Set Yourself Free From Toxic Relationships

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Most of us can admit to remaining in a toxic relationship well beyond its expiration date. Few of us get out unscathed in life in that department. We often remain in these relationships for many reasons, which are rarely any good. Until we don’t. We eventually find that yes, we can see the trees beyond the forest and yes, we are able to see the relationship for what it is and more importantly for what it isn’t. 

In writing this blog, I was reminded of two previous toxic relationships that overlapped in time, which feel like a lifetime ago for me  - a friendship and a marriage. The friendship started when we bonded over intense doctoral demands and for each of us, an impending divorce. However, the friendship turned toxic when I was able to see the truth in her personality and how she treated others – condescending and often with a self righteous attitude. The opposite of my value system. As I slowly came out of my “divorce fog” as I refer to it, I quickly ended our friendship and moved on from my divorce. I learned a valuable lesson in both of these experiences. Introspection and distance provides invaluable clarity.

5 Signs You’re in a Toxic Relationship

As I was reading up on this popular topic, I came across a blog, 5 Signs You’re in a Toxic Relationship, by Yvette Bowlin, who eloquently summed up what it means to be in a toxic relationship. “Toxic” doesn’t only entail obvious damage like physical abuse, stealing, or name-calling. It also represents all the internal turmoil that results from an unhealthy relationship.”

Not only could I relate to many of these things, but felt compelled to share some of the things I have learned along the way not only from my own personal experiences but from those people whom I help.

1. It seems like you can’t do anything right.

The other person constantly puts you down as not good enough. They mock your personality, and you feel ashamed most of the time. You only feel pardoned when you take on the traits of the person doing the condemning or judging. Belittling makes you feel less than and takes away your power and inner strength.

When you are in agreement with the other person, the relationship is going well. When you disagree, relationship strife bubbles to the top. The relationship becomes uncomfortable.

Ask yourself, “Do you like this person?” “Are they good for you?” “Do they bring out the good in you?” “Do you find that you become more negative while in their presence?” “What are some of the feelings that you experience when around them?” Is there more criticism than compassion?” The answers to these questions are important and telling!

2. Everything is about them and never about you. 

You have feelings, too, but the other person won’t hear them.You’re unable to have a two-sided conversation where your opinion is heard, considered and respected. Instead of acknowledging your feelings, they battle with you until they get the last word.

The toxic person seldom, if ever, asks about you and the conversation is one sided. If you do share, its momentary and they find a way to quickly return the conversation back to them.

3.  You find yourself unable to enjoy good moments with this person.

Every day brings another challenge. It seems as though they are always raising gripes about you. Their attempt to control your behavior is an attempt to control your happiness.

Further, they focus on the negative to keep you in the same state that they are – unhappy and miserable though they would not admit that.

4. You’re uncomfortable being yourself around that person.

You don’t feel free to speak your mind. You have to put on a different face just to be accepted by that person. You realize you don’t even recognize yourself anymore, and neither do your closest friends and family.

5. You’re not allowed to grow and change.

Whenever you aim to grow and improve yourself, the other person responds with mockery and disbelief. There is no encouragement or support for your efforts. Instead, they keep you stuck in old judgments insisting that you will never be any different than you are now.

Set yourself free...

Being in a healthy relationship means you feel safe and at ease to be yourself. You can live your life with authenticity. Sharing your thoughts and feelings are acknowledged and embraced not ridiculed and left to make you feel uncomfortable. Open and honest communication is at the core. Healthy partners are trusting and supportive. They are less critical, are able to handle their own problems, are less defensive, and do not turn the conversation around and blame you when they are struggling. A balanced relationship.

Growth and change is part of life yet they feel threatened by your growth and your desire to improve yourself. Because they toxic people are negative, they seek to stifle your growth, question why you would want to change, and make you feel bad for wanting to improve. You might question your judgment. Don’t. It’s not about your being unhealthy, its about them being unhealthy.

Recognizing a toxic relationship often includes listening to your intuition, that “inner voice” that we all have, which often steers you in the right direction. You just need to take the time to listen to it. Do you find yourself questioning your decisions? Are you neglecting what’s important to you? Are you forsaking your values for another? This could be indicative of an unhealthy and toxic relationship. Are you in a toxic relationship?

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Compassion Fatigue and the Importance of Self Care

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My recent return from a mini vacation provided unwavering clarity to the importance of self care. I relaxed, soaked in the sun, and totally decompressed. I was able to reboot and recharge!  Over the years, I have acquired a greater understanding and appreciation for time off and away from work. Because of my chosen vocation (which I love!) listening to people’s problems all day, everyday means that if I am not careful, my energy can quickly dissipate. And truth be told, its not always easy. People have this misguided perception that psychologists just sit in their proverbial chair and say, “how does that make you feel” all day! Ah, no. Many days are emotionally challenging. So are some weeks.

For those like myself in the helping/healing fields -doctors, nurses, psychologists, emergency responders, trauma workers – a lack of self care can lead to compassion fatigue, a gradual lessening of compassion over time. A colloquialism often used for the compassion fatigue that people experience when they give too much and don’t replenish their own tank is “burnt out.” They can find themselves running on empty. Exhausted. Checked out. Desensitized. Not good.

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Compassion fatigue is not relegated to only those in the traditional helping fields. Its stretches to people in other care taking roles – taking care of an elderly parent, those who have a special needs child, single parents, military families while the spouse is deployed, among many others. Symptoms of compassion fatigue include “hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude.” People can also experience feelings of incompetency, self doubt, difficulty focusing, and a decrease in productivity.

If you are not vigilant, you may find yourself taking care of others and neglecting the most important person – yourself! Despite what people may think, self care is not a selfish act. Quite the contrary. In my book, its mandatory in order to live a healthier and productive life. And if you want to bring your A Game not your B game to work, self care needs to encompass a significant part of that equation.

Ways to Include Self Care Practices in Your Life

Despite the challenges that many people have with self care, a small start, a small change does go a long way. Intentional practice while creating healthy habits helps make self care practices part of your routine.

Self statement. I am important. Let’s begin with that. Say it. Repeat it. Mean it. Implement it. If you don’t care about yourself, how can you take care of others? If you do not see the importance and utility in taking time out for yourself, who will?

Total decompression. Vacation time. Sometimes a few “mini” vacations throughout the year do more good than one long vacation.

Personal Care. A hot bath (with no interruptions), a glass of wine, a good book, a telephone conversation with someone important, manicure/pedicure, time out with friends without your spouse/partner, a hobby, a walk – solo or with someone.

Boundaries. Learn to set them. If you are saying yes to too many things, you are probably not saying no to things you should be. If your “knee jerk” response is to say yes due to guilt or difficulty saying no, start by not immediately responding to requests. Give yourself some time to stop and think. Ask yourself, “is this what I reallly to do or am I doing it because its expected of me or out of guilt?” “Do I even have the time in my schedule?” Even taking 5 minutes before you respond makes a difference. Although most people are Initially uncomfortable with saying no and setting boundaries, it does become easier and more comfortable. You will be glad you did it!

Maintaining important relationships. Spend time with friends and family and make them a priority when your schedule permits. Even if you have time just for a cup of coffee. It doesn’t have to be anything lengthy. Start with a short period of time and increase or add other people to your schedule as you become more comfortable with taking the time for yourself.

Compartmentalize. Being able to compartmentalize your life is important. This means putting your life in compartments to the best of your ability. For example, leaving work at work and home issues at home. Working towards being more present and not allowing one issue/problem bleed into every other part of your life. Being able to compartmentalize is a skill and can be learned through intentional practice. I have learned over the years and through intentional practice and a certain mind set that when I leave for work, “I lock my door and I lock my brain.” Though not always perfectly because there are times that I have to tend to a patient crisis, but I work hard towards this end.

Move! Exercise and healthy food choices. No brainers, sure, but for many people these are the first things that fall by the wayside when we are under stress and focusing on taking care of others instead of ourselves. Exercise – in whatever form – the gym, walking, running, biking, hiking – is beneficial on several critical levels that extend beyond self care.

Fun. Add a healthy dose of fun in your life. Stop taking everything in life so seriously.

As my friend and colleague Rachel Strella points out, “as time becomes more and more critical, its so important to be aware of how we spend it.” Perfect! Use your time wisely. Take the time needed for self care.

Self care is high on my list of priorities. Is it on yours?

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12 Ways Healthy Couples Make It Work

Relationships take work. We all know that. But several key behaviors stand out that help couples create a healthy relationship. Although not always perfect in their attempt, healthy couples have a mindset of commitment as they continue to evolve and change as the years go by. They recognize that “good enough” is well, good enough and that there is no such thing as a perfect relationship.

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Ways that build healthy relationships..

1. Sex. Sex is a healthy part of their relationship. Though it doesn’t define their relationship, sex is an important part of it. However, that being said and while we are on the topic, let’s debunk the myth of “regular sex” right now. There is no such thing as regular sex. What is that anyway? Who knows. Who cares. Someone, somewhere came up with the theory that two times a week is regular sex. Ah, no. Regular sex is whatever the couple decides is regular sex. That could be once a week. Once a month. Twice a week. Twice a month. You get the gist. Importance is placed on what is good for the couple. What works for them. Not anyone else. Not any other couple.

2. Curiosity. Couples are and remain curious about one another. They ask questions. They remain open to trying new things. Remember the beginning? Remember when we were excited to do new things together and were curious and interested about the other person, their life, interests? That hasn’t changed. We are hard wired for novelty and seek that out. Are you doing things that create the novelty in the relationship?

3. We are open! For discussion that is. Couples discuss, share, argue, and disagree. They talk about things that are important to them. Even the difficult subjects. Effective communication skills and strategies are vital to having a conversation that doesn’t become circular in nature (though some always will) but are more inclined to have a resolution even if its to agree to disagree with one another. They both can use their voice. Caution should be had for those couples who say they never fight. No such thing! All this means is that someone is deferring all too often and is not being honest or truthful about how they feel. Here my blog: Relationship Advice: How To Fight Fair. 

4. Unplug. They work hard to stay connected which sometimes includes disconnecting from things so they can reconnect again. They recognize that it isn’t always necessary to be connected to the outside world. One to one time is important. There are many benefits to unplugging. Besides, when did the tv, smart phone, or computer become more important than your relationship? This just sounds plain silly to me.

5. Space. They create time together and time apart. Both are vital. And necessary. Too much time together can make a person feel that they are losing their identity, their individuality. Continue to be the person your partner or spouse fell in love with. They recognize their differences and embrace their similarities, not perfectly by they do. Couples are in a search to find time to be a couple yet maintain their sense of self, their individual self. Besides, time apart makes you cherish the time together and creates a “missing you” feeling that enhances intimacy.

6. Cultivate. They seek our and cultivate outside interests. How couples negotiate this varies. However, individual interests keeps the novelty alive and creates the space between couples that is needed to remain curious about one another. Each person is not threatened by their partner’s interests with family and friends that do not always include them. They recognize this is part of who they are. Important!

7. Baggage. Let’s face it – we all have it. Some more than others, others less than some.  Some have a carry on (this is good) while others tote a 4 or 6 piece set of luggage (not so good). If you are toting the 4 or 6 piece, I strongly suggest you get some help with your struggles. Each person learns to take care of their own “stuff”. That’s your primary job in life. You don’t rely on your partner to take care of your issues. You don’t hold your partner hostage to past relationships and don’t bring all the ills of previous relationships to their current relationship.

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8. One and Done. They know that a slight or falter does not define the person they are (unless this is an ongoing problem). We are all fallible and make mistakes. We say and do dumb things. People learn how to look at the situation in its context, not as a single error that the person will be defined by.

9. Grow. Healthy couples continue to grow and evolve. They put the effort in to being a better person. They bring their best self to the table. Remember the early days when time and care was put into how we look and taking care of ourselves? Although there is an element of minutia in life, they work hard not to settle into a routine that prevents them from growing.

10. Ebb and Flow. Couples recognize that relationships have their own ebb and flow. No two relationships are the same. How each couple manages the ups and downs of life and there will be plenty, is a critical factor in staying healthy. Healthy couples don’t focus on all the negative and understand that to have the good times means you have to recognize that there will be difficult and challenging times.

11. The list. Each person can list many positive things they like/love about their partner. They make their list and can talk openly about their struggles as well as the positive things they like about one another. Yes, there will be challenges and things that drive you crazy! But they are able to look past those things and focus in on the good.

12. The Happiness Factor. Each person doesn’t hold their partner/spouse responsible for their happiness. Never works! Sure, its nice to feel validated and hear those words. Its equally reassuring that your partner makes you happy – but the happiness you feel from your partner should be ancillary to how you feel about yourself. Happiness starts at home!

1970794_10152347796206255_688633151_nThis is not to say that couples maintain their healthy relationship flawlessly because they do not. They do however work hard at consistently approaching their partner with respect, openness, and a willingness to be introspective enough to examine their mistakes, make necessary changes and improve.

This list is far from being exhaustive. There are many more things that people do in healthy relationships beyond the scope of this list. These are just a few of the ways that healthy couples are making it work!

How is your relationship healthy? I would love to hear from you!