The Covid-19 crisis, and the shelter in place order that accompanies it has caused an increase in the intensity of unhealthy living situations. Those who have found themselves spending more time with toxic or emotionally abusive family members are struggling to find relief.
Toxic people have also seen a change in their usual lifestyles. Because the typical avenues to attain their four basic needs—control, power, attention, and admiration—have been cut off externally, it falls on those living with them to fulfill these requirements.
If you have found yourself in a place of increased toxicity due to the shelter in place order, there are a few things you can do to improve your safety and sanity.
- Recognize the toxic person’s criticisms as false
Toxic people feel power and control when others are weak. Criticisms, comparisons, name-calling, and belittling will inevitably increase during this time due to their current lack of control. Toxic people find security by controlling the people and situations around them. They feel better about themselves when others are struggling.
If this is happening to you, you need to allow their criticism to roll off your back—for now. The increased need to tear you down directly corresponds to the level of control the toxic person feels they have lost. The more out of control they feel, the more critical and demeaning they will become. Even the smallest supposed affront will be criticized, just to make you feel less worthy. Their sense of power increases when they think they are better than you.
Stay strong. Remind yourself that this is temporary and that much of what they say in this stressful situation is not true. These are their attempts to feel better about themselves.
- Avoid emotional reactions
For a toxic person to validate that they are in control of another, they require a solicited reaction. If they can get a reaction—any reaction—they are reaffirming that they are in control and receive attention. When I say reaction, I mean anything that shows emotion. Anger, tears, defending yourself, fighting, yelling, and even showing fear are all examples of reactions that toxic people look for when needing to remind themselves that they are still in control.
If this sounds familiar, you must try not to react with too much emotion. No or little reaction starves the toxic person of what they need. On any given day, I teach my clients that learning not to react at all is how you take the control away from toxic people. When you offer no reaction, you deny them what they seek.
However, no reaction can sometimes exacerbate a situation. When you don’t give the person their desired reaction, they will often push harder to get a response. Play smarter! Because we do not want to do anything that will make a situation worse, or increasingly dangerous while being sheltered, I suggest engaging but without overreacting.
Speak to them calmly. Don’t be overly defensive. Keep your head cool. Even when they are spewing accusations, yelling, or assigning you undeserved blame.
Because you have been programmed to react the way they need you to, to assure their power, this will be difficult. Significant reactions allow them to blame the incident on your over-sensitivity rather than their insecurities. Be aware of what they are doing, and be careful not to elicit a greater reaction.
- Take care of yourself
Most importantly, take care of yourself. Your schedule has changed, and many of your usual safe outlets have been temporarily taken away. Going to the gym or to church, outings with family and friends, and extracurricular activities were all ways you were able to get a break, breathe a little, and refill your resolve between catering to their needs. Now, the only choice you have is to cater to them.
Do something for yourself every day. Take a walk, read, journal, write a letter, call a friend, take up a new hobby. It doesn’t have to be fancy or big; it just has to be time for yourself.
This is no permanent solution for the emotional abuse and toxic environment when you are sheltering in place. But with no other choice right now, these tips may help you make it through a time that feels seeming hopeless. More tips can be found at the It’s Not Normal, It’s Toxic Podcast to help cope with these types of situations.