How to manage toxic relationships effectively
Toxic dynamics in our lives can have many different shades of grey. They can be very subtle so that's really hard to put a finger on it. They can be very obvious so that you can identify them easily. So in this episode, I will talk about toxic dynamics in general. Please also evaluate your own relationship and choose those elements that are valuable for you and let go of the others.
In my personal life, I had my fair share of toxic relationships, whether it was with my sister or with my father. Sometimes it happened in a workplace or in relationships. I experienced them to be very exhausting and draining, and also that on the long run toxic relationships can steal my joy. In this episode, I would like to present you with some ideas so that you can reclaim your power and your joy in your relationships. I hope that it supports in making choices that are good for you.
Toxic relationships are an opportunity to grow
While painful and difficult, I consider toxic dynamics as an opportunity for growth. I learned a lot about myself when I was in these toxic relationships. They taught me what I wanted in my life and what I didn't want in my life. In these toxic relationships, I learned to love myself, to respect myself and to set healthy boundaries. They also showed me areas of my past that still needed some healing. In those relationships, I learned what my sore spots were. This allowed me to take care of them so that I wouldn't be manipulated again.
Sometimes we end up in toxic dynamics because we feel guilty, or we have some sore spots that we haven't fully healed yet. However, often the person with a manipulative behaviour is very much aware of them and they use them to control or manipulate you.
Start your hero’s journey
Being in a toxic relationship is a continuous journey of growth. I see it as a hero's journey. Being a hero doesn't mean that you have everything sorted out in the beginning. It means that you are willing to take responsibility and grow to overcome a challenge. The first step of the hero's journey is to take responsibility and asking yourself what is yours, and what is not yours. Evaluate the dynamics in the relationship, and reflect on yourself: what are my emotions? What are my behaviours? What are my thoughts? What can I do to transform them?
Please note that this doesn't mean that the toxic behaviour of the other person is ok. Toxic behaviour is a boundary violation. However, it is out of our control how other people behave towards us. We can only control how we respond to it.
Another element of the hero's journey is to create self-awareness, which means you need to become aware of those aspects in you that are difficult: What parts of you struggle with setting healthy boundaries? What parts of you believe that you don't deserve to be treated better? What can you do to take care of them? This process is a little bit like peeling an onion. For example, the toxic relationship with my sister existed for a very long time because I had learned these patterns when I was very young. I was used to be treated this way. The more I healed myself, the more I became aware of these dynamics, and the better I was able to manage them. Healing also meant that I set a new standard on how I wanted to be treated in relationships.
Part of self-awareness is also having patience and compassion with ourselves. We may also need some time to create awareness about what's going on in these relationships.
Explore your choices
The hero’s journey is about exploring your choices and making new decisions. Choices in toxic relationships are not only whether you should go or stay, it can be many different things. As yourself: what behaviours have you already tried? How did they work for you? What did not work? What can you learn from it? How do you feel after you tried it? If you continue to feel drained and exhausted, it is a sign that your boundaries are violated. Reflect on what boundary is violated and what you can do to protect it?
Make a decision, take action and evaluate
When we have evaluated the different choices concerning the toxic dynamics, we need to make a decision and take action on one of these choices. Afterward, we need to evaluate: how did it work? For example, when you set a boundary for the first time, it might not necessarily work: maybe some of it is how you communicated the boundaries and maybe some of it is because the other person simply ignored your boundaries. It is about focusing on what is going and how does it work. Does it help me to improve the relationship or not? And, what can I learn from it? How can I grow from it?
Toxic relationship strategy 1: focusing on yourself
As the first strategy, I invite you to focus on yourself. If we are in a toxic dynamic, we usually tend to ruminate about these dynamics. However, it is unlikely that we can ever understand them because they won’t be honest enough to reveal themselves. We may blame them for their behaviour, which is a sign that they've violated our boundaries but it doesn’t change anything. While these behaviours are natural (and also justified), they won't change anything. The other person would need to take responsility and change. As long as they are not doing this, you need to stop focusing on them but yourself. What do you care about? What other people are in your life to hang out with? What activities could you do without them?
Toxic relationship strategy 2: change your behaviour
The second strategy to manage toxic relationships effectively is to change your behaviour. Effective behaviour may depend on the how the other person responds.
- Set healthy boundaries and assert yourself
The first step is to start to set healthy boundaries. Ask yourself what you tolerate in the relationship which is not ok for you. Explore how the other person responds to you. Observe whether they are willing to take responsibility. If they are willing to respect your boundaries, continue to implement change in the relationship. If they ignore your boundaries, it is a sign that they don't want to take responsibility. If that's the case, you might need to use different strategies.
- Choose your battles
If the person is not willing to respect your boundaries, you need to start to preserve your energy. The other person is likely in a mindset of "I win, you lose." They are also not likely to consider your needs. Explore what are the topics that really matter to you and let go of those that are less important. Explore whether you can suggest some win-win solutions that allow you to get your needs met and also give the other person the option to win.
- Limit your communication
Another action is that you limit your communication. A person with manipulative behaviour is likely to use your emotions and vulnerability against you. Keep the communication to a more superficial level. Stop talking about topics that the other person will use against to. While it decreases the quality of the relationship, it allows you to protect your boundaries.
- Use self-preserving statements
Start using self-preserving statements instead of giving the other person huge explanations. Self-preserving statements include "That is your opinion," or "I disagree."
- Create a safety plan
Some toxic relationship have a risk of physical abuse or a threat of physical abuse. At this moment, you need to put your safety first, which often might also mean that you cannot choose your battles but that you may need to give in to keep yourself safe and protect yourself. And it might sound scary to create a safety plan but it is about taking care of yourself. This might collide with our beliefs about love and our beliefs about how safe you want to feel in a relationship. It might be hard to think about thinking about a safety plan because we want to be loyal to a partner and maybe some part of us just doesn't want to believe that physical violence is possible. However, I believe it's better to have a safety plan and not need it than not having a safety plan and needing it.
Toxic relationships strategy 3: self-care
The third strategy is all about self-care. What I mean by self-care is any type of conscious actions you take to care for your emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well being. Spiritual in this context doesn't mean religious at all. It can be something like going for a walk in nature, or just enjoying the sun. It’s any kind of connection you have with your inner self, or with your higher self, nature or how you want to call it.
For self-care, no one strategy fits everyone. So I give you some suggestions, but also please check in with yourself what resonates with you. How can you take care of your emotional health? What self-care strategies are working well for you? Toxic relationships are very draining. If we are in a toxic relationship, it can affect our emotional, mental, and physical health, in a negative way. Therefore, self-care is extremely important. We may also need to increase our self-care activities so that we can stay sane in this environment.
Toxic relationship strategy 4: find an ally
Strategy four to manage toxic relationships effectively is about finding a supportive person with whom you can talk about the relationship. Since toxic dynamics are often very confusing and crazy-making, it can be hard to deal with them all alone. You need to find somebody who can support you through this. However, this individual needs to have awareness and knowledge of toxic dynamics. It needs to be somebody who believes you, who was able to label the toxic dynamic, and also somebody who validates your experience. Try to stay away from people who are not very aware of emotional abuse and toxic dynamics: if you talk about these dynamics for somebody who doesn't understand them, they may even further blame you or they might guilt-trip you. This can do more harm than good.
Toxic relationship strategy 5: gain clarity
Strategy 5 to manage toxic relationships effectively is about gaining clarity. What does this mean? It’s about checking in with yourself: what type of relationship you want to have? How much does your relationship comply with this relationship? What change is possible? Spend some time alone and write down the characteristic of relationships you want to have. Evaluate the current relationship and think about to which extent does this relationship fulfills these characteristics.
If you are in a toxic dynamic, consider the following steps:
- Do something different, apply new skills, and evaluate their effectiveness.
- Negotiate a healthier relationship. See what is the other person doing and what are they not doing.
- If your partner is not willing to take any action towards a healthier change, find more distance from this relationship. This could signify to have a more superficial relationship. You may get your need for connection met in friendships. Or you enjoy your life with some new hobbies that you do alone.
- If this doesn't help and the relationship is not at all what you want, you can choose to leave the relationship. It can be temporarily or permanently. This is your choice.
- If you want to have a healthy relationship, both people need to change: the person with toxic behaviour is responsible for their behaviour, and only they can change it. You can request a change, but you cannot control it.
- Create awareness about how much you're willing to lower your standards to be around a person with toxic behaviours. Assess where your limits are.
Do you want to learn more about toxic relationships? Download the free e-book "Toxic Relationships 101."