How to Deal with Toxic Relationships
We’ve all found ourselves in a situation where someone in our lives makes us feel bad about who we are. Whether it’s a family member, friend, or coworker, being around someone toxic has a lot of negative effects—and one key effect is that we can’t be our authentic selves. When this is the case, we walk away from our interactions feeling depleted.
Being part of relationship that makes us feel bad about who we are can push us into a place of performing—we fear others’ judgment and end up behaving like someone we’re not. And because performing is bad for our mental, physical, and spiritual health, these feelings shouldn’t be ignored.
When you’ve determined that a relationship you’re in is making you feel bad, it’s an important moment to take a pause and decide whether to draw boundaries or to move on.
How to Tell If a Relationship is Stifling Your Authenticity
One of the most effective ways to tell if a relationship is stifling your authenticity and pushing you to perform is to use your body as a guidepost. Your body will signal to you whether being around a particular person is causing you harm.
To do this, start by tuning in to how you’re feeling and what you’re sensing in your body when you’re around various people in your life, using mindfulness. It’s like taking a snapshot of your emotions and body sensations in a given moment so that you can measure to what extent you feel able to be your authentic self.
With some practice, you’ll be able to tell which of your relationships feel loving and safe and enable you to be yourself (whatever that feels like for you—for example, like flying, warm flutters through the heart and chest area, a joyous buzz throughout the body), and the oppressive sensations that are connected with toxic relationships that push you to perform (for example, nausea, heaviness in the chest, tingling at the back of the neck, muscle tightness, sweating, irritated digestive system).
I know that when I find myself in a toxic relationship, I physically recoil at the thought of being in that person’s company. I will feel anxiety pounding in my chest and a strong desire to get out of the room will pulse through me (the “flight” of fight or flight—also called amygdala activation).
On the other hand, when I’m around people I adore and whose energy enables me to feel safe enough to be supremely vulnerable, I feel like a warm, mushy marshmallow, melting in the warmth of love and acceptance.
Once you’ve learned how to clock these sensations in your body, and have taken some time to note them, you’ll likely see patterns. If you’re feeling bad and pushed to perform regularly with certain people, it’s probably time to act.
Breaking Up with Toxic People
When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I was still spending time with a group of friends I’d made in university. Over the years, I’d had a lot of fun with them, and we had some very special moments together, but it eventually got to a point where I felt like I just couldn’t be myself—and that I was often being judged for who I was.
For example, while we were hanging out, my passion for social justice issues would naturally come up in conversation (for example, becoming enraged and starting to rant when racist bouncers wouldn’t let us into a club because of our skin color). Some of these friends would roll their eyes and make comments like, “She’s so radical,” or they would groan and say, “There she goes again.” And more.
As these moments became more frequent, and I felt less like I could be my whole self with my friends, I knew I had to do something. It was around this time that I went to do my yoga teacher training at an ashram in India, which started a new chapter of my life. I promised myself that I would rid my life of experiences and relationships that caused me to feel bad about who I was.
As part of this commitment, I deeply struggled with what to do about the friend group that was my main social outlet. I was very afraid of letting go of this group because I worried that I’d end up sitting at home on weekends feeling like a “loser.” But I had to be true to how I was feeling, so I made the super gutsy decision to break up with them. This meant having some tough, awkward conversations letting people know why I was no longer going to spend time with them.
As you can imagine, it was really hard letting go of my old social life. But as I began to build new friendships with people who valued me for my true self, I knew it was the right choice. And of course, my fears of becoming a “loser” were unfounded. In fact, clearing time and space in my life made room to build new relationships with people who loved my feisty, activist ways.
Through this experience I learned that sometimes letting go of relationships is critical to living a healthier life.
Drawing Boundaries in Toxic Relationships
With family and co-workers, breaking up is not always an option. In these cases, the healthiest thing to do to protect yourself and stay true to your authenticity is to draw boundaries. When doing so, the key is to determine what you will and won’t do with this person in order to feel safe.
Here are a few key strategies that I have found to be very helpful in drawing boundaries in relationships that feel toxic (and when ending the relationship isn’t a realistic option):
Limit the length and frequency of your conversations
Steer clear of certain topics
Hang out in group settings where you have other people present to act as buffers
Meet them on neutral territory (not at home)
In drawing boundaries, you’ll be looking out for your own best interests while maintaining a more limited level of contact with the person who is making you feel threatened.
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Managing toxic relationships is hard work. And, sheesh, does it take guts! But for me, drawing boundaries and ending friendships has made room for relationships that make me feel connected, valued, and loved for who I am.
I can tell you that taking the time to rid yourself of toxic relationships will make you healthier, happier, and better able to be yourself.