Transforming Toxic Relationships


Recognizing a toxic relationship can sometimes prove to be a bit elusive. That is in large measure because of what we bring to the table in terms of our own inner narrative and expectations. We generally carry with us a certain sensibility about how we should be treated and what we will accept. The challenge we face is that our inner narrative and expectations often cloud our sensibility around what we should actually find acceptable.

Internalizing Negative Messages

Whenever we interact socially, we are exchanging implicit instructions with one another. For instance, if we share what we feel are positive changes in our lives and the person we’re sharing with consistently responds by focusing on the potential negative outcomes, eventually we get the message that we make poor decisions. If we internalize that message, it may very well become the genesis of self-doubt. By the same token, if we experience a consistent emphasis on our physical attributes, we may well be inclined to discount our intellectual acumen. Such a perspective could easily lead to a self-perception of the stereotypical ‘dumb blonde’ (or brunette, or ginger, etc.…), despite clear evidence of professional successes and a bookshelf full of literary classics.

Whatever the context, there comes a point when we may begin to question these negative messages—and the relationships from which they issue. When and if that happens, we have a couple of options—stick and deal, remove ourselves completely, or recognize it’s not about us and develop a strategy for managing our interactions. Either way, the simple realization that what has been previously acceptable is no longer tolerable tips us into a new level of social and emotional intelligence.

The Three Intelligences

Emotional intelligence is one third of a triumvirate that also includes social and spiritualintelligence. Social intelligence focuses on the ability to recognize and respond to the social cues that define a social context ranging anywhere from body language to sub-textual messages. Spiritual intelligence is the ‘higher mind’ iteration of emotional intelligence defined primarily by learning to ‘hold space’ in our immediate relationships, as well as learning to exercise a broader, global compassion. When we begin to question the quality of our relationships and what they provide us, we have the opportunity to move away from the inner narrative and expectations that have kept us limited, moving toward something more of this ‘higher mind’ perspective.

Transforming Toxicity

How we manage and transform these toxic relationships—stick and deal, remove ourselves completely, or recognize it’s not about us and develop a strategy for managing our interactions—is qualified by our investment. There are some relationships—maybe those with a parent or sibling—that can’t be easily abandoned. There are also those that, by virtue of their negative influence—should, in our better interest, be excised.

If we choose to ‘stick and deal’ it does not mean we have to endure. Self-martyrdom is probably just as pernicious as maintaining ourselves in a toxic relationship in the first place. Exercising a more developed social and emotional intelligence in this scenario means recognizing that, whatever we’re experiencing, belongs to the other person in the relationship. If we are bumping up again the negativity or ‘one-downing’ we alluded to earlier, we can take a moment to recognize it for what it is—the other person’s dance, or the way they roll, so to speak—and take steps not to buy into it. This shift in perspective is a platform for our own growth. People do what they’re going to do and learning to let out enough leash, without getting pulled down the road they’re travelling, goes a long way to easing our own state of mind.

Removing ourselves completely from a relationship means setting a firm boundary. This can be difficult, but sometimes it’s advisable, if not necessary. Most often, this choice becomes evident when we are dealing with someone who is doing us social, psychological or physical harm. It might be an addict who is draining our finances, a chaos creator who is morbidly disruptive to our lives and other relationships, or someone who instigates or activates our trauma. Whatever the case, removing someone who is damaging to us from our lives provides us both relieve and an opportunity to heal the wounds they may have wrought or revealed.

The middle ground in transforming relationships lies in us changing our relationship to the relationship. We can’t change another person, but we can change the tenor of our interactions with the other person; that’s our relationship to the relationship. For instance, if we have been managing the disarray that often attends the addict in our lives we are likely enabling, co-depending, counter-depending and even being an agent in service of their struggle. When we come to a place where that burden is something we no longer want in our lives, we don’t have to cut the person off to remove ourselves from the dynamic. Rather, we can change our relationship to that dynamic by changing—or even stopping—the manner in which we engage with him or her. Basically we can recognize, acknowledge and allow, but, going forward, choose not to participate in a way that is harmful or damaging to us.

We create and maintain our reality and experience. We do that by engaging and exercising social, emotional and spiritual intelligence. Leveling up around the three intelligences that inform our world, leading us to that broader, global compassion, starts with self-compassion. The lion’s share of that self-compassion is choosing to have people in our lives that treat us not how we expect to be treated, but how we deserve to be treated.

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