Every time I see an article about Toxic Relationships on my newsfeed, I click on it. I’m like a moth to a flame when it comes to this particular subject, perhaps because of the HUGE impact that remaining in a few toxic relationships has had on my life. One cost me my job and livelihood and another cost me a close friend.

Anytime something goes south in my life, I work to understand it. If I can reverse engineer, puzzle out, decode, or make sense of an aftermath, I will. Like most people, I’d much rather avoid a second lesson, preferring to stick with the “one and done” strategy. Unfortunately, we can’t always avoid these second (or third or fourth!) opportunities [ahem] for learning thanks to the multitude of unpredictable variables at play in complex situations. And if anything falls into the category of complex situations, it would be toxic relationships – the volatile, yet exhilarating, relationships that sweep us off our feet and leave us exhausted and confused once spit out the other end.

Which is Toxic: The Person or the Relationship?

When I began to take a closer look at the dynamics involved in toxic relationships to grok the particulars and thus avoid getting into another one, my initial focus was on “them” – you know, the other person. The TOXIC one. The crazy, uncontrollable, evil, hopeless, uncaring, and despicable other. The one for which we “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” avoided if only our radar was a bit more fine-tuned. We often feel like we got caught in someone else’s trap and are lucky to have escaped when we did.

Part of me (okay, a BIG part of me) likes that line of thinking. Why? Because it paints me as a sort of wholesome and naïve Princess of Special Land who got tangled up with the Big, Bad, Ugly truth of the world only to come out the other end enlightened and as clean and sparkly as ever. The problem with that? It’s too good to be true. Anytime we come out looking like roses and/or portrayed as a victim in an unfair situation, it’s usually bullshit. Which is exactly what the above scenario is. Bullshit.

Here’s the Truth. Ready for it? That person isn’t toxic just like you aren’t toxic. PEOPLE ARE NOT TOXIC. Yes, people can suffer from psychological conditions due to some seriously effed up childhood situations or as an unfortunate spin on the genetic wheel of fate, but they are not toxic. They are unwell and may lack the tools or capability to engage in a way that feels like love to the majority of us. They alone, however, are not toxic. No one is. To deem someone as “toxic” would be a shaming act and one that is totally void of compassion. Not a respectable choice, in my world. What is toxic, or what can become toxic, is the relationship. A toxic relationship is the alchemy created by two or more people – where one person’s wound activates and agitates the wound in another.

We Are All Wounded Warriors

Every one of us has a history and history involves pain. You simply cannot navigate through life without collecting a fair share of scars – love unrequited, disapproval of another, exclusion, bullying, feeling unworthy, feeling separate, feeling shamed. These common wounds lie deep within our psyche and, when triggered, cause us to act from a primordial place – a place concerned with survival and the burning desire to heal a story that, to this day, still holds a painful ending.

We try to repair the broken past but our tactics are often ineffective and damaging. While the person before us may look like the antagonist in our story, they are not. They are merely a hologram of the person who caused our wound and, therefore, could potentially heal it. And while it may appear that they are mirroring us and cognizant of our storyline, they are not. They are just as caught up in their own story, perceiving us as their hologram and their means to heal their past. Their wounds and ways of acting out activates and agitates our wounds and when left to persist in an unsupported environment, this cyclical exchange can very quickly become toxic.

Honestly, it breaks my heart whenever I am reminded of this insight. I see so much hurt, blame, anger, and vitriol directed at people who were merely dance partners in a subconsciously choreographed movement that beckons to heal the past. Blame doesn’t belong here. It is compassion that calls. We become wounded through the acts of other people and it is through people that we attempt to heal. Sometimes that works but other times it does not.

When the wounds of both people are too severe or are at direct opposition from one another – such as Person A striving for acceptance from Person B, while Person B strives to form Person A into acting and behaving a certain way – it results in a relationship becoming toxic. Neither one is able to get their individual needs met and the ways in which they act out their pain only exacerbates the wounds in one another.

What To Do When We Find Ourselves in a Toxic Relationship

When we find ourselves in a dynamic that is constantly frustrating, confusing, and/or full of highs and lows, it’s a telltale sign that we are engaged with someone whose wounds are activating our own – and doing so in a way that is not producing positive results. The best thing you can do for yourself and them is to stop the dynamic by naming it. And then, instead of playing the blame game and punishing yourself or them for the toxicity the two of you created, get curious. Take a healthy “time out” from the relationship and figure out what wound this relationship activated for you. This often takes the insight of a professional to not only help you identify your piece –  your wound – but to also engage in a healthy and productive healing process while doing so in a safe container.

Once you’ve resolved this issue and/or gained a clear insight and awareness of it, you can check in with the other person to see if the relationship is one that can be resurrected. If they are full of blame or anger, take no responsibility, or have not done the deep work of discovering and tending to what was activated in them, save your breath. Just as it takes two to create toxicity, it takes two to create harmony. In that case, send them love and compassion from afar and continue on your road, free of distraction.

As much as I’d like to say that we can be free from toxic relationships, we cannot. But with an awareness of what creates toxicity, we can short-circuit the dynamic much more quickly – saving yourself and others a lot of grief. And with the added layer of compassion for both yourself and the person you were engaged with, healing can occur that much faster.

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Halley Bock is the author and founder of Life, Incorporated.

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