Lessons in Self Care: Navigating Toxic Relationships

In mid-January, before the COVID-19 pandemic brought international travel to a screeching halt, I journeyed to Mexico City with one of my best friends, L. Between touring the city, overcoming altitude sickness and feasting on the local cuisine, my friend and I engaged in several heart to heart conversations.

Over mole and margaritas, I asked him about a statement he had made in his man of honor speech, at my recent wedding. He had spoken of our mutual respect for one another over 20+ years of friendship. But during his address, he had stated, ‘her kindness should not be mistaken for weakness;” referencing my proclivity for “cutting people off”. As L sipped his cocktail in the open air plaza, he said frankly, “I don’t think it’s good that you’re known for cutting people off.” Initially, I was hurt by his words, but I explained that I didn’t get any enjoyment from distancing myself from others and I would never just arbitrarily discard people!

Looking back at my first friendship with Dexter, the 2 year old neighborhood boy, to my intimate and personal relationships at 33 years old, I’ve learned a great deal about various types of partnerships, having made several mistakes along the way.

Here are some tips on how to navigate interpersonal relationships and how to remove oneself from toxic dynamics, in all spheres of life:

1. At work

We’ve all wrangled with an overbearing boss, who may exert his/her power in a variety of ways, fueled by displaced aggression. As an employee, the key point is to differentiate between constructive criticism intended to improve one’s work, versus outright workplace abuse, which may be detrimental to one’s mental health. If the structure of the company allows it, request a one on one meeting with your superior to address the perceived problems. At times, just having the grit to request an open dialogue about less than ideal workplace actions, may be enough to temper the aggressor’s behaviors.

2. With family members

From movies to literary works to Instagram posts, we are constantly being reminded of the importance of family. Familial relationships can be a great source of joy and understanding for some; however, they can cause great pain and anguish for others. Due to the societal expectations of maintaining strong family ties, some individuals find it difficult to distance themselves from toxic parents, siblings or relatives. It is a challenge to excavate one’s deepest feelings to discover that one’s blood relative isn’t a particularly nice person and doesn’t always have one’s best interest at heart. For many, it is not an option to completely cut ties with the toxic relative, as that may result in losing contact with other family members, as well. To this end, it might be wise to seek intensive therapy with the hopes of sorting out those issues and developing strategies for self development and preservation.

3. In romantic relationships

Eros. Romantic relationships by definition are mercurial. In most cultures, individuals are not taught how to develop and maintain genuine love relationships. For many young couples, love is a guessing game, colored by discordant images in the media, mixed with the subconscious lessons learned from the unions around them. In some instances, the displays of romantic love may be dysfunctional, with the normalization of infidelity to the acceptance of physical and emotional abuse. Many of these lessons are internalized, often on an unconscious level, which make them harder to break, and can impact one’s own romantic relationships.

After careful assessment and weighing the risks versus benefits, it may be better to separate (or end the relationship) than to stay in a union that doesn’t honor your personhood. If a relationship does not empower you and make you a better version of yourself, or at the bare minimum, bring you great physical pleasure, then what is its purpose?

4. In friendships

bell hooks’ quote, “To love well is the task in all meaningful relationships, not just romantic bonds,” attests to the value that must be placed on all relationships. For many women, their attention and care is primarily directed towards their beloved, leaving friendships and other relationships by the wayside.

The platonic friendship between two women can bring great joy and emotional fulfillment. Conversely, relationships between women can quickly devolve into a miasma of mind games, competitiveness, and mean spirited remarks; with one of the friends projecting her personal problems onto the other friend. In other cases, one friend may no longer enjoy the other’s company, but is uncertain of how to process that realization. In toxic friendships, there may be harsh words, rude tones, ‘gaslighting’, or other methods of ‘friendship terrorism’. Unfortunately, many women avoid confrontation, which may result in months or even years of jeers, sneers and whispers behind each other’s back. However, if the relationship is worth preserving, having a straightforward conversation that addresses the perceived problems, may be the solution. Only through honest discourse can healing occur. If not, maybe one should consider parting ways.

5. Within yourself

You can lie to others. But please don’t lie to yourself.

The most important relationship is the one that we have with ourselves. As stated previously on this blog, life is a winding path. Some are able to stay on course, while others are barely hanging on. Wherever we are on our life’s path, it’s important to frequently scrutinize our feelings, and our subsequent actions:

“Who am I and what do I really want to accomplish in life?

“Does this man/woman respect me as a person?”

“Is this workplace environment conducive to my creativity and humanity?

“Do I feel better now that I’ve parted ways with that group of friends?

By engaging in internal excavation, we open up ourselves to more honest and healthy relationships with others. This also allows us to realize when it’s time to walk away from toxic and seemingly unhealthy partnerships.

Read more at https://www.amtaarwellness.com/

A psychiatrist writing about mental health issues, through a black female lens. www.amtaarwellness.com