As my health is improving, I am very aware of what I am doing that brings me more progress and what I am doing that sets me back. Engaging with “toxic people” sets me back!
Nothing is worse for an autoimmune disease, Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, than stress. The number one stressor in many of our lives is something we may feel that we have absolutely no control over… relationships. But I am very sure that I would not be experiencing the improvements in my physical health that I am, if I had not attended to my emotional health; and part of that included weeding out toxic relationships. Unfortunately, this can be uncomfortable and a little scary. The payoff, however, due to the reduction of stress in my life, is huge. True there is a bit of stress in sticking up for myself in the short run, but in it’s wake there is a building of confidence! On the flip side, leaving toxic relationships unaddressed keeps us in a “flare-up“ and risks any progress we’ve made.
So what were some of the signs that these “toxic“ people exhibited?
Negativity: Some people focus, almost solely, on the negative side of every situation. Now obviously there is usually a positive and a negative to every situation and every person has both positive and negative qualities. A negative person sees a persons flaws first and foremost. That’s what they see and that’s what they talk about. They may recognize the good traits in a person, but they are acutely attuned to the negative qualities. Pay attention to the words people use; they tell you a lot.
Gossip: Another trait that I find toxic is someone who is constantly trying to engage me in gossiping about others. How do I define gossip? If I am not directly affected and there is no true purpose for sharing the conversation with a third party, it’s a good bet it’s gossip. If I have a fight with one neighbor, and I seek the advice of a different, trusted neighbor to get an impartial objective, this is not gossip. It is me trying to find a solution to a problem (or at the very least venting to someone who will understand and perhaps comfort me). If I witness one neighbor coming quietly out of their neighbor’s house at 2am and then I tell my neighbor what I saw, that is gossip. It didn’t directly affect me and there is no true purpose for sharing the conversation (except for the GASP value!) As I grow as a person and learn more about myself I realize that this is a very negative pattern. If someone’s only hobby is gossiping, I have to wonder what they are saying about me when my back is turned!
Lying: A very toxic trait is when someone has difficulty with the truth. This trait can be hard to confirm. Sometimes you catch someone in a boldfaced lie, other times it is just your gut telling you that the stories the person tells, or the people they claim to know, just cannot be real. Again, it is very hard to build a friendship with someone who has such low self esteem that the “real” them is not enough. Someone who feels compelled to embellish their life is in need of professional therapy. If I wasn’t guarding my health, I might be able to entertain such a person in a group setting once in a while… but I cannot give away any of my energy to anyone who is unhealthy!
One-Up-Man-Ship: Another toxic habit similar to the person who embellishes is “one-up-man-ship”. Spending time with someone who listens to my story only to have the chance to top it each and every time is not fun. Chances are that whatever topic we are on, it will bring up memories or stories for the other person. It is when I see the pattern of it happening each and every time that it gets old real quick.
One-Sided Conversation: Have you ever had a conversation with someone and every time you pause to take a breath they jump into your mouth and change the conversation so it is back to what they want to discuss? Sometimes I could feel the tension in the air as the other person just sat there waiting for their turn to talk! It left me feeling like I was not being listened to! And it was easy enough to confirm when whatever information it was that I revealed about myself was never retained. They weren’t really paying attention to what I was saying! Just waiting for their turn to talk again! This was so insidious that someone else had to point it out to me! Once I recognized that it was happening, I would get so frustrated letting the other person finish their thought, only to have to say, “ok, but let me finish what I was saying…” because I hadn’t yet gotten to the “punch line” of my story!
Unable to Read Social Cues: Several toxic people I no longer associate with have this trait in common: They could not pick up on normal social cues. There are certain phrases that we, as sick people, have come to rely on, such as “Well, I really enjoyed seeing you, but I have to get up for work in the morning” or “It’s hard for me to visit in the morning with my illness”. These kinds of statements are meant to set limits and boundaries on when and for how long visits can take place. For some people these statements don’t get through to them which can cause great stress for the person who is chronically ill. While the outside observer might say “well, just be blunt! Tell them like it is! Say, Hey, I’m so glad you stopped by, but you have to go now because I have to get to bed.” The reality is much more complicated. A chronically ill person can often begin to stress about the ending of a visit as soon as it starts! And in an attempt to be courteous might start with one of the less “blunt” statements first, moving on to another indirect statement and finally arriving at the “blunt” statement way past what would have been optimal for them.
Misperception: Perhaps the most toxic trait I have encountered thus far is someone perceiving my interactions with them so completely different than how I see them that there is no way we could be talking about the same interaction. One family member and I had what I thought to be a lovely afternoon of shopping together a while back. Upon getting into a heated debate about a different issue about a 1 ½ years ago, she blurts out that she can’t believe how “judgmental” I was that day. So here I was, excited to spend time with this person, thinking we were having a great time, and she saw the day 180 degrees differently than I did. How can I spend time with this person in the future when I will be wondering if she saw the experience completely opposite from how I perceived it?
Deciding to end any toxic relationship is not easy for me. I actually had to end four different relationships over the last two years. Two of them were friends, not good friends, but friends none-the-less. The other two were family members. Each person that I am “out” of relationship with did not have just one of the traits that I discussed above, they had many. I’m not suggesting anyone dump a friend or family member for exhibiting one trait or even two or more if it is a once in a while behavior. Coming to this decision was a process for me, and a long one at that. Perhaps longer for me than it might be for some of you!
So how did I end these toxic relationships? First, I did so while in professional therapy. Trust me, it was helpful to work things through with a counselor first just so I could be absolutely sure that this is what I wanted to do. It gave me a chance to get my thoughts together and get clear about what I really wanted. Also, keep in mind that ending some toxic relationships will require a grieving process. One of these relationships it was not my intention to end the relationship, it was only my intention to change the dance that we had done for the last thirty years. I set down some boundaries and she was not willing to move forward. Yeah, I grieved badly over her. But it got easier once I realized that what I was grieving was the fantasy of the relationship I wanted versus the reality of the relationship we really had. It really is a shame, however, I still miss what might have been. Perhaps she will get the proper help one day and reach out to me, but I cannot and will not revert to the old patterns that were so sabotaging of my health.
With the other family member, she actually gave me the out. She was toxic for me from the first meeting, but I attempted to remain courteous and respectful for years… Recently she had been treating me terribly over the course of about a month or so. When I called her out on her behavior and asked for an apology, she flatly refused. She is not willing to treat me with respect and I am not willing to accept anything less. We are at an impasse. I know I did all I could over the years. Not speaking and avoiding her is much less stressful than how she had been treating me. I feel at peace with the way things worked out.
With the two friends, I realized I had two choices, accept them as they are, flaws and all, or end the relationships. For me, the right decision was to end the unhealthy relationships. But how? Since I was not looking to have a confrontation, I chose to just quietly and slowly back off. I decided to just disengage. If they called, I didn’t answer. If they texted, I didn’t respond. At some point I eventually “unfriended” them on Face Book because I did not want them knowing where I was planning to go or what I was up to.
A few last thoughts I can share that I have discovered can clarify most situations thereby making them less stressful: first is to try not to have any expectations of people. It is the unmet expectations of how people will act that leave us wide open to disappointments. Whatever it is that you do for someone else, don’t do it because you mistakenly think that they would do the same for you. Do it because you want to, and because you are in a position to do so. Two, don’t do more than you can comfortably do for someone else. Do not overextend yourself (through money or your time and energy). While pitching in with help of any kind may seem like a normal expectation where family is concerned, the reality can be that giving of yourself when you really don‘t have it to give, can cause bad feelings. The person whom you have helped often has no idea what you sacrificed by helping them and yet we sometimes “assume” they should know. Having no expectations of a loved one frees you up to be really blown away if they do something nice for you. And lastly (3 if you are countin!) You must learn to ask questions. I've been finding lately in my own life, but also in watching others, that asking one or two questions to clarify what you think is the situation can often open the dialogue to lead to both to a better and more accurate understanding. After all, aren't most fights caused by misunderstandings? Even if you don't think you need to ask a question because you are sure you've been "dissed", if you ask a question in an open and non-judgmental way, you may be very surprised that there was, indeed a misunderstanding. But I digress...
Being aware of toxic behaviors can help you identify people who might jeopardize your health. If you know what to look for, you will know who to avoid! Perhaps you may chose not to end relationships altogether, but armed with this information, you may decide to limit the amount of exposure you have to unhealthy people, either way, a "win" for your health!