Article By – Peg Streep
You wake up one morning and it dawns on you that you’re not holding your own in this problem relationship. In fact, you are getting trounced, pounced, and hurt. It doesn’t matter whether the person is a parent, sibling, co-worker, friend, or even a spouse or lover or whether they’re manipulative, bullying, combative, or a garden-variety narcissist trying to suck you into his or her orbit; what matters is that you don’t know what to do. You recognize that the connection isn’t healthy or good because it makes you feel lousy but, somehow, you’re stuck.
Not everyone gets stuck in this way, not for long at least. Some of us are more skilled at recognizing toxic behaviors and more self-assured about how to deal with them. These tend to be people who have a secure attachment style, see themselves accurately, and are confident about their self-worth. They need and want relationships and they know the real deal from the cheap knock-off. That’s not true of the insecurely attached person who doesn’t have strong mental representations of what a healthy relationship looks like, has problems with self-esteem and managing his or her emotions. They’re the most likely to find themselves unable to act when enmeshed in a toxic relationship.
Following are some strategies you can adopt to manage those run-ins with the people in your life who seem to enjoy raining on your parade, need the upper hand, or just like feeling good by making you feel bad.
1.Recognize the traits that make you easy prey
Assessing what you bring to the party doesn’t mean taking responsibility or the blame for someone’s mistreatment of you so please keep the difference in mind. Is it your need to please or your fear of rocking the boat that keeps you tongue-tied when your friend makes you the victim of her bad mood? Think about the interactions you’ve had with the person that make you unhappy using cool processing—focusing on why you felt as you did, not what you felt—and see if you can discern a pattern. Insecurely attached daughters often confuse someone’s need to control and grandstand with strength and perseverance and can find themselves ensnared by someone toxic. If that’s the case, you need to pay attention.
2. Explore your reactivity
Again, without taking the blame for the dynamic, you should look at both the degree to which you over-react and under-react in the relationship because either can unwittingly intensify the dynamic and keep it going. A controlling or bullying person will regard your under-reaction as a permission slip to keep treating you in precisely the same way. People with an anxious/preoccupied attachment style tend to be hypervigilant about cues that the relationship is going south and often become angry and vituperative when threatened; that kind of over-reaction is likely to make a narcissist feel powerful and inspire him or her to keep playing games.
Instead, work on managing your emotions—finding the sweet spot between over-and-under-reactivity—and set some goals for yourself in terms of handling the relationship differently. Use “If/Then” thinking to embolden your implementation of your plans; prepare by focusing what you will do if an exchange happens, using the “If X, then Y” formula. For example, “If my friend makes a nasty remark, then I’m going to say ‘Why would you say something so hurtful?” or “If my mother denies what she said to me, then I will simply say,’ You can’t browbeat me into believing that. It didn’t happen.’.” This isn’t easy and it does take practice but standing up for your perceptions is important.
3. Trust your gut
One reason insecurely attached people over-stay in relationships is lack of trust in themselves or their judgment. If your default position is always to rationalize toxic behavior (“He really didn’t mean what he said. It was just the heat of the moment”) or to give the person the benefit of the doubt (“She didn’t realize how hurtful her gesture was. Once it’s explained to her, I’m sure she’ll come around”), this is the moment to stop and realize why you’re doing the excusing. If you find yourself falling back into the pattern of making excuses or rationalizing toxic behavior, stop. Also see #8.
4. Beware of the sunk cost fallacy
What’s keeping you in this relationship anyway? The thought of what you’ve put into it? Your fear of loss and being alone? As the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky showed, humans are famously loss averse, and prefer to hold to what they have in the short term even if giving up a little will get them more in the long-run. Additionally, they prefer the known to the unknown, even if the former makes them unhappy. All of that yields the most pernicious unconscious pattern called the sunk cost fallacy which is often responsible for keeping us in places we ought not to be, including toxic relationships. This is the habit of mind that focuses on what you have invested in something—it could be emotion, time, effort, or even money—and keeps you in place so as not to lose that investment, Of course, whatever the “investment” is, you can’t retrieve it under any circumstances—whether that’s the years you put into the job or relationship, the money you put into your failing car or venture—so there’s no real logic to the thinking. This fallacy has been used to justify wars, cars that have long since outlived their usefulness, and all manner of lousy relationships and marriages.
If you catch yourself thinking about what you have sunk into the relationship with that toxic person, instead start thinking about where you might find yourself if you let go, next year or five years hence. See the word “fallacy?” That says it all.
5. Recognize the power of intermittent reinforcement
You may consider yourself more of a “the glass is half empty” kind of person than the “glass is half full “type but research shows that, generally, humans are overly optimistic. They tend to see a close loss more as a “near win”—it’s what keeps people at slot machines when three of the same symbols line up and they take it as a sign that the fourth will show up shortly—which has an evolutionary reason behind it. When the challenges of life were largely physical—think hunter with bow and arrow—staying encouraged enough to keep going and turn the near win into a real one was a good thing. Additionally, we’re more motivated to hang in, paradoxically enough, when we get what we want some of the time.
That’s what B.F. Skinner showed with three very hungry rats, each in its own cage, with a lever that delivered food when pressed. In the first cage, the lever always delivered food and understanding that, the rat went about its business. In the second cage, the lever never delivered food and that rat absorbed the lesson and lost interest. But in the third cage, the lever worked randomly and the rat was fixated and totally hooked. He pushed at the lever constantly. That’s intermittent reinforcement.
This works in human relationships too, alas. When the toxic person lets up or actually does something nice, your heart leaps and your optimism ramps up and you think, “We are turning a corner!” and that locks you in for that much longer, just like that rat. Now and again does not a pattern make and you need to keep that in mind.
6. Guard those boundaries or plan an exit strategy
If the toxic person is someone you can’t avoid coming into contact with—a co-worker, a neighbor, a mother-in-law or someone in your social circle—set boundaries for behavior and the kind of contact you’re going to have. Insecurely attached people often have trouble recognizing what a healthy boundary looks like and don’t always know how to negotiate them. You don’t need to be rude, abrasive or accusatory; in fact, it’s important that you aren’t and that you are firm and decisive. If it’s a work situation, go through the appropriate channels and put it in writing. To a co-worker, you might say, “I’m okay with criticism but I’d prefer if you not make it personal. My being overweight has nothing to do with my performance” or to the mother-in-law who enjoys making jokes at your expense, “I’m sorry but that’s not funny. I may not be the most organized housekeeper but my family seems to be thriving nonetheless.”
For the toxic others you can ultimately give the boot, plan an exit strategy
.7. Anticipate push-back or retaliation
It’s likely that the toxic person in your life has his or her own “investment” in the connection—he likes controlling you or likes the lift his power over you gives him—so once you start setting boundaries and confronting him, don’t expect him to go gently into the night. The chances are good that he or she will redouble efforts to keep the dynamic going—manipulating, gaslighting, or spreading rumors about you—to gain the upper hand. This is especially true if you move to end a marriage to a narcissist who will want to retain the sense of having won and triumphed at all costs.
8. Don’t normalize abusive behavior
This is especially important if you’ve been in a toxic relationship for a long time or you grew up around people who used words as weapons to demean, marginalize, or dismiss you or other family members and then rationalized their behavior by either saying “They’re only words,” denying that they were ever said (a form of gaslighting), or asserting that the real problem was your sensitivity. Refusing to answer you or ignoring you is also abusive behavior, if of the silent variety. It’s clear to most everyone that lying is toxic but so is telling partial truths or a carefully edited version of events and, once challenged, blaming you for “not asking the right questions.” (This was a ploy of a toxic person I knew who also happened to be a lawyer.) The bottom line is that emotional and verbal abuse are never okay.