COMMENTARY: Dealing With Toxic Relationships 750.2

Are there people in your life who regularly cause you to feel bad about yourself?

Most of us care what others think of us, so knowing that someone doesn’t like us, or doesn’t approve of the judgments we’ve made, or doesn’t like how we look can be hurtful. And when we’re judged by someone whose approval we crave, such as a parent, spouse, teacher, or boss, the criticism can cause intense distress and damage self-esteem.

Harsh or relentless disparagement from people who love us, often clothed as caring advice or helpful prodding, can be particularly toxic.

It’s helpful to realize that it’s one thing to feel bad when someone doesn’t approve of us; it’s quite another to allow their disapproval to shape our self-image.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” She was absolutely right. Negative comments about our lives are opinions, not facts.

How we feel, however, is a fact, and an important one at that. Thus, it’s rational and healthy to nurture relationships that bring out the best in us, and to cut off or distance ourselves from those that bring us down.

There are, however, two strategies worth trying before you limit or eliminate contact with critical people whom you care about, or who are important to people you care about.

Try to fix the relationship by respectfully confronting the negative influences in your life honestly and directly. Don’t attack them for hurting you, just explain how you feel when they criticize you and see if they care about you enough to modify their conduct.

If that doesn’t work, try to build immunity to their negativity. Think of the hurtful comments of your incorrigible critic as irrational ravings – and ignore them.

If neither of these strategies work, more drastic action may be justified.

It may be uncomfortable, but it’s relatively easy to exclude annoying friends and co-workers from your life. Family and committed relationships are another matter entirely. You are entitled to happiness and healthy relationships and it’s unfair for you to be imprisoned by the wishes and wants of others. Nevertheless, there are both moral and practical reasons that require you to make serious and sustained efforts to fix these relationships before you disown, disavow, or divorce someone who is part of a network of relationships that will be affected by your actions.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 6

  1. Relish the family and relatives you have who are positive and healthy to be around. You can spend your life trying to fix the unhealthy relationships; however it really takes two to tango and make a relationship work. No matter how much you want a relationship to work, you can only control your actions and your reactions, not the actions or feelings of others. Life is too short to have a rollercoaster relationship with people who insist on persistent drama, sneakiness, passive-aggressive behavior, pent up anger and rage, public humiliation and put-downs. You deserve to be happy and live your life on an even keel.

    When parents and siblings are negative forces – bullies, pathological narcissists, liars, and manipulators it is best to cut your losses and move on, particularly when you’ve gone the extra mile for years, you’re a good person and you’re just plain tired of feeling crummy, including:

    • Verbal, physical, mental, emotional, and financial abuse
    • Your earliest memories are of your mother telling you that she is ashamed of you for a condition that was inherited from your father
    • Throughout your childhood your mother talks about the unpleasantness of your birth.
    • Your mother claims that she could never “bond” with you, since she was 6-months pregnant with you when her father died from poor lifestyle choices.
    • Being raised by immature adults: When you turn 13 they say they are “done parenting” and “it’s all about us now.”
    • At 22 your mother tells you that she never loved you, and that you were “a mistake.” Your father cannot seem to say that he is proud of you until you’ve lived half your life and he is diagnosed with a serious medical issue.
    • Parents that constantly berate you, your spouse, your children, your in-laws and friends so that you don’t feel safe in their company. You choose not to ever visit with them alone anymore.
    • They resent your independent thoughts and actions and their inability to control you
    • When visiting your first apartment, your mother rearranges your bathroom 9 times during her visit, because it isn’t the way she prefer it. You rearrange it back to the way you prefer and ask her to stop. She replies that you just don’t know how it should be.
    • Your parents tell you have no sense of color or style. Your design professor gives you the only “A” grade for her course, saying you have an excellent use of color, style and design.
    • not having gone to college they refer to you as a “college puke”
    • completely incapable of respecting boundaries
    • they don’t attend your wedding because they say they are embarrassed to be seen with you, when it is their actions that are embarrassing
    • unbeknownst to you, your father takes many pictures of your mother and you together (running, walking, shopping at the mall) from behind so your parents can compare body size – to boost your mother’s distorted self-image and knowingly damaging their daughter’s
    • consistently exclude you from family gatherings and lie about it
    • showing blatant favoritism
    • Your father has a serious medical condition in (your specialty area), which you have been encouraging him to get treated for years. He calls you on the day before he leaves for treatment and says that he is bringing your sister for support. When you ask for an explanation, he claims he didn’t think you want to be involved. (He never asked). When your sister doesn’t want to go, he reluctantly invites you with a thick helping of guilt. When you cannot get time scheduled away from work, he stops talking to you altogether.
    • constantly calling you by your sibling’s name, and can’t seem to remember yours
    • when your sister calls she is incapable of talking about anything but her – for hours. You can put the phone down and walk into the other room and they don’t even notice!
    • Negativity: when you say that you are truly happily married and have great sisters-in-law, they tell you that you’re “living under the naive rock.”
    • despite your professional success they tell you how you are disappointing them because you didn’t become a doctor so you can be rich and take care of them when they are older
    • attempting to sabotage your relationship with other relatives by having public hissy fits at your in-laws’ place of business
    • When moving in with your fiancée, your father says “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” You remind your father that you are not a cow.
    • A sibling (with a sordid past) chooses to post humiliating comments about you on Facebook, and when asked to remove them they respond that you don’t have a sense of humor, then they defriend your husband
    • financially exploiting you
    o Emptying your childhood savings account (they happen to be a cosigner on) to buy a car your father likes to drive. When you tell them that money was reserved to pay for graduate school, they tell you that you are ungrateful
    o declaring you on their income taxes when you no longer live with them making you ineligible for college financial aid
    o charging you rent only to offer your money to your sister to entice her to leave her husband

    Ideally, it would be wonderful to have healthy relationships with your parents and siblings. Sometimes you don’t and they are just relatives or people with compatible DNA. Sometimes you are raised by neighbors and parents of friends that serve as that stabilizing force in your life. To be mentored by wonderful people, that demonstrate healthy family dynamics, it is possible to become a healthy adult and not carry on the same dysfunction into the next generation. Detaching from unhealthy relationships is healthy and liberating – and an excellent way to reclaim your life from turmoil. I have always found that there are wonderful people unrelated to you that serve proudly as family. It is not naive to be happy and have healthy relationships with people you choose to keep in your life. It is possible to build a healthy family that also chooses you willingly and welcomes you with open arms.

  2. Good morning Lisa,

    Thank you for your honesty… It touches a deep place in my heart giving me hope that my dreams will come true….

    I have severed a relationship from someone I considered a praying person and a mother figure. She was a preying person – a person who used good to foster her own superstitious ends. A woman who lived on controlling all around her.
    I am being asked why I did not see and I humbly realise in looking for the good and neglected the bad.
    Thank you for your honesty and embracing a future without the hurt.
    I too wish to move on from the massacre of my name and character. I never thought it possible! She,nor her family / friends do no have my consent to make me feel inferior. I thank you for showing I can overcome.

  3. Many of us who have moved on from toxic parental and familial relationships, still carry a little guilt around Thanksgiving time, because those idyllic images of family happily together, just magnify the brokenness of the family situation we inherited–through no fault of our own. We became those internally motivated folks who chose to change our situation, and we often put a totally-unrealistic burden of guilt on ourselves for not being able to transform our families as well.

    We’ve enriched the lives of those unrelated people who were there for us, with our love and gratitude. And we can continue to express our gratitude by “paying it forward” and being ever sensitive to the young adults in our midst, who are carrying similar wounds and are begging for someone to “be family” to them, and offer them the love and acceptance that made a world of difference in our lives.

  4. I have been subjected and put down by controlling people by my cowardice masked as humility. It doesnt work. Life socks it to you with a two by four until you’re ready to stand tall and defend your SELF!

  5. I have really missed Michael Josephson’s Character Counts on the radio! I always listened carefully and we so badly need lessons in ethics

  6. Thank you for your words of wisdom again, Mr. Josephson! I will remember to keep this handy when I forget that I have done all I could to repair the relationships with my siblings and ex. Having chosen to eliminate them from my life (although I have not burned any bridges: I have stated to them that when they are willing to have a healthy, reciprocally loving, respectful, accepting relationship with me, they know where to find me), I now have a life that is filled with healthy and loving relationships!

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