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5 Steps to Dealing with Toxic Relationships

Updated: Nov 23


So far in this series on toxic relationships, I created 10 questions designed to help you identify if you are in a toxic relationship. I also created a post to help you understand the complex pain of emotional abuse and provide helpful communication tools. Below is a summary describing the warning signs of toxic relationships.


Warning Signs and Characteristics of Toxic Relationships:

  • They seek to control every area of your life. You do not feel heard, seen, or known.

  • You feel manipulated, and your gut is telling you something is not quite right.

  • They blame you for things that are not your fault.

  • You feel responsible for carrying the emotional weight of the relationship.

  • They try to monopolize your time and consume a lot of your energy.

  • They are more of a taker than a giver and do not give back to you in the same way.

  • You are unable to have a rational conversation with this person because simple things become very complicated.

  • They are never satisfied, no matter how much you try to love, help, and please them.

  • You feel you have been gradually deceived over a period of time, and you realize this person is not who you thought they were.

  • They twist the truth and avoid dealing with facts and become accusatory, critical, or irrationally emotional when you point it out.

The following are 5 steps that provide you with an effective strategy for dealing with toxic relationships:


1. Honor your reality. Be honest with yourself and face the truth.

People in toxic relationships seek to establish a dynamic where you question your reality and sanity through their process of manipulation, deceit, and control. Therefore, you become vulnerable to believing this person’s lies and consequently cannot see the reality of their harmful behavior.


It is important to listen and pay attention to how you feel when this person speaks to you. The first step in honoring your reality is to be honest with yourself.


Give yourself a reality check. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • What am I really experiencing?

  • Am I being lied to?

  • Is something seriously wrong here?

  • What are my gut and intuition telling me?

  • Is something not OK?

  • Am I experiencing gaslighting?

  • Do I say yes when I really mean no?

Facing the truth that you are involved in a toxic relationship allows you to accept reality and let go of the lies you are told by this person as well as the lies you tell yourself. Perhaps you tell yourself a lie such as “I should just try harder, have more faith” rather than facing a marriage that is falling apart.


You must devote yourself to facing the deepest truths you have avoided in painful relationships. Reach out to a safe person you trust and tell your story because we need other people to see things we cannot see within ourselves.


2. Stop doing their work. Switch the focus from them to you.

The first step in switching the focus from them to you is to stop trying to convince them of their hurtful behavior (trying to get them to get it) especially if they do not care. Is it a mutual relationship? Is this person investing their time and energy to genuinely change?


Or, you feel responsible for this person, and you carry their burdens. These responsibilities may be financial, spiritual, social, mental, physical, or relational. Beware of the person’s attempt to use you for your kindness and take advantage of your generosity. The more you give of yourself, the more the toxic relationship will take from you.


Being in a relationship does mean you are responsible for another person. Feeling responsible for another person is a major signal that you are neglecting yourself.

It is important to note that switching the focus to yourself is not selfish because the relationship is one-sided where you are the one doing all the work. I often tell my clients, if you feel guilty or selfish, that is how you know you are on the right path to finding yourself again.


Difficult people tend to adopt a learned helplessness attitude and lifestyle. Learned helplessness occurs when a person convinces themselves that they do not have the ability to change. Instead, they manipulate other people to do their work. They develop a victim mentality. In a toxic relationship, they want you to do the work for them.


To overcome your tendency to put a toxic relationship’s demands and needs above your own, regularly check in with yourself by asking these questions:


How do I feel? What do I think? What do I need? What do I want?


Give yourself the same care, time, and attention you have continually given to the person. There has been too much focus on taking care of the other person while you are suffering.


3. Set boundaries and use your voice effectively.

Good boundaries are objective, simple, and clear. Setting a boundary is an action or behavior change on your part.


Having a voice is just as it sounds: Use your words. For example, start by saying no.


Hold your boundaries. Recognize that people who do not respect your boundaries do not want to understand them and therefore cannot honor them.


Be strong. Stand your ground, no matter what reaction you receive or how selfish and guilty you might feel.

Having a voice can sound like the following:

  • “I am not asking for feedback right now.”

  • “I need time to think on that. I’ll respond when and if I am ready.”

  • “I’d rather not explain myself or give reasons for my decision.”

  • "Rather than stopping by unannounced, please ask me first if it's a good time to come over."

In my work with clients, I’ve found the following boundaries helpful when dealing with toxic relationships:

  • You are allowed to have a voice.

  • You are not the rescuer in every crisis.

  • You do not need to defend yourself.

  • You do not need to explain every situation.

  • You are allowed to have space.

Due to their woundedness, difficult people filter interactions with you through a lens of rejection. They are extremely defensive and operate from a position of shame, usually from earlier wounds that have nothing to do with you, so they can go on the attack and do not take responsibility for themselves.

The person might say they want to heal, need your help, and want to change, but time will tell if the person’s actions correspond to their words. The crucial element is for you to do your part by setting boundaries and using your voice effectively in the relationship. If you do those behaviors, you are going to find out whether the person will change or not.


4. Validate your emotions and express your needs.

Validating your emotions means being honest with yourself about what you are feeling and learning how to honor your feelings. Here are examples of emotions my clients feel when involved in toxic relationships:

  • Grief, lost parts of yourself and your dreams

  • Pervasive guilt that you cannot put your finger on

  • Shame, always feeling as if you are doing something wrong

  • Rejected, unloved, and no longer cherished, pursued, or cared for

  • Sadness, a chronic sensation of emptiness

  • Fear, walking around with a cloud of dread hanging over you all the time

  • You feel anger and are punished when you show it

It is important to share your feelings and thoughts with this person. Do you feel known, loved, and cared for by them? If the answer is consistency no, this could be an indication it's time to reevaluate the relationship.


In toxic relationships, the other person consistently invalidates your emotions and dismisses your needs. For example, when you share how you're feeling, they might respond: "That hurts me that you would say that." "You are criticizing me." "You don't care about me or you wouldn't feel that way." "You are being selfish." "You are being insensitive." "You are disrespecting me." Essentially they twist your emotions and make it about them, and they usually get defensive rather than trying to understand.


You have the right to feel what you are feeling. We each have an emotional compass to help guide us to know our personal values and an inner sense of what is right or wrong for us. The same is true for expressing our needs.


Expressing your needs can sound like:

  • When I wake up, I need 20 minutes of quiet time every morning to journal, pray, and meditate.

  • I need to go for a walk every day after work to move my body and clear my head.

  • I have an important work project due. I need you to take care of the household chores this week so I can meet my deadline.

  • This weekend, I'm planning on having a day date just for me. I need you to not make plans with friends or family.

  • When I share an issue I'm struggling with, I need you to listen to me vent instead of trying to fix it.

  • I need some alone time before bed to zone out and relax, would you mind not interrupting me?

  • I need words of affirmation; it would mean so much if would you compliment me more often.

Unmet needs can lead to resentment, burnout, and anxiety. Healing comes when we identify our needs and how to meet our needs. Other people can not meet our needs until we learn to communicate them. This takes practice and overcoming fear, doubt, and guilt because most of us are used to putting others' needs above our own.

Consistently stating your needs leads to mutually loving and giving relationships that are not one-sided.

Most of us go through life disconnected from our true selves and unaware of who we are, what we feel, and what we need. This is largely due to our childhood, when we were taught, implicitly or explicitly, by our parents and caregivers to ignore or deny our needs and feelings in order to gain acceptance or avoid punishment. This pattern can repeat itself in our closest relationships.


This is why it is so important to be connected to yourself. When you do not know what your feelings and needs are, you do not know how to communicate with them effectively or how to express your needs in healthy ways. We must learn to pay attention to the valuable information they provide in order to help protect us from being taken advantage of in relationships.


5. Seek professional help. Create a strategy with knowledgeable experts.

Many of my clients who are in toxic relationships ask me if that person will ever change, get better, or heal. My response is: “People can change, but you cannot change them.” I am not disregarding the fact that people can change if they are willing to do the necessary work, but people must actually want help and want to change.


The person might say they really do want to change, but time will tell if their actions correspond to their words. The crucial element is for you to do your part by honoring your reality, setting boundaries, using your voice effectively, stating your needs, and validating your emotions.


If you find yourself in a difficult, painful, or exhausting relationship with another person and feel stuck, I encourage you to seek help from a counselor to assist you in the process of advocating for yourself and expressing your emotions in a safe and compassionate environment. You will learn specific tools to help you know how to deal with the toxic relationship.


Even the most intelligent, compassionate, and spiritual people have difficulty knowing the difference between a toxic relationship and a healthy relationship. It can be tricky.

Lastly, release yourself from carrying the emotional weight of the relationship alone at the expense of losing yourself and your unique purpose because the toxic relationship has become your purpose. Often times we lose ourselves when we consistently try to fix, please, enable, or rescue someone else.


If you are wrestling with the difficult question, “Should I stay or leave the relationship?” this 2-part series will help you determine the answer.


If you need help navigating through a difficult, painful relationship or you are experiencing toxic therapy, then I invite you to apply to work with Andrea one-on-one now.


**The content for this blog post has been taken from chapter 2 (Stuck in Cuckoo Land) of Andrea’s book, The Cuckoo Syndrome: The Secret to Breaking Free from Unhealthy Relationships, Toxic Thinking, and Self-Sabotaging Behavior


The photo accompanying this article was sourced from istock and is in the public domain.





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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrea Anderson Polk is a licensed professional counselor, nationally certified, registered clinical supervisor, and certified professional coach. She has a private practice in Northern Virginia with well over a decade of clinical experience helping hundreds of clients on their healing journey.


She is driven by a deep commitment to uncovering hidden psychological, relational, and spiritual truths that are keeping people stuck so they can be free.

Her book, The Cuckoo Syndrome, is a provocative approach to understanding the human heart and relationships by weaving together her story and those of her clients with science, scripture, and psychology.

Andrea is here to help ambitious women of faith experience healing and breakthrough so they can live each day with peace and purpose. She believes healing happens through relationships. The wounds that occurred in a relationship must be healed in a relationship. Andrea invites you into a life-altering relationship.
Find out more about her services and work with Andrea one-one- by contacting her here.

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Andrea has spent her career studying the human experience and has developed a fascinating analogy that compares cuckoo birds, nature’s master manipulator and imposter, to situations and relationships that leave us feeling drained, confused, lost, and empty. Her new book, The Cuckoo Syndrome, helps us fend off the cuckoos, the unhealthy relationships, toxic thinking, and self-sabotaging behaviors in our life that never truly satisfy the deep longings of our souls and the desires of our hearts. 

Andrea’s clinically proven, innovative method helps us recover the lost pieces of ourselves, discover meaning in suffering, and transform our pain into purpose by teaching us to uncover the truth of who we are and who God is so we can be healed and live free. 

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Are you or someone you know suffering from The Cuckoo Syndrome? Take the free quiz to help you identify whether you are hosting The Relationship Cuckoo, The Self-Inflicted Cuckoo, or The Combination Cuckoo.