusive. It allows us to stay in control as we state our case and ask to be treated with more respect. There is a great deal of difference between being assertive and being aggressive. If we are assertive we have power; if we are aggressive we have lost control.

To be assertive, then, you need to be conscious of what you are doing and saying when speaking with someone. You need to go into the moment clear about the outcomes you want to achieve. It will help if you maintain an even tone of voice and be clear about what it is you want and need this person to change regarding their interactions with you. Phrasing your statements and requests with “I” as in “I need” or “I feel” rather than using the accusatory “you” is also important.

Also be aware of your body language. Use slow movements, calm or benign facial expressions and take a calm pose. These can all help the other person to relax as well as minimise defensive reactions that can escalate into abuse.

It’s important to remember that in many cases the person may not be aware of the impact their behaviour is having on you or anyone else. They have more than likely been completely focused on their needs being met and have never considered another perspective.

Defusion

Learning how to defuse a toxic person requires you to be alert to the strategies the individual uses to cause harm. If you become aware of their behaviour and your reactions to it, you can “nip things in the bud”, protecting yourself against their attempts to harm you. This might require you to redirect the conversation or to ask questions in order to get the person to clarify their words or intentions. Distraction is a useful tool in regaining control of the moment, as is humour.

Humour in a tense time can defuse a situation allowing a conversation to start again. It also offers a pausing space where you and the other person can shore up and perhaps begin without tension. Of course, humour can backfire and aggravate a situation, but with careful reading of the moment you can introduce humour effectively. Toxic relationships tend not to have positive humour but lean toward the kind that is mean, so be careful.

Another option to defuse a situation is to walk away. This means either making an excuse to put off the conversation before moving on to something else or literally walking away from the person with an intention to return to conversation later; or not to return at all, depending on the situation. In relationships it’s important to choose the right moment for broaching the elements that are toxic between you. Choose the wrong time and you can make things much worse, so walking away to come back later can be the best choice.

With all these methods it’s important to communicate skilfully. Remaining calm is key. Depersonalising the moment is also vital, as is knowing when you can heal a toxic relationship and when you must make the decision to move on.

Toxic you

While we have been considering the impact of others’ behaviour on us, it’s also important to think about what you may inadvertently be doing to someone else. Certainly, there are people who are clearly toxic in their behaviours, but we all indulge in behaviours that are poor at one time or another and this is particularly true in the way we often treat the people closest to us.

We save our best behaviour for strangers in many cases and imagine that our loved ones will accept our bad behaviour without question or protest. With this in mind, you would do well to be especially careful about your words and actions with those you love the most. Habitual responses to the stressors in your day are the things that most often trigger bad behaviour where you lash out at others or are negative or mean.

To stop taking your anger and frustration out on others, you need to find more positive ways of dealing with the things that upset you. Mindfulness, again, can help here, as can channelling this negative energy into exercise or other activities that will soothe or reinvigorate you. This could be a hobby, time with a trusted friend, or time out in the bath or in meditation.

You cannot completely eliminate stress or toxic moments in your relationships, nor can you change others. Instead, you need to learn to respond to a situation rather than react to it. A response is a considered approach that allows you to stay in control. This is the way forward in any relationship: changing toxic ones into something more positive and giving us the strength to make drastic changes when we must.

Relationships of any kind must be founded on trust, and openness and good communication can help you achieve that. You must regularly take stock of the people you spend time with, analysing the way you behave in response to them. This will give you the best chance to avert toxic changes to your relationships and not become involved in those that are toxic from the start.