When it comes to dealing with toxic relationships, the most obvious solution is to cut ties with the person. This is certainly easier said than done when it comes to friends, people you’ve dated or acquaintances, but what if cutting someone out completely is impossible? These are situations involving close family members who you have no choice but to interact with or potentially a boss or coworker and they consistently engage in toxic, damaging behaviors.
So, what can we do when we have to continue to have someone in our life even though we know they’re detrimental to our own mental health and well-being? While there’s no easy solution, we spoke to a few mental health professionals who were able to provide us with some tips for coping with toxic people we can’t just cut out of our lives.
What is a toxic relationship?
Let’s start by clarifying what we mean by a “toxic relationship.” According to Dr. Adam L. Fried, a clinical psychologist practicing in Phoenix and assistant professor of psychology at Midwestern University, “toxic relationship” isn’t a formal term used in psychology, but is by many mental health professionals to describe a type of dysfunctional relationship in which interactions result in extreme negative emotions by one or both individuals.
These kinds of relationships might also include emotionally abusive elements depending on the dynamics of the relationship, Fried tells SheKnows. It can be especially challenging when these types of relationships are with people with whom you are either expected to maintain a close relationship, such as a parent or sibling, or those with which you may not have as much of a choice, such as a supervisor.
“People in these types of relationships sometimes report feeling trapped because they don’t feel they have the option to protect themselves by modifying or ending the relationship,” Fried explains. “These are also individuals with whom one might feel a number of seemingly incongruous emotions, including love, obligation and caring.”
Similarly, psychologist Dr. Mindy Beth Lipson tells SheKnows that toxic relationships are filled with fear, blame and criticism; you probably feel dread being around the person, and they make you feel that you have to rescue them in some way.
And Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a psychiatrist, tells SheKnows that what makes a person toxic is when they intrude on the lives of those around them, noting that “while it may be OK to be a reclusive curmudgeon or an isolated, anxious person, toxicity emerges when these people’s moods try to spread to those around them.”
How can you deal with being in an unavoidable toxic relationship?
While some people do make the difficult decision to stop communicating with close family members they consider to be toxic, Fried says, it’s not an option for everyone. And not surprisingly, it can be very hard to make relationships work that have been highly dysfunctional for a long period of time, he adds. In fact, they may not even be fully aware of the negative mental and physical health consequences they experience resulting from these types of interactions.
“For some, they spend a lot of energy trying to change the other person — I encourage people to evaluate whether these attempts are effective or whether they simply result in more frustration and disappointment,” Fried explains. “I then encourage people to think about what changes they themselves can make that might reduce anxiety, stress, panic and depression. This often includes changing expectations, acknowledging that the person or relationship may never change, taking responsibility for any of our own actions (including behaviors that may contribute to the dysfunctionality of the relationship) and practicing acceptance and self-care.”
Another strategy is setting clear boundaries with the other person with a dose of tough love.
“The classic solution for most toxic people we are close with is tough love,” Dimitriu says. “This often means maintaining strong boundaries — and not giving in. This often involves maintaining a healthy distance during both happy and sad or difficult moments.”
Another tough-love strategy involves providing an occasional nonjudgmental observation of unhealthy patterns, which may sometimes also help people themselves realize that what they are doing just doesn’t work for them — sometimes time and time again — Dimitriu adds.
Along the same lines, Lipson recommends making assertive statements to ensure the other person knows exactly how their actions make you feel. In addition, respond to the facts of what they’re saying rather than the emotions, she adds, as well as choosing your battles wisely. Lipson says therapy may also be beneficial to help you figure out why you feel the need to fix the person or make excuses for them.
Given this person’s difficult behavior, Lipson says it’s important to learn how to forgive, but don’t forget, as well as to have a strong support system in place so you can talk about the challenges you’re having with the person’s toxic behaviors and perhaps to gain a new perspective.
Ultimately, it might not be possible to continue to be involved in some toxic relationships — even if it’s a close family member.
“If things never change, then walking away can leave room for better self-worth and a more satisfying, healthy connection with others,” Lipson notes.
But in situations in which you really have no choice but to interact with a toxic person, keep in mind the importance of tough love, boundaries and self-care.
A version of this story was published June 2018.
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