Tag Archives: toxic relationships

Seek Sunlight

woman prison

 “I felt like a cage was around me when I was with John. I wasn’t me. I was afraid to be me. I was always nervous about doing the wrong thing and setting him off.”

Those words were spoken by my client, Marta, who finally left her husband because he’s an alcoholic—he got violent.  Click here to read an earlier post about Marta’s situation.

Are you like Marta was, anxious about upsetting others if you voice your truth, act yourself, or possess a mind and will of your own?

If you nodded your head, it’s very likely you’ve spent a chunk of time with a person who made it difficult for you to do so. Their intense—often combustible—reaction taught you to remain tight-lipped and behave chameleon-like in their presence. You soon realized that it’s better to appease than face the consequences of being true to you.

Understandably, a sharp tongue, harsh hand or painful withdrawal are backlashes worth avoiding.

Who are these people? Some are addicts—hooked on drugs or alcohol, some are spoiled children residing in adult-size bodies. Some have a mental disorder of some kind, and others are just over-reactive, difficult people.

They all possess something in common: They can’t be counted on to be consistent with their warmth, remorse or clarity. In one moment they will understand what you want them to understand and in the next they won’t. One day you’re a beloved friend or ally, but the next day you’re the target for blame and hostility.

Their unpredictable fluctuations cause that tight knot in your stomach to take up permanent residence. You’re constantly on the watch for the next upheaval. Over-exposure to these people can cause you to doubt yourself. You wonder: “Am I at fault? Did I cause their reaction? What can I do to fix it?”

You can’t. There’s only one solution: Save yourself. Don’t entertain the thought—for an instant—that you’re the cause or the one responsible to fix it. Trust your instincts that say:

“This is not sunlight for my soul.”

In fact, it’s just the opposite.

We’re hard-wired to sense what’s toxic for us both physically and psychologically. Call it our survival instinct. Trust it.

And finally, believe that you’re worthy of the sunlight. You deserve to be around people who are consistent, who see your goodness, and who relish your individuality, which includes having a mind and will of your own.

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Avoid the Muck and Guck

 crooked road (2)

I found a perfect piece of advice for those of us who try to fix someone else’s distorted thinking. It’s an old Russian proverb that says:

“Don’t drive a car straight down a crooked road.”

Easier said than done, especially if we’re the target of someone’s erroneous accusations. At those times, it’s extremely difficult to resist springing into action—in defense of ourselves, armed with facts and mounds of explanations.

Trish, a client, is a good example. One morning she got up before Chad and went downstairs to start her day. She was relishing the silence and a nice cup of coffee when he suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Hey, what are you all ticked off about?” he asked with a scowl.

Chad had assumed wrongly. She wasn’t “ticked off”—her mood was in fine shape . . . uh, at least up to that point. His accusation instantly jolted her out of the tranquil spell that enveloped her, and she spent the next several minutes frantically attempting to get him to perceive her through a clear lens. (Click here to read more…)

Trish got snagged by his stuff. Soon, they were both swimming in their combined muck and guck. We all know that place . . . it serves no one.

That’s our little piece of insanity. We engage. We walk into a tangled web of distortion and accusations and try desperately to clean the other person’s lens. Or, another way to put it: we “try to drive the car straight down a crooked road.” It doesn’t work. The car lands in a ditch.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

 

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The Latest Wow: Don’t Feed the Parasites!

mosquito

Not long ago, one of my clients, Rani, wowed me with this:

“Some people don’t really deserve the benefit of the doubt.”

Experience taught Rani that somber truth. For months, she overlooked and excused multiple incidents of being used, deceived and manipulated by her friend, Val. “It finally reached such ludicrous proportions, I just couldn’t ignore it anymore,” she said in our counseling session.

Rani loaned her money, let her move in, gave her rides to and from work. The list grinds on. As for the loan, Val promised to pay it back, but so far “I have yet to receive a single nickle of it,” Rani said, disgusted.

Let’s face it, there’s a population of nice people out there and there’s a population of . . . uh, let’s just say, not-so-nice. They take advantage of the nice ones and the nice ones let them. That merely perpetuates a maddening set of circumstances . . . for the nice tribe, that is.

These two types attract each other like magnets. Self-centered versus other-centered. One is self-denying and willing to give up what they want and even need so that the other can experience a “happy” life.

When I ask these big-hearted people why they sacrifice themselves, they tell me things like, “I’ll feel guilty and mean if I do otherwise.” Ironically, they’re afraid of being self-centered and . . . not nice.

Rani no longer thinks that way. Her experience with Val opened her eyes to a fundamental truth: When the events of our lives don’t bring us peace, it’s vital that we opt to make life changes.

 As for the “nice” word, she came to see that it isn’t nice to dishonor ourselves by tolerating being used and disrespected.

And it isn’t nice to keep feeding the parasites. How do they ever learn that parasiting isn’t nice? 🙂

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Free to Leave

Free_Spirit

“A grain of sand becomes a beach in a millisecond.”

Marta—my client—was talking about her over-reactive, hot-tempered husband who makes mountains out of mole hills. Add suspicion, an appetite for power, and alcohol to the mix and you have a potentially dangerous man. Not long ago, he became just that.

It all started when she walked in the front door. There he stood, arms folded and wearing a scowl. The usual grilling began—demanding to know where she had been. Her explanation fell on deaf ears. He didn’t believe her—never does—that is, unless her story agrees with his. He was convinced she had been spending time with another man.

As is often the case, Marta tried—desperately—to get him to believe her. It didn’t work. He just got nastier . . . then . . . he hit her. Serious bleeding resulted. She did not file a police report. Why? Because she’s locked into the habit of appeasing him. He’s her priority.

There’s another reason. Marta second-guesses herself. When she’s the target of someone’s anger, or when accused or badgered, her knee jerk reaction is to believe it’s somehow justified. So, along with thousands of other abuse victims, she believes she can make him treat her better by changing something about herself.

In our session, Marta unloaded example after example of verbal and emotional abuse. But at the time of those incidents, Marta was in a state of denial. She didn’t want to see it so she minimized or excused it. She even followed his lead and blamed herself.

But fooling herself had now become an impossibility. He had crossed a line, and—long overdue as it was—it finally opened her eyes.

“Why have you put up with this for so long?” I asked. “I’m not a quitter,” she said.

I don’t call it “quitting” when we decide to leave an abusive relationship. I call it a much needed course correction . . . and an act of loving ourselves.

If Marta’s husband doesn’t love her enough to stop abusing her, shouldn’t she love herself enough to put an end to it? The answer is a clear “Yes!”

Marta’s not alone. Scores of women (and men) are in abusive relationships. It doesn’t usually start out that way. Few people, if any, would go on a second date with an abuser. No, it’s a subtle, progressive thing. Suddenly, we’re there!

And just like Marta, we may shake our heads in disbelief and ask: “How did I get here?” The answers are varied, depending on the individual, but one universal cause is adaptation. If we’re exposed to something long enough, we start to get used to it. Cigarettes comes to mind. At first our bodies recoil—they reject the toxic substance. But with prolonged exposure, our bodies learn to adapt.

Dr. Steven Stosny shared his thoughts and advice on adaptation, anger and abuse in relationships with Oprah’s audience many years ago.  His words are as true today as they were then.

As Marta and so many others have discovered, the way out of such relationships requires courage, a hearty dose of self-love and an awakened belief in one’s own value.

Names have been changed to honor client confidentiality

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Not to Upset the Family Bully, but . . .

walking-on-eggshells

I just have to share something with you. As a writer, I follow several blogs, one by author Kristen Lamb. She captured my attention in a recent post about bullying. Actually, she’s been cranking out post after post on that subject. In one she mentions “family bullying.”  Here’s the quote that grabbed me:

For every family bully, there are passive members dancing around trying to appease The Great Volcano from erupting. Clean the house a certain way, don’t have an opinion, be invisible and cater to every need Mt. Volcano has and he/she won’t blow.

This brought to mind my client, Paul (not his real name), who was feeling conflicted over spending time with his family at Christmas. The bully in his family is his mother. And the family members, with the exception of Paul, do whatever it takes to make her happy.

His mom recruited a reluctant volunteer from amongst his siblings—a sister—to guilt him into attending. She dutifully obliged even though she has a full appreciation of his position.

Paul has made it a policy to avoid such functions because “family events make me miserable,” he said. “Why do I want to go through that? My mom has to create trouble . . . she’s not happy if everyone is having a good time.”

Paul puts her in the same category as a belligerent child who pouts or storms if she doesn’t get her way or if she isn’t the center of attention.

He doesn’t mind one-on-one interactions with his brothers and sisters. The family dysfunction isn’t occurring then. As for his mother, she’s tolerable when he’s with her alone. That’s mostly because he doesn’t “play her game.” He said, “I see it as a form of standing up to her.” He’s right.

Paul is wary of family gatherings for another very good reason: “Expectations are attached to all family events. People get cranky when their expectations aren’t met.”

Many of us can relate to that.

I can still recall with great clarity a family bullying incident I witnessed firsthand a few years ago. It was painful to watch then, and still is when I think about it today. I described it in a column I wrote about some of the unfortunate consequences of family bullying.

In both of these cases the “family bully” just happens to be the mom . . . that’s a coincidence. Any family member can wear that hat.

On that note, how were your holidays—how did it go? Are there any bullies hiding out in your family?

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The Latest Wow: “Get over it!” Really?

chasm

According to the late theologian Paul Tillich, “The first duty of love is to listen.”

I rank listening right up there at the top of requirements for a well-running relationship. This includes love partnerships, parent-child relationships, friendships … you name it.

Listening is a lot bigger than the mere act of hearing with our ears. It entails reining in our straying thoughts, our knee jerk assumptions, judgments and impatience. It entails listening from a heart-space, not solely from an intellectual space.

It’s hard to master. I find that true both personally and professionally. One couple comes to mind—Ross and Sara. Ross expressed … no, he wowed me with a complaint common among many of my female clients:

“Just because someone says, ‘Get over it,’ doesn’t mean it stops hurting.”

He directed that comment to Sara after she discounted his feelings in our counseling session. He was sharing a painful incident, and instead of taking his pain seriously, she trivialized it.

Another client, Mindy, feels exactly like Ross. Her husband, Sam, not only discounts her feelings, he’s frequently sarcastic and has an explosive temper. In one of their marital sessions he said, “She cries over anything. I’m convinced she’s incapable of controlling her feelings.” I challenged him: “You accuse Mindy of being too emotional and incapable of controlling her feelings. Isn’t anger an emotion?”   Read their stories here.

Whether the one we love is our partner, our child, a friend, relative or acquaintance, statements like “Get over it,” “Why let that bother you?” and “You’re too sensitive” fail to relieve the hurting heart. Not only that, they can create a chasm between two people—a chasm that, if allowed to continue, may not be bridged.

I welcome your thoughts!

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Keeping the Peace Backfires

Hand covering wife's mouth

“It has to change!  I can’t take it anymore.”

Liza was referring to her marriage. “If I don’t conform to how Stuart wants me to be, or if I don’t agree with how he sees things, he get’s furious,” she said.  “And if he doesn’t get his way, he get’s stormy.”

Liza was describing life in a prison—her soul constricted to keeping the peace. She learned a long time ago that airing her wishes or complaints simply made matters worse. “I can’t talk to him. I’m always on edge . . . not sure how he’ll react.” For years, Liza pretended—even to herself—that nothing was wrong. “I wanted to avoid the pain I felt, so I blinded myself to the mistreatment.”

The day she stopped trying to fool herself, the day she faced her buried anguish, change became a possibility.

Liza began a journey inward, starting with examining why she doesn’t stand up for herself. She learned it as a child. With both parents, she learned it was best to squelch her real self and become agreeable, self-sacrificing, and always nice. She described her father as a “rageful tyrant,” and her mother as basically uncaring. Like Liza, she too walked on eggshells around her husband.

So Liza’s manner with her husband is learned behavior. The good news is that learned behavior can be unlearned. I suggested she read The Nice Girl Syndrome by Beverly Engel.

By our next session, I was certain Liza had done a lot of reading, because of the first words out of her mouth:

“I’m no longer a robot who wakes up in the morning and takes her daily punches.”

She confronted her husband with a bold truth: if change doesn’t happen, I’m out of here. He listened. She expressed her grievances and he listened hard and long.

Not only do I congratulate her, I congratulate him!

Companionship occurs in a relationship where two people are being themselves. Translated, this means each freely—but respectfully—expresses what he or she truly thinks, feels, wants, and needs, while the other makes it emotionally safe to do so. Each is alert to the unique needs and concerns of the other. Consistently, the couple practices frankness about what they like and dislike. Within a climate of acceptance, they freely exercise their capacity to disagree, refuse, and object. As individuals, they oppose all that threatens their integrity. And as a couple, they tackle—together—anything that threatens the strength and specialness of their relationship.

The formula for a successful relationship doesn’t lie in appeasing the other. Appeasing, in fact, can be just as destructive to a relationship as a steady diet of domination, hot-headedness, or bullying. That’s because dissatisfactions and complaints—on the part of the appeaser—are allowed to fester and accumulate to the point of bitterness and contempt. Eventually, love dries up and the appeaser may just walk away.

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Reject Spirit Zappers

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When we tune in to the outrage of being violated, no matter what the degree, it’s the beginning of putting up a protective shield.  We’re designed to be invested in self-preservation.

 It appears that for the duration of our lifetime, we’re assigned to one person to fully watch over, to love unconditionally, and bathe with constant caring and protection. We inhabit that person’s body. How else can you explain survival instincts, defense mechanisms, and pain?

These statements are excerpts from a column I wrote about Natalie and Tiffany a few years ago.  Today,  they know how  to avoid deflating people. I’m happy for them, and am moved to help others with  the same advice I  gave them.  I would love to hear your story!

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The Latest Wow: Fire Your Inner Critic!

Use words wisely I had a client tell me once:

“Every time I put myself down, I’m affirming that my mother was right.”

Click here to read about Dawn and Doug and how their childhoods were fertile soil for the formation of negative self-talk and low self-worth.

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She Turned Me Into a Puppet … But Puppets Can’t Love

man puppet

“She turned me into a puppet, and then wondered why I no longer loved her. The answer is simple—a puppet doesn’t have a heart.”

“As men, we share a single purpose: to find that one special female who will kill us just slowly enough that by the time we reach 80, we’re already dead.”

To read more about Gordon’s struggle and eventual liberation, click here.

Gordon’s story isn’t that unusual. For example, Trey—a recent client—uttered these words to his girlfriend in his therapy session:  “I don’t want to be nit-picked to death.” He went on to say that he was rethinking whether he wanted to stay in the relationship. “I’m tired of being beaten down all the time,” he explained. 

“I don’t see how I make you feel that way,” she replied.

I loved his straight-to-the-point response:  “You do it by expecting the worst out of me all the time.” 

In that relationship, Trey felt he could never do anything right. He fell into the trap of making futile, exhaustive attempts at attaining her approval before finally realizing: “It’s not me, it’s her. She wants to see me as flawed.”

Like Gordon, Trey tried to make the relationship work by altering himself—by keeping his girlfriend appeased. It turned him into a puppet—an empty shell.

After that session, Trey broke up with his girlfriend. He came to understand that no woman—no matter how special—is worth the loss of his essential being.

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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