Last year, Katie, a client, received an email from an acquaintance with a mocking tone, wishing her “so much bad luck in the future”.
There was, of course, history behind the email and the relationship with the sender. But what struck me about it, other than how once-amiable relationships can turn bad, was its far-reaching intent. The sender was not just angry with Katie now, but wished her harm in the future, when they would have no contact. Katie’s response was not to reply.
Katie is not alone in having had a relationship that can only be described as toxic. I prefer to think of relationships as toxic, rather than the more often used phrase “toxic people” because, in my mind, negative and ineffective behaviour does not fully describe a person. It is not all of who they are. Having said that, often their behaviour makes it hard to focus on anything else and it’s understandable we’d want to put limits around contact.
Toxic relationships may also be described as negative, draining, difficult, inappropriate or passive aggressive. Consider the friend who seems easygoing and happy to go along with social plans until they one day bitterly complain they’re sick of never choosing what you do together and accuse you of being dominant and rigid.
Or the tradesperson who, despite having a job to do, can’t stop talking about what is wrong with their work, the weather, the traffic, and everything in their life. When they don’t fix the issue you’ve hired them for on time, they blame everyone else and the situation rather than take responsibility. Or the boss who is so focused on herself and meeting targets, she never asks how things are going within her team, instead criticising and pointing out work that should have been done better.
While obviously not a clinical diagnosis, “toxic” is an apt description because of the behaviour’s effect on you. It can manifest physically (headaches, body pains), mentally (difficulty concentrating, confusion, apathy), or emotionally (self-doubt, nervousness, anxiety, depression, anger). It can lead to all sorts of avoidance behaviour such as overindulgence in alcohol, food or other methods of numbing in order to cope.
In psychological circles, the concept of personality disorders points to long-standing interpersonal patterns that are not effective in keeping relationships. You may have heard of people having narcissistic tendencies, but perhaps less well known are borderline, antisocial and avoidant personality disorders or traits, which can also wreak havoc on those with these diagnoses and those around them. Of course people don’t need to have personality disorders to be difficult to deal with.
Dealing with these relationships
Coping with toxic relationships can be trying and tiring. Well-meaning but simple solutions such as “steer clear of them” may not be workable when they are your family, in-law, co-worker, boss or partner’s friend. In addition, it is easy to underestimate the role guilt can play if you decide to keep your distance and you may swing back to the role of being the “good” person (good daughter, son, friend) out of habit and/or guilt.
When in a toxic relationship, it can be difficult to work out your options. The temptation is to take a defensive position of justifying your behaviour. This can become a tit-for-tat exchange, with both parties becoming more self-righteous and less able to take a step back and have perspective.
Things can quickly deteriorate and become the subject of gossip: “You won’t believe what they’ve done now …”
Many clients come to therapy to work out how to be more effective with those closest to them. Often, though, the original reason is “to make them (the significant other in whatever capacity) understand me” or to “help them change”. My response is always that because they are the person in front of me, the only thing we can do is to change their response to what is going on.
So what’s left if avoiding them, justifying your response to them or hoping they’ll change prove ineffective?
Understanding early patterns
When Alison, a client in her mid 40s, left a permanent, well-paying job just a few months after starting it, she originally put her reason for leaving down to a personality clash with the boss. Later, she realised familiar dynamics were being played out.
She had experienced her parents as being controlling for as long as she could remember and had developed a strong sense of self-sufficiency and autonomy in her adult life as a result.
The job had promised a degree of freedom in decision-making and when the level of autonomy she expected was not present, she felt controlled and as if her talents were taken for granted. The lack of skill in her boss’s handling of the situation was amplified by Alison being caught up in old patterns and reacting to the boss as if he was the controlling, invalidating parent.
Alison left the job because the relationship with her boss was toxic and impacting on her emotional health. Working it through in therapy, she could see how these dynamics had parallels across her life, including in her intimate relationship and friendships.
Through this work she now recognises early indications (an uneasy gut feeling) that something isn’t right.
Work through your emotions
Another important ability is knowing how to calm the emotion that is evoked. In Alison’s case, it was extreme anger at her boss (which masked a more vulnerable, helpless feeling).
One of the foundations of healthy adult relationships is the ability to calm yourself down. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast. It is easy to be combative and defensive when these patterns surface, as they are automatic reactions with a large history.
Undoubtedly there are difficult people, but a wise analysis of interaction patterns will usually reveal family-of-origin dynamics have been triggered.
When you have a reaction that is very emotional or extreme in some way, and your reaction is not shared by others around you, it may be a clue that your early life dynamics have been triggered. What’s the use of knowing this? Being aware of early patterns can start the process of consciously choosing how we want to be and gives us the space to respond mindfully rather than automatically react.
Compassion for yourself
When struggling with a toxic relationship, people are usually hard on themselves, for example, “I should be able to just be more assertive”. Yet research suggests people with skills in self-compassion are able to handle stress and recover faster from difficult relationships.
Try just noticing self-blame and self-judgement and replace it with observing and describing your negative thoughts and feelings: “I notice I am beating myself up with thoughts that I should be able to cope with. I notice feelings of sadness about myself when I do.”
Next, recognise you are a human being who has flaws just like every other human on the planet. If your best friend was struggling with not handling a difficult relationship well, chances are you’d remind them they have lots of good healthy relationships in their lives, that this type of relationship doesn’t define them and to take good care of themselves as they go through this stressful time. Figure out what are the ways you can regulate yourself in the midst of a tricky time through treating yourself with kindness. Examples I find effective are allowing more time for massages, baths, walks, looking at beautiful views, and checking in with close friends. Other people might find self-imposing a specific time limit with the person to be effective (such as an hour every second Sunday for visiting a cantankerous uncle) if they have decided to continue a relationship that is fraught.
It can sometimes be helpful to remind yourself that the other person in the toxic relationship is probably ineffective at getting their needs met in other areas of their life too. They are likely to be unhappy themselves. A person who emails “I wish you so much bad luck” is clearly in a lot of pain and is also unable to let go of conflict.
Live your values
As usual, I would advise asking yourself the question: Given what I am experiencing, who do I want to be in the face of this?
With Katie’s email correspondence, when the conflict started, she was clear on how she wanted to behave: assertively, using factual language, and to state her viewpoint non-judgementally. For Katie this was about self-respect. Although on receiving hostile emails she often felt the urge to react from the heat-of-the-moment emotions, she didn’t respond immediately and would get someone else to proof every email she sent to be sure.
With time and support, a new perspective might show up that teaches you something about how to be different in relationships. It may be that you see how your behaviour contributed to the unhelpful dynamic you found so toxic.
When dealing with difficult people, keep in mind Rudyard Kipling’s line from the poem If—: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you … yours is the earth and everything in it …”