We’ve all had that one person (be it friend/ boyfriend/ girlfriend/ spouse/ sibling/ parent/ fill-in-the-blank) that does questionable things. And if we’re wise enough, intuitive enough…if we’re listening close enough to our gut…we know. Something isn’t right.
But then what?
For a long time, I felt knowing was enough. After struggling with my share of toxic people, I had finally learned to identify things like narcissism, gas-lighting, passive-aggressiveness, manipulation, etc. But there were all these other things going on inside my head…well, lies.
Lie #1: If you know about the toxic behavior, you can handle it with healthy boundaries.
Recently, I realized how much unhappiness a certain individual has brought into my life. As I grew more aware of these problems, I began distancing myself and guarding my heart. I told myself that by establishing new boundaries, I could maintain the relationship and my emotional health. And I genuinely believed this.
But I was wrong.
Things would be good for a while but then she would be back to old habits: disrespecting boundaries, using me to feed her ego, disregarding events in my life. I was never certain if she was hurting me to excerpt control or because she was jealous.
But it did hurt, every single time.
Lie #2: If you love someone, you’ll accept her as she is.
Unfortunately, I had a certain narrative that stopped me from walking away. On top of thinking I could somehow control the situation, I also told myself some pretty distorted truths.
“I should just love her as she is…”
“True friendship is about unconditional acceptance of someone…”
“It’s not my job to change her…”
Although it’s true we can’t change other people, and it’s very Buddhist and Zen-like to accept someone’s as-is state, I was lying to myself by thinking that I was doing any good by sticking around. I was only allowing myself to remain in a toxic relationship.
Lie #3: If he has good in him, you’re probably overreacting.
I kept questioning myself. This individual wasn’t all dark clouds and rain after all. She was wise, charming, thoughtful, and encouraging. Perhaps I was being unfair? Wash, rinse, repeat.
This is unfortunately quite common. We see the good or loving things about a person and we start questioning ourselves. We feel like maybe we’re being over-sensitive or crazy. We feel like the situation should be more clear…more black and white. But it never is.
This person has been a gift in my life, hands down. And yet all the good things she’s done for me ultimately came at a price. She expected my unwavering loyalty and for her ego to be stroked, constantly. Never mind if she was walking all over me.
Back to lie #1: If you know about the toxic behavior, you can stop yourself from getting hurt.
Telling myself I would be okay was probably the most damaging lie of all. Because I wasn’t okay. I was hurting and struggling with deep feelings of worthlessness.
For each time this person betrayed or mistreated me, I experienced bitter disappointment. This would always leave me with the powerful impression that I wasn’t deserving of love.
This relationship also began changing me for the worst. This individual was unwilling to celebrate my success (unless it threw light on her somehow) and had a constant need for affirmation. I was required to appreciate her vast knowledge while she disregarded mine. On top of this, she disrespected my boundaries, going out of her way to undermine me.
Over time, I grew mistrusting, insecure, and closed off. Since her motives were often duplicitous, I became paranoid and obsessive.
The more I caught on to her games, the more angry and hurt I felt. The more hurt I felt, the more time I spent managing these feelings. I knew they weren’t safe to share since anything could be used against me. This was the nature of our relationship, after all.
I didn’t like who I was becoming with her, not one bit.
The moment of truth:
I wasn’t strong enough. (Though perhaps the definition of strength ought to be redefined.) My boundaries were failing. And I was getting hurt. Despite these constant complications, I loved this person, and would always slip back into loving her–simply and openly.
Isn’t this the best way to love? Still, I kept asking myself to change this because openly loving her felt dangerous. This inner tug-of-war to become something else was breaking the best parts of me.
Furthermore, she had no problem capitalizing on my love, using me to rebuild her ego on a bad day. Though I couldn’t see it at the time, all of this was having a deep and profound impact on me. The idea that knowing about her behavior would somehow protect me from getting hurt was ludicrous.
If you see the blade of a guillotine hanging over your neck you’re not going to cheat death by saying; “Aha! But I see you there, blade!”
Finally, I see the light:
Not too long ago, there was a conversation between my husband and a friend. The friend shared an experience he had with this individual in which she was crossing boundaries. As my husband later relayed this to me, the information hit me like a slap to the face. But really, it shouldn’t have.
I realized, at that time, how much I still wanted to believe the best of her. I finally began asking better, more valuable questions.
When was I going to stop giving her the benefit of the doubt?
When would I finally trust my gut and honor what it had been telling me?
And why had I stayed all this time…really?
This is why:
Society tells us to stay together and heal our relationships. If you’re empathic, this proclivity is all the greater. If you were raised in a religious household where turning the other cheek is preached, this proclivity is all the greater. If you have OCD or anxiety–and you’ve spent a lot of time questioning yourself–this proclivity is all the greater.
Check, check, and check. As one can imagine, I’ve been attracting toxic people for quite some time now. Somehow, they can see me coming from a mile away.
But I’m learning. I’m learning I deserve to be treated with kindness. (I’m also incredibly grateful to my husband, whose many insights have helped me identify this person’s dysfunction.)
As someone in her early forties that has been down this road one too many times, I’d like to end with a very important piece of advice. Trust yourself, trust yourself, TRUST YOURSELF.
I would even go so far as to say that if you’re reading this article right now, some part of you knew you needed to hear it. Seriously, listen to that girl/ guy.
Image Credit: Looking for artist; please message