Let’s talk about toxic people.
The difference between toxic people and assholes? With someone toxic, you have some sort of connected relationship that makes it hard to dismiss them. When we meet a stranger who is toxic, we just call them an asshole and avoid them. But a toxic relationship is one that develops over time, with some factor that makes it feel nearly impossible to separate yourself. Maybe that’s because you’re family; there’s a strong idea that family comes first above all and blood relations must be respected and honored no matter what. It could also be because you’re married or in a relationship with your lives intertwined. Or it could be a friend that you’ve known for a long time and shared life transitions with.
Being so connected to someone, having a history with them, or loving them very much can keep you from recognizing damaging behaviors that you’ve grown used to over a long time. But you are not responsible for their emotions, and you are not required to put up with their bullshit because you are relatives, or have known each other for years, or even because you love them.
I know it’s not as simple as just making someone change, or cutting them out immediately. I want to try and start with helping you recognize the difference between a normal occasional family argument, and someone who is a toxic presence in your life. One of the things that toxic people do best is cause you to believe the problem is yours and yours alone, and your issue to deal with. So instead of doing it all now, let’s start with a list.
Take time to go through it and really reflect and think. If taking notes helps, you can do that too and come back to your list later. Doing heavy emotional work can be exhausting and you might need to stop and take a break as you work through things.
- Do your interactions leave you feeling bad about yourself? Do they bring up mistakes from your history to hold against you? Are they constantly criticizing your choices? Do they joke about inappropriate things or dismiss hurtful comments as “just a joke”?
- Do you feel anxiety when you need to talk to them or see them? Is the entire car ride over to their house filled with nervousness, preparing scripted statements, or planning what to do if an argument erupts? Yes, these things can also be caused by social anxiety, but that’s very different than fear of consequences and repercussion. If you are nervous because a person you’ll be seeing has a history of violent outbursts or harmful behavior, that is not okay and that is not just social anxiety.
- Are your feelings dismissed while theirs are emphasized? Do you avoid bringing up things in your life because you know this person will use it as a chance to speak over you, talk about how much worse things are for them, or say something to devalue your experience? For most of my adult life, I avoided telling my mother about dates or romantic times with partners because she would consistently respond with how her husband never did anything like that for her, and immediately turn the conversation around to make me feel guilty for having a nice time. The same happened whenever I spent money on anything, or had any career successes. I was never allowed to just share a happy moment without hearing about something negative from her.
- Do you feel like you need to add qualifiers and explanations to everything you say? Do you have to rehearse conversations and make sure to avoid things that will upset them? Do you feel you need to talk down about yourself to make them feel better, or draw attention away from yourself so you don’t ‘steal the spotlight’. Do you hide details of your life to avoid making them angry, upset, or guilt tripping you?
- Do you fear what will happen if you disappoint them? Do they have a history of outlandish punishments? Will they explode with rage, make a huge scene, or spend the night pouting passive aggressively if you upset them? Do you worry that small mistakes will cause them to withdraw love, affection, support, or help? Do small disagreements end with them becoming violent, aggressive, with name-calling, or threats?
- How would you feel if they spoke to a stranger the way they speak to you? Imagine that a friend came to you and confided all of these details to you. Would it make you feel happy to hear that someone you love was being treated this way?
These are not necessarily set in stone. We all have times where we get more angry than we should, or say the wrong things in the heat of the moment. And ideally when those things happen we recognize that we were out of line, apologize to the person, and take steps not to do it again. People who are toxic or abusive can sometimes give apologies or admit their wrongdoings, but the most crucial thing that makes an apology stick is the effort to change behavior. That comes through actions, not words. If you have a long history of seeing a person behave this way repeatedly, even with an apology, that’s not enough. If they have reacted in this way to you so many times that your behavior has shifted to the things I listed above, it’s much more than a minor problem, and recognizing those toxic patterns is the first step of reclaiming your life. You deserve to feel safe, supported, and loved.