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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. And that’s pretty solid advice. If someone is abusing you emotionally or physically, the correct answer is to get away from them ASAP.
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. It takes time, planning, and support to get out of a toxic situation, three things that are in short supply in many difficult circumstances.
So what can you do in the meantime?
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.
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 living in a toxic 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 bs, 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.
(Note here, it’s never your fault if someone is hurtful towards you. This advice is only to help you keep your peace of mind and sanity during difficult situations. It is not a solution. If you are being abused please reach out to authorities, a crisis helpline, or a trusted person)
An Example of Exiting a Toxic Conversation Without Escalating the Fight:
One of the most effective ways I employ to diffuse the drama cycle is to simply exit the conversation.
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).
Now, I do have a caution here. This works pretty well with most folks. But, there are also abusers out there who are enraged by being ignored. Please don’t use this tactic if your abuser is one of these types. Assess the situation and do what is safest for you.
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. For tips on recognizing abuse, please reference this article.
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 toxic person. After a few rounds of boundary setting, they’ll understand that You. Mean. Business.
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 even physical assaults. None of these are okay behaviors when aimed at another person for the purpose of manipulating or controlling them. (Learn about the difference between a manipulative tantrum vs a sensory meltdown here).
These nasty tactics can be terribly frightening and may make you scared or angry.
But staying calm is going to be the main ingredient in successfully weathering life with a toxic person. It may even save your life.
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 toxic person’s ends is essential to separating yourself from their energy. Meditation is also calming and good self care for your soul.
- Learn as much as you can about toxic family dynamics and how to deal with them (check out our article on the negative family dynamic of Triangulation. You can also read up on Co-dependence and trauma bonds here.
- 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.
No matter what happens, stay true to yourself. Preserving your sense of self is incredibly important when living in a toxic situation. That sense of self is even more critical to have when it comes time to leave.
Make a Plan to Escape the Toxic Situation
In the end, the ultimate solution to a toxic living situation is to get away from it.
But as I said, it takes planning. You’ll need resources, money, housing, transportation and internal and external support. You may not be able to gather all that right now BUT you can plan for the day when you do.
Here’s a couple articles on what an escape plan should consist of.
And here’s a brief list of things you might need to consider
- Have a list of places you can safely escape to
- Make sure you clear your browser history or use incognito mode on any computers you use to research
- Use a computer outside of the home if you can
- Have money set aside if you can, even if it’s just some cash
- Talk to a mandated reporter who by law has to keep your information confidential like a teacher, doctor, or therapist
- Have a safe word you can use to communicate to friends and loved ones that you’re being abused
And whatever you do, don’t give up.
Knowing that you can escape someday will give you hope. I know it did for me.
Wrap Up – Surviving a Toxic Situation Is Only One Part of The Battle
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. 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.
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