Toxic People, Co-dependency & Setting Boundaries

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Toxic parents can be intentionally malevolent, but more often, they're just self-centered and don't understand that their children have their own conflicting emotional needs and desires. And all parents slip up; one bad argument when you were 15 doesn't make a toxic parent.

Each of these aspects could be the defining one in your relationship with your parent, and could lead to the label "toxic" on its own. And remember: Toxicity can sometimes change into a reasonable adult relationship, if both parties are ready to work and change.

Recent research from the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that exposure to stimuli that cause strong negative emotions—the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with toxic people—caused subjects’ brains to have a massive stress response. Whether its negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome, or just plain craziness, toxic people drive your brain into a stressed-out state that should be avoided at all costs. 

Toxic Parent Characteristics:

1. They Need You To Take Care Of Them

One classic toxic pattern in parent/child relationships — and these will largely be patterns, rather than one-off incidents — sees the parent asking the child to be their parent, and to fix and support them. This doesn't refer to helping a parent if they're physically disabled or getting them food when they're sick; it's a toddler-like demand to be cared for, mopped up, and cheered on — constantly.

2. Their Feelings Always Come Before Yours

In a non-toxic situation, the feelings of all parties are rated and taken care of equally. One kind of toxicity, however, means that the feelings of the toxic person always dominate any situation — usually because they're the loudest and most volatile. Your own feelings are suppressed in trying to take care of them, calm them down, and soothe their emotions. If this sounds familiar, it was likely also a pattern when you were a child.

3. They Have Problems & Ask You To Conceal Them

Another fairly common source of toxicity in parent-child relationships is addiction, and its corresponding denial and secrecy. Making a child complicit in the concealment of an addiction like alcoholism ("Nobody must know, it's our family secret!"), while also subjecting them to its effects — embarrassment, isolation, the inability to trust a parent, a chaotic childhood environment — is a pretty toxic cocktail. This could also apply to their asking you to conceal financial problems, or to lie to other family members on their behalf.

4. They Control You Using Guilt Or Money

If a parent refuses to let you do something reasonable (move out, take antidepressants, go to therapy) because they control your purse strings, that's toxic. Money can also be a threatening tactic; if you're fiscally reliant on a toxic parent, they can threaten to take away that support if you don't obey the rules. Of course, guilt is also a powerful control method, refusing to allow you to do something outside the lines without suffering a severe and very serious guilt trip.

5. They Refuse To Let You Grow Up

"You're still my little girl" is kind of sweet, sometimes. It only becomes toxic when your parents actively resist you showing autonomy and becoming an independent entity. The line may seem blurry here, but this brand of toxicity means that you aren't allowed to grow up. Your adult decisions are undermined, or you're harassed until you change them. They demand the same level of control they had over your life as they did when you were small. Or they are extremely offended, puzzled, or aggressive when that's not allowed.

6. They Don't Recognize Your Boundaries

This is a fairly epic toxic element. The door you shut can be opened at any time, without knocking. The phone can be called at any point, regardless of your sleep schedule or work. They can say anything they want to you, in public or in private, and demand that you talk to them about any topic they like. And if you do assert a boundary forcefully, they react with anger, confusion, denial, or guilt tripping.

7. They Constantly Undermine You

Negging isn't just for dudes in fedoras. In one particular toxic situation, it's the defining characteristic of a parent's treatment of their child. Small digs about vulnerable attributes — height, weight, academic achievement, basically anything — can be covered up as "jokes," but they're actually a way of asserting dominance and control over a kid, even when they grow up. And not liking or reacting to the jokes means that you, the child, are flawed for not "having a sense of humor." Don't buy it.

8. They're Insanely Passive-Aggressive

The "I'm fine" parent who sulks through meals, and who refuses to express their feelings except through oblique references, can just be a bit aggravating. But it can also be their way of maintaining a stranglehold on the family dynamic. Passive aggression is still aggression, after all — just expressed in a "socially acceptable" way. If your parent regularly gives you the silent treatment, that's passive-aggressive, and toxic as well.

9. You're Still Scared Of Them

Are you, in your adult life, with your secure job and your awesome friends, still frightened of what might happen if you disobey or displease your parents? Have you tried very hard to put yourself in a position where they can't do anything to hurt you, your possessions, or your equilibrium? Do you get a shock of adrenaline when the phone rings showing their number? Congratulations: You're an adult remnant of a toxic childhood.

The ability to manage your emotions and remain calm under pressure has a direct link to your performance. Research has been done with more than a million people, and found that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions in times of stress in order to remain calm and in control. One of their greatest gifts is the ability to neutralize toxic people.

Coping Strategies for Keeping Toxic People at Bay:

  • Set Limits (Especially with Complainers)

Complainers and negative people are bad news because they wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions. They want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. People often feel pressure to listen to complainers because they don’t want to be seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into their negative emotional spiral.

You can avoid this only by setting limits and distancing yourself when necessary. Think of it this way: if the complainer were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers. A great way to set limits is to ask complainers how they intend to fix the problem. They will either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction.

  • Choose Your Battles

Successful people know how important it is to live to fight another day, especially when your foe is a toxic individual. In conflict, unchecked emotion makes you dig your heels in and fight the kind of battle that can leave you severely damaged. When you read and respond to your emotions, you’re able to choose your battles wisely and only stand your ground when the time is right.

  • Rise Above

Toxic people drive you crazy because their behavior is so irrational. Make no mistake about it; their behavior truly goes against reason. So why do you allow yourself to respond to them emotionally and get sucked into the mix? The more irrational and off-base someone is, the easier it should be for you to remove yourself from their traps. Quit trying to beat them at their own game. Distance yourself from them emotionally and approach your interactions like they’re a science project (or you’re their shrink, if you prefer the analogy). You don’t need to respond to the emotional chaos—only the facts.

  • Stay Aware of Their Emotions

Maintaining an emotional distance requires awareness. You can’t stop someone from pushing your buttons if you don’t recognize when it’s happening. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in situations where you’ll need to regroup and choose the best way forward. This is fine and you shouldn’t be afraid to buy yourself some time to do so.  Think of it this way—if a mentally unstable person approaches you on the street and tells you he’s John F. Kennedy, you’re unlikely to set him straight. When you find yourself with a coworker who is engaged in similarly derailed thinking, sometimes it’s best to just smile and nod. If you’re going to have to straighten them out, it’s better to give yourself some time to plan the best way to go about it.

  • Establish Boundaries

This is the area where most people tend to sell themselves short. They feel like because they work or live with someone, they have no way to control the chaos. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Once you’ve found your way to Rise Above a person, you’ll begin to find their behavior more predictable and easier to understand. This will equip you to think rationally about when and where you have to put up with them and when you don’t.  You can establish a boundary, but you’ll have to do so consciously and proactively. If you let things happen naturally, you are bound to find yourself constantly embroiled in difficult conversations. If you set boundaries and decide when and where you’ll engage a difficult person, you can control much of the chaos. The only trick is to stick to your guns and keep boundaries in place when the person tries to encroach upon them, which they will.

  • Will not let anyone Limit Your Joy

When your sense of pleasure and satisfaction are derived from the opinions of other people, you are no longer the master of your own happiness. When emotionally intelligent people feel good about something that they’ve done, they won’t let anyone’s opinions or snide remarks take that away from them.  While it’s impossible to turn off your reactions to what others think of you, you don’t have to compare yourself to others, and you can always take people’s opinions with a grain of salt. That way, no matter what toxic people are thinking or doing, your self-worth comes from within. Regardless of what people think of you at any particular moment, one thing is certain—you’re never as good or bad as they say you are.

  • Focus on Solutions rather than Problems

Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. When you fixate on the problems you’re facing, you create and prolong negative emotions and stress. When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy that produces positive emotions and reduces stress.  When it comes to toxic people, fixating on how crazy and difficult they are gives them power over you. Quit thinking about how troubling your difficult person is, and focus instead on how you’re going to go about handling them. This makes you more effective by putting you in control, and it will reduce the amount of stress you experience when interacting with them.

  • Forget Me Not

Emotionally intelligent people are quick to forgive, but that doesn’t mean that they forget. Forgiveness requires letting go of what’s happened so that you can move on. It doesn’t mean you’ll give a wrongdoer another chance. Successful people are unwilling to be bogged down unnecessarily by others’ mistakes, so they let them go quickly and are assertive in protecting themselves from future harm.

  • Squash Negative Self-Talk

Sometimes you absorb the negativity of other people. There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about how someone is treating you, but your self-talk (the thoughts you have about your feelings) can either intensify the negativity or help you move past it. Negative self-talk is unrealistic, unnecessary, and self-defeating. It sends you into a downward emotional spiral that is difficult to pull out of. You should avoid negative self-talk at all costs.

  • Limit Caffeine Intake

Drinking caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is the source of the “fight-or-flight” response, a survival mechanism that forces you to stand up and fight or run for the hills when faced with a threat. The fight-or-flight mechanism sidesteps rational thinking in favor of a faster response. This is great when a bear is chasing you, but not so great when you’re surprised in the hallway by an angry coworker.

  • Get Some Sleep

The importance of sleep increases your emotional intelligence and the way you manage your stress levels. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, shuffling through the day’s memories and storing or discarding them (which causes dreams), so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough—or the right kind—of sleep. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present. A good night’s sleep makes you more positive, creative, and proactive in your approach to toxic people, giving you the perspective you need to deal effectively with them.

  • Use Your Support System

It’s tempting, yet entirely ineffective, to attempt tackling everything by yourself. To deal with toxic people, you need to recognize the weaknesses in your approach to them. This means tapping into your support system to gain perspective on a challenging person. Everyone has someone at work and/or outside work who is on their team, rooting for them, and ready to help them get the best from a difficult situation. Identify these individuals in your life and make an effort to seek their insight and assistance when you need it. Something as simple as explaining the situation can lead to a new perspective. Most of the time, other people can see a solution that you can’t because they are not as emotionally invested in the situation.

  • Bringing It All Together

Before you get this system to work brilliantly, you’re going to have to pass some tests. Most of the time, you will find yourself tested by touchy interactions with problem people. Thankfully, the plasticity of the brain allows it to mold and change as you practice new behaviors, even when you fail. Implementing these healthy, stress-relieving techniques for dealing with difficult people will train your brain to handle stress more effectively and decrease the likelihood of ill effects.

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Co-dependency is characterized as person belonging to a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person relies on the other for meeting nearly all of their emotional and self-esteem needs. It also describes a relationship that enables another person to maintain their irresponsible, addictive, or underachieving behavior.

Do you expend all of your energy in meeting your partner’s needs? Do you feel trapped in your relationship? Are you the one that is constantly making sacrifices in your relationship? Then you may be in a codependent relationship.  In fact, if you were raised in a dysfunctional family or had an ill parent, you could also be codependent.

Symptoms of Codependency

The following is a list of symptoms of codependency and being in a codependent relationship. (You don’t need to have them all to qualify as codependent.)

Low self-esteem- Feeling that you’re not good enough or comparing yourself to others are signs of low self-esteem. The tricky thing about self-esteem is that some people think highly of themselves, but it’s only a disguise — they actually feel unlovable or inadequate. Underneath, usually hidden from consciousness, are feelings of shame. Guilt and perfectionism often go along with low self-esteem. If everything is perfect, you don’t feel bad about yourself.

People-pleasing- It’s fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes them anxiety. Some codependents have a hard time saying “No” to anyone. They go out of their way and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people.

Poor boundaries- Boundaries are sort of an imaginary line between you and others. It divides up what’s yours and somebody else’s, and that applies not only to your body, money, and belongings, but also to your feelings, thoughts and needs. That’s especially where codependents get into trouble. They have blurry or weak boundaries. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else. Some codependents have rigid boundaries. They are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for other people to get close to them. Sometimes, people flip back and forth between having weak boundaries and having rigid ones.

Reactivity- A consequence of poor boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You absorb their words, because there’s no boundary. With a boundary, you’d realize it was just their opinion and not a reflection of you and not feel threatened by disagreements.

Caretaking- Another effect of poor boundaries is that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you give up yourself. It’s natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves. In fact, they need to help and might feel rejected if another person doesn’t want help. Moreover, they keep trying to help and fix the other person, even when that person clearly isn’t taking their advice.

Control-Control helps codependents feel safe and secure. Everyone needs some control over events in their life. You wouldn’t want to live in constant uncertainty and chaos, but for codependents, control limits their ability to take risks and share their feelings. Sometimes they have an addiction that either helps them loosen up, like alcoholism, or helps them hold their feelings down, like workaholism, so that they don’t feel out of control. Codependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. In fact, people-pleasing and care-taking can be used to control and manipulate people. Alternatively, codependents are bossy and tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. This is a violation of someone else’s boundary.

Dysfunctional communication- Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings and needs. Of course, if you don’t know what you think, feel or need, this becomes a problem. Other times, you know, but you won’t own up to your truth. You’re afraid to be truthful, because you don’t want to upset someone else. Instead of saying, “I don’t like that,” you might pretend that it’s okay or tell someone what to do. Communication becomes dishonest and confusing when you try to manipulate the other person out of fear.

Obsessions- Codependents have a tendency to spend their time thinking about other people or relationships. This is caused by their dependency and anxieties and fears. They can also become obsessed when they think they’ve made or might make a “mistake.” Sometimes you can lapse into fantasy about how you’d like things to be or about someone you love as a way to avoid the pain of the present. This is one way to stay in denial, discussed below, but it keeps you from living your life.

Dependency- Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves. They’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned, even if they can function on their own. Others need always to be in a relationship, because they feel depressed or lonely when they’re by themselves for too long. This trait makes it hard for them to end a relationship, even when the relationship is painful or abusive. They end up feeling trapped.

Denial- One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they’re in denial about it, meaning that they don’t face their problem. Usually they think the problem is someone else or the situation. They either keep complaining or trying to fix the other person, or go from one relationship or job to another and never own up the fact that they have a problem. Codependents also deny their feelings and needs. Often, they don’t know what they’re feeling and are instead focused on what others are feeling. The same thing goes for their needs. They pay attention to other people’s needs and not their own. They might be in denial of their need for space and autonomy. Although some codependents seem needy, others act like they’re self-sufficient when it comes to needing help. They won’t reach out and have trouble receiving. They are in denial of their vulnerability and need for love and intimacy.

Problems with intimacy- By this I’m not referring to sex, although sexual dysfunction often is a reflection of an intimacy problem. I’m talking about being open and close with someone in an intimate relationship. Because of the shame and weak boundaries, you might fear that you’ll be judged, rejected, or left. On the other hand, you may fear being smothered in a relationship and losing your autonomy. You might deny your need for closeness and feel that your partner wants too much of your time; your partner complains that you’re unavailable, but he or she is denying his or her need for separateness.

Painful emotions- Codependency creates stress and leads to painful emotions. Shame and low self-esteem create anxiety and fear about being judged, rejected or abandoned; making mistakes; being a failure; feeling trapped by being close or being alone. The other symptoms lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. When the feelings are too much, you can feel numb.

There is help for recovery and change for people who are codependent. The first step is getting guidance and support. These symptoms are deeply ingrained habits and difficult to identify and change alone. Joining a 12-Step program, such as Codependents Anonymous or seek counseling is helpful and known to be highly effective.

Work on becoming more assertive and building your self-esteem.

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How to set healthy boundaries:

1.  Name your limits

2.  Tune into your feelings

3.  Be direct

4.  Give yourself permission

5.  Practice self-awareness

6.  Consider your past and present

7.  Make self-care a priority

8.  Seek support

Common Boundary Myths:

  • If I set boundaries, I'm being selfish
  • Boundaries are a sign of disobedience
  • If I begin setting boundaries, I will be hurt by others
  • If I set boundaries, I will hurt others
  • Boundaries mean that I am angry
  • When others set boundaries, it injures me
  • Boundaries cause feelings of guilt
  • Boundaries are permanent, and I'm afraid of burning my bridges

Resolution of Boundary Problems with Family

Establishing boundaries with family members is a tough task, but one with great reward. It is a process, with certain distinguishable steps.

  1. Identify the Symptom- Look at your own life situation and see where boundary problems exist with your family members. The question lies under: Where have you lost control of your property? Identify those areas and see their connections with the family you grew up in, and you are on your way.
  2. Identify the Conflict- Discover what dynamic is being played out. For example, what "law of boundaries" are you violating?" (Do you reap what you sow? Do you take any responsibility of your actions and life? Do you have the power to change and acknowledge what you need to do? Do you have issues with not receiving respect? Do you lack motivation? Do you evaluate the effects of setting boundaries? Do you fail to enforce consequences and end up paying for their behavior? Are you passive and reactive toward them and the conflict?  Understand what you are doing and how it will effect these changes. You will be able to see clearly to deal with your family members and see yourself as the problem and find your boundary violations.
  3. Identify the Need That Drives the Conflict- You don't act inappropriately for no reason. You are often trying to meet some underlying expectation or need that your family did not meet. Maybe we are still entangled because of a need to be love, accepted and approved. You must face this deficit and accept it so you can move forward.
  4. Take in and Receive the Good- It isn't enough to understand your need, so you must get it met by being humble to yourself, embrace your talents and learn to respond to and receive love.
  5. Practice Boundary Skills- Your boundary skills are fragile and new. You can't take them immediately into a difficult situation unless you practice them in situations where they will be honored and respected. Begin saying no to people in your supportive group who will love and respect your boundaries. It's like when you are recovering from a physical injury, you don't pick up the heaviest weight first, you build up to the heavy stuff over time and practice.
  6. Say No to the Bad- In addition to practicing new skills in safe situations, avoid hurtful situations. When you are in the beginning stages of recovery, you need to avoid people who have abused and controlled you in the past. When you think you're ready to reestablish a relationship with someone who has been abusive and controlling in the past, bring a friend or supporter along. Be aware of your pull toward hurtful situations and relationships. The injury you are recovering from is serious, and you can't reestablish a relationship until you have the proper tools. Be careful to not get sucked into a controlling situation again because your wish for reconciliation is so strong.
  7. Forgive the Aggressor- Nothing clarifies boundaries more than forgiveness. To forgive someone means to let them off the hook or to cancel the debt they owe you. When you refuse to forgive someone, you still want something from that person, and even if it is revenge that you want, it keeps you tied to them forever. Refusing to forgive a family member is one of the main reasons people are stuck in their own ways for so many years and they are unable to separate themselves from the dysfunction. If you don't forgive, you are demanding something your offender does not choose to give, even if it is only confession of what they did. This "ties" them to you and ruins boundaries. Let the dysfunctional family you came from go. Cut it loose and you will be free!
  8. Learn to Love in Freedom & Responsibility, Not in Guilt- Love always wins. The person who has to remain forever in a protective mode is losing out on love and freedom. Boundaries in no way mean to stop loving. They mean the opposite: you are gaining freedom to love. It is good to sacrifice and deny yourself for the sake of others. But you need boundaries to make that choice.