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Are you trapped in a toxic situation?
If you are, this article is for you.
Conventional wisdom tells us to cut troublesome people from our lives, even (in some cases *especially*) if they’re family. But what happens when you don’t have the power to get free?
What can you do if you’re a child and don’t have the ability to leave?
What happens if you have a disability and the toxic person is your only trained caregiver? (Read a first hand account of patient abuse by a caregiver here: https://rootedinrights.org/i-needed-my-caregiver-to-keep-me-alive-she-exploited-that-power/)
How can you leave if you don’t have any money? (Find out more about Financial Abuse in relationships here: https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-financial-abuse-2018-6)
The answer in a lot of cases is, you can’t just leave.
At least, not without a lot of effort, money, and drama involved. Some people aren’t in the emotional or financial place to cut a toxic person out.
So What Happens When You Can’t Escape The Toxic Situation?
In my case, I lived in a chaotic household all the way from when I was a young child until I left for college at age 18.
There were plenty of times where I wanted to run away from the constant fighting, but as a minor; there wasn’t much I could do except dream of the day I could leave.
If you’re stuck in this situation like I was, I feel wholeheartedly for you (check out my story of CPTSD from said chaotic childhood). It’s a living Hell sometimes.
I know exactly how gut-wrenching it is to feel so powerless. But believe it or not, you do have power in this situation, just maybe not the kind you think.
Here’s a few things I’ve learned (and unlearned) to deal with an intractable family situation.
Don’t Engage in The Toxic Behavior
Ever wonder why that one toxic family member keeps picking on you specifically?
No, it’s not because they hate you or there’s something wrong with you.
It’s because you repeatedly give them what they want: a reaction.
When they pick on you – naturally you yell, scream, cry, and/or hit back at them in self defense. Heck, why wouldn’t you? Fighting back is the most reasonable response to being bullied. I did the same exact thing for years until I wised up.
The problem is when you engage with a toxic person’s bull, it only fans the flame instead of putting it out. The moment you refuse to get wrapped up in drama you’ll start to see dramatic changes.
One of the most effective ways I employ to diffuse the drama cycle is to simply exit the conversation.
An Example of Exiting a Toxic Conversation Without Escalating the Fight:
Toxic Person (getting more flustered as they speak): “I can’t believe you right now.
Do you even know what I’ve done for you, the things I’ve given up so you can be happy? You don’t do you? Because you don’t even care about my feelings. You always do this to me, I hate you!!!”
Me (calmly): “T.P., I love you very much and I want to hear your feelings but I don’t want to talk while you’re so angry.
I’m going to cool down outside for 10 minutes. If you give me some space I’ll be back and ready to listen okay?”
This strategy works on a lot of levels.
- I’ve made it clear that while I care about T.P.’s feelings, I don’t wish to participate in them.
- I’ve effectively taken the energy out of the situation by remaining calm, polite, but resolute
- I’m giving T.P. a chance to sit with their feelings and calm themselves
- I’ve created a boundary that’s physical (going outside), reasonable (timed for ten minutes), and has an enforceable consequence if broken (if space isn’t given, the time limit goes longer).
Set Boundaries and Follow Through With Consequences
Speaking of boundaries, that’s our next big step to defuse a toxic person.
Setting a boundary with a toxic person is not easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things ever. That’s because, by nature, someone with this personality is going to try everything in their power to find their way around a boundary.
But it can still be done! As with the example above a good boundary is one that’s:
Physical: It’s critical to get space between you and the person in order to deescalate the situation. This can be going outside, going to another room, or even hanging up on them if you’re speaking on the phone.
Emotional: Boundary setting is all about trusting yourself. Consider your feelings in the moment – if what the other person is doing hurts you emotionally (or physically) then don’t brush it off. Set a boundary.
Reasonable: This is kind of an optional step because you can’t really reason with someone lost in an emotional hurricane.
But I’ve found it does help to calmly explain to the other person why you’re setting the boundary. This is so they understand you’re not trying to invalidate their feelings by walking away, you’re just putting the situation on pause so you can both cool down.
It’s helpful here to put a time limit on your need for space so everyone understands the conversation will continue.
Enforceable: You can’t tell another person what to do, especially if they’re your parent, caregiver, etc. But you can tell them what you’ll do if they don’t respect your boundaries.
The Best Boundaries Are Enforceable
The best boundaries have clear, easy to follow through, actionable consequences if broken.
For example, if the toxic person follows you outside, stay calm and let them know the longer they break the boundary, the longer you’ll be unavailable to speak with them and then move to a different spot. They’ll get the idea soon enough.
This step helps you gain credibility with the T.P. After a few rounds of boundary setting, they’ll understand that You. Mean. Business. They’ll think twice about messing with you next time.
Stay Calm, Even When you Don’t Want to
Easier said than done, right? This person is going to be doing everything in their power to get you to engage in their energy stealing ways. That includes tantrums, insults, and verbal or physical assaults (note here if someone is physically assaulting you, please report it to someone you trust)
But staying calm is going to be the main ingredient in successfully weathering life with a toxic person.
Training yourself not to react is going to be key. Here are some things that have helped me deal in the past:
- Don’t take anything they say personally. They are projecting their fears, frustrations and insecurities onto you because they can’t handle their own emotions. Remember – it’s not about you, no matter what they say.
- Practice mindfulness. Looking inward via meditation is very helpful when learning not to be reactive. Being able to observe where your feelings begin and the T.P’s ends is essential to separating yourself from their energy. Meditation is also calming and good self care for your soul.
- Take care of yourself. Keeping boundaries up on a consistent basis is emotionally exhausting. Worth it, but exhausting. So I suggest being kind to yourself, doing some behavioral activation, and getting as much external support as you can. If you can speak with a counselor or trained mental health professional, even better.
In the end, the ultimate solution against a toxic person is cutting them out. The answer is to lift yourself from the situation.
These steps are not a fix, rather a coping mechanism to help make your life bearable until you can reach help and safety. I encourage anyone in this situation to speak up to someone they trust. If you can, urge your family to get mentally healthy. Alert the authorities if you can do so safely and/or make plans to escape if the situation warrants.
For me, I wish I had said something, it might have saved us all some trouble and got our family on the path to healing faster. But I didn’t know any better and ultimately felt powerless as a child.
But you don’t have to feel powerless.
Remember no matter your age, your ability, or your status in life your emotional well being and safety matters. You have power, you have choice, and now you have a few more tools to survive.
Use them wisely.
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