Toxic has become one of the most overused pop mental health terms of the last few years. Everything is toxic. Your bestie is competing with you—she’s trash and toxic. Your ex keeps calling, s/he’s toxic. Your job is stressing you out, it’s toxic.
The term toxic should be reserved for behavior and cycles that are persistent, pervasive, traumatizing, destructive and unhealthy. Now, watching Meghan Markle and Prince Harry detail the extent of his family’s dysfunctional, destructive and racist behavior was a sad television moment, but also a reminder that so many people are part of households and familial systems that are actually toxic.
Toxic relationships damage self-esteem and often impede growth in key areas such as, mental and physical health, professional or personal development, and, in some cases, can be so extreme that the lead to substance abuse or thoughts of self harm. They also tend to skew the perception of what is normal, and healthy, interpersonal behavior. Sadly, many people are part of toxic families or systems and are unsure of what to do next. Here are some tips.
Accept That Your Situation is Unhealthy—and You Have to Go. When you become enmeshed in a toxic system you may not see what’s next, but your instincts tell you that something isn’t right. You don’t like the way things feel. Whether it’s anger, anxiety or fear your gut tells you that this isn’t how things should be. Believe it. Acknowledge that you are in an unhealthy cycle and something drastic has to change.
Educate Yourself on Good Habits, Rituals, Communication. The Internet is a great tool. Research how what you’re experiencing to start finding the words for how you’re feeling. Look up skills such as “healthy communication styles” and “how to deal with stress” to help you begin to visualize what change can look like in your life.
Get Help By Creating New Systems. Therapy, whether in an individual or group setting, can create a space for you to process your feelings, find supportive communities and plan what’s next in your life. It’s also a great space to level set. Your therapist can help you unpack your trauma, create community and give you tools to modify habits. Going to therapy, cultivating new routines, finding new friends, moving, these are all new systems that will support your growth.
Set Firm Boundaries. When family members, former partners or friends are committed to remaining in toxic cycles the person who wants change must make a choice—them or me. This will look different in every scenario but the one constant is boundaries. If you are committed to healthy habits you must carefully evaluate how much space and time you give toxic people in your life. Remember, toxic people are focused on maintaining the systems that benefit their unhealthy behaviors. Interrupting those systems will always cause friction. Be prepared for sabotage, conflict and drama but stand firm.
Choose Yourself. Decide to be happy and uses your resources and healthy support systems to protect your goal.
S. Tia Brown is a licensed therapist and life coach. Follow her at @tiabrowntalks.
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Licensed Therapist & Coach