“Toxic” is a word that is being thrown around a lot these days in reference to relationships (romantic, platonic, familial, etc.). And unfortunately, with any psychosocial issue that becomes a “fad,” we often see occasions where we may over-diagnose or misdiagnose a problem. For example, someone may be going through problems in a relationship that fall within the healthy/expected range but may find themselves using the word toxic to describe an otherwise loving and supportive relationship. So, as a psychotherapist, I definitely recommend caution in how we use this word to label our relationships and I encourage you to only use it for those specific instances for which it holds true. With that caveat in mind, there are absolutely situations in which a relationship is toxic and warrants that we reconsider whether it is best to keep this person in our lives, set firm boundaries with them, or remove them from our circle completely. Whatever decision you make, of course, is ultimately your choice, but here are nine ways to know if a relationship (romantic or otherwise) is toxic and if you need to do something about it:
- Maintaining a close relationship with the individual is causing you to betray yourself or compromise on your values in unhealthy ways. Do you find yourself having to constantly perform a particular version of yourself (that you do not like) when you are with this person? Do you think that when you are around this individual you act and think in ways that are contrary to your own belief system? If the answer to either or both of these is yes then this is a good indicator that this relationship may be causing you more harm than good. If you are someone who values being true to who you are and it is important for you to live a life where you remain in alignment with your own positive core beliefs, choosing to remain intimately connected with this individual may be in direct contradiction with the things you want for yourself. And when we live in misalignment with our values and beliefs long enough it can take a huge toll on our mental wellbeing.
- Every time you are with this person you feel as though the attention is always on them (and their problems) and never on you. Some relationships in our lives can feel like we are giving a lot more than we are receiving over an extended period of time. We are not talking about parent-child relationships or other caregiving-type relationships where this sort of imbalance is inherent to the relationship. We are talking about those relationships where it feels as though the other party is sucking all of the air out of the space you are supposed to be sharing. Where, whenever you speak, the focus is always on them and their issues with very little room for you to even get a word in about your own stuff. Now, this is not always a reason that a relationship needs to end right away, but it definitely requires some reflection to determine whether you may need to speak up about this issue or set some sort of boundary to preserve your mental and emotional energy.
- You hardly ever experience pleasant emotions when you are with this person. Another good way to know if you are reaching your wits’ end with a relationship is that when you are around this person you feel nothing but unpleasant feelings. You feel anger, resentment, fear, or something else that tells you that this relationship is an uncomfortable one. Sometimes feelings can be deceptive in the sense that they can thwart our perception of reality a bit, but gut feelings often provide us with valuable information as to what we may need to consider regarding an interpersonal relationship moving forward. If every time you are around this person you feel exhausted and drained of energy, you may want to consider limiting how much you interact with this person for the sake of your mental and emotional health.
- You are only choosing to maintain this connection out of some unfounded sense of obligation. Sometimes we have family members, long-time friends, or other people in our lives who we feel a sense of obligation to because of things they may have done for us in the past. We convince ourselves that setting boundaries or putting some distance between us and these individuals will be an ungrateful and selfish thing to do. However, if the only thing tying you to a relationship is obligation, is this relationship positively serving you? Is it uplifting you? Is it helping you be the best version of yourself? Is it bringing you in closer alignment with your beliefs and values? If the answer is no, it may be time to reconsider the sort of relationship you want to have with this person. It may not be that the relationship has to end, but it may mean that you need to interface with them less often for your own sanity.
- This person always brings out “the worst” in you. In line with the first point, when you are around this person, do you like yourself? Can you look at yourself in the mirror and be proud of the person you are when you are with them? What you think of yourself is very important because it feeds into your sense of self-worth and self-esteem. If a relationship in your life is causing you to doubt or question your good qualities or the relationship always brings you to a point where you behave in a way you strongly dislike, is this a relationship or friendship you want to stay in? Food for thought.
- Anytime you are with this person you find yourself mentally counting down the minutes to when you will no longer have to be in the same space as them. If you cannot stand to be in the same space with this person, or it feels like torture anytime you are with them, I would say this is a pretty good indicator as to whether the relationship is toxic or not. Once you have identified that a relationship is toxic though, the question then becomes: “what am I going to do about it?” And whatever you decide, you have to be ready to deal with those consequences. If you choose to continue on with things as they are, you will likely continue to feel the same way every time you meet with the person. If you choose to end the relationship, you will have to be mentally ready to deal with the potential backlash that comes with that decision. Either way, as you make the decision regarding the relationship, I would recommend seeking support from caring others to give you the strength to make the decision that is in the best interest of your overall wellbeing and quality of life.
- You are caught up in a trauma bond cycle with them. I briefly touched on trauma bonds in one of my recent blogposts titled “9 Tips for Getting Closure from a Relationship that Did Not End on Good Terms.” However, it should be noted that trauma bonds are not specific to romantic relationships. It is an unhealthy attachment that develops between an abusive person and abused person where the abused person comes to develop emotional dependence on their abuser. In a trauma bond cycle, an abusive person causes harm to the other person, then tries to make up for it in some way (e.g. through remorseful behaviour or kind acts), the abused person then feels hope that the abusive person can change, and this reinforces the bond and the cycle continues over and over again. If you are starting to realize that there is a relationship in your life that resembles a trauma bond, finding a way out of this relationship or putting significant distance between you and this individual may be necessary. Of course there are other options that can be explored (e.g. the abusive person seeks ongoing counselling), but for the sake of your wellbeing you need to strongly reconsider the sort of proximity you want to maintain with this person.
- This person is seriously jeopardizing other healthy and valuable relationships in your life. Is being close to this person putting distance between you and other important, valuable and significant relationships in your life? Is this person trying to isolate you from the rest of your support network in some way or another? This can be seen as a form of social abuse. When your relationship with one person is leading you to damage or distance yourself from other relationships that are positive, uplifting, healthy and supportive, you may need to reconsider your relationship with said person. Is that relationship really worth you burning bridges with most, if not all the other loving and supportive others in your life? You may want to take a moment of pause to reflect on it and then act accordingly.
- When you think about your relationship with this person, you realize that continuing to entertain a close relationship with them will be detrimental to your mental and social health. At the end of the day, this really all boils down to whether or not this relationship is positively serving you. If continuing the relationship with this person is going to take you down a road that is filled with nothing but heartache, resentment, and/or suffering, it is either time to set firm boundaries or possibly end the relationship altogether. You know yourself more than anyone and only you can determine what decision will ultimately be in your best interest. However, remember to reach out for support if you need help making a firm decision. Reach out for help if you are scared that making the decision you know is best for you will likely bring backlash you may not be mentally ready for. Getting support shows your courage and your willingness to do what is best for you in spite of how difficult doing so may be.
Setting boundaries, ending, or putting distance in our relationships is not always easy. It takes courage, strength, and motivation to do what we know is ultimately best for us. You deserve to have people in your life that make you feel good about yourself and also help you improve in areas where you may be lacking or having difficulty. You do NOT need people in your life who are hypercritical, frequently gaslight you, or cause you to believe the worst of yourself. So here’s to hoping that this post encourages you to reconsider those relationships in your life that are breaking you down more than building you up. And, of course, if you need a space to process this in a compassionate and non-judgemental way, UPWARD is here for you!
Sending you all lots of love today! Take care of yourself and be safe.
Reycine Mc Kenzie, MSc.
Founder and Clinical Psychotherapist
UPWARD Counselling and Psychological Services