By Erica Bonham
I post countless memes on my business page about letting toxic people go, setting boundaries with difficult people, and having a balance between attending to your relationships while also meeting your own needs. But what if you have qualities that are toxic? What if you are the person others need to set boundaries with? What if your impact on people is actually damaging, despite your good intentions?
We have all likely engaged in some of these behaviors from time to time, but if it feels like you do these a lot, it’s time to embrace a little self-awareness and consider finding a skilled therapist to help get to the root of some of these behaviors. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
If the word “should” appears often in your vocabulary, you might want to reconsider this. “You know what you should do…” is a sentence starter often riddled with shame and the idea that “you know better.” It is pejorative and creates a power dynamic that causes others to pull back and not trust you. Calling people names and trying to put them down or make them feel bad is also shaming. Even if your intention is to motivate people, this can be ineffective and paralyzing.
If you are a parent, and you use language like “bad boy,” “naughty girl,” or “wild child,” I want to gently encourage you to consider separating actions from personality characteristics and self-worth. Saying things like “That was a poor choice” or “I love you; I do not like that behavior” can help children (and adults for that matter) develop a sense that they can make a mistake and learn from it, rather than feeling they have to be perfect in order to get your love.
If nothing is ever your fault, or you have difficulty taking responsibility or apologizing when you make a mistake, this may be something to reconsider or get support around. If there is a conflict, at least two parties usually play a role, and it is important that we practice taking accountability. Only apologizing is not always enough; make a plan to try to make it right and do something different in the future.
We may also have to accept the consequences of our actions if we broke someone’s trust. If we always blame others or the outside world for our problems, it prevents us from learning from our mistakes or stepping into an empowered position to make positive changes in our lives.
If your friend, child, or family member comes to you with a problem, do you say something like, “Oh, you think that’s bad? Let me tell you what happened to me,” or “You’re not the only one with problems, you know,” or “Do you know how hard things are for me?” This is not creating trust and safety within your relationships, and people will soon learn that they cannot come to you with their struggle.
Similarly, if someone comes to you with a victory, and you turn the conversation to bragging about one of your (or your children’s) accomplishments, this is also not nourishing to the relationship. Jealousy eats us from the inside out. Perhaps turning that jealousy into inspiration for what you would like to accomplish might be a place to start.
Do things have to be “your way or the highway?” Relationships are about reciprocity. The goal is to give and to receive love freely. If you tend to be the taker of favors, emotional energy, talking time, or even physical space, think about the impact of that. The people in your life are eventually going to feel like they are being taken advantage of and distance themselves from you.
If we always blame others or the outside world for our problems, it prevents us from learning from our mistakes or stepping into an empowered position to make positive changes in our lives.
Another side of this coin is that you give too much, but then resent people or hold favors over their head. Perhaps you say you are going to give something to someone but then use it against them when you are angry with them. This is not trust-building behavior and only serves to put you in a position of power, rather than in a position of love.
Have you ever seen a store called something like “Elegant Clothes” or “Really Good Food,” and they are anything but? This can be the same with declarations of not wanting drama. Rehashing the same argument over and over again is a toxic form of drama.
Ignoring someone when you are mad at them can be a form of drama as well. Are you overly moody or irritable, perhaps making things worse than they really are? This can be a way of trying to compensate for your own insecurities or feelings of shame or not being good enough. Finding a good therapist can help you get to the root of the real pain and help you process it.
Part of creating drama is also talking about people behind their backs or telling other people’s vulnerable stories. Gossiping makes us feel like we are fitting in or better than other people, but ultimately leaves us feeling worse. I once saw a meme that said, “Pay attention to how your friends talk about others to you because that is exactly how they talk about you to others.”
If you are the one doing the gossiping, it won’t take long before people begin to question whether you talk about them that way as well, and again, damaged relationships may be the result.
Do you seek attention, air dirty laundry, or post vague statements trying to get validation on your facebook page? An example might be “Can’t believe people suck so badly. The hits just keep coming. #heartbroken.” Or “That moment when you just know it’s going to be an awful day.”
People don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, and it’s a call for people to ask you what is going on or give you some general sympathy. It’s better to reach out to a friend or a therapist, figure out where the pain is, and deal with it head-on.
We all have hard days, but if you tend to focus on the negative or complain excessively, this also might have a negative impact on people. Do you only see the worst part of the story? Or is “Yeah, but…” a common answer for you? Do you feel like you nourish people, or do you suck their energy?
It may be that you are trying to manage your own anxieties or trying to please or entertain others by being overly verbose. Perhaps you have a difficult time listening to others, or maybe you are thinking about what you will say while they are talking. If you think what you have to say is more interesting or important, or if you interrupt a lot, this might also be a way of managing insecurities. Inappropriate gender-based or racial jokes are other ways of taking up space in a toxic way.
Perhaps you learned the only way to get your needs met was to trick or manipulate people. Perhaps you do not treat people kindly or with respect. Do you demean others, call them names, or put them down? Perhaps you make overly judgmental statements, threats, or passive-aggressive remarks. Perhaps you engage often in one of the other behaviors listed above. If you find that many of your relationships have ended with a tumultuous cut-off, there may be a wound that needs healing.
We tend to become overpowering and toxic because we were once overpowered and mistreated. A skilled therapist will be able to help you find the injury and make changes in these behaviors. Keep in mind that even if you have been victimized, these behaviors are those of emotional perpetrators. Some of your past might not be your fault, but you are now the only person who can walk the path of healing. Even just having awareness of areas you can improve may be a starting point for change. Here’s to healing and having healthy and thriving relationships.
Originally published at www.goodtherapy.org