By Jill Bajorek, LCSW
We talked before about having negative emotions and experiences. We looked at ways to understand that internal process and be supportive to ourselves when we have that inner conflict. So what happens when the negative feelings aren’t just inside, but are another person in our lives? We have even less control, yet we still have to have find a way to take care of ourselves. How can we manage these situations? And why do we keep people in our lives when they are mostly a negative presence?
It helps to first define what we mean when we are talking about a negative person. It’s not just a person struggling with something and having those acceptable negative reactions themselves, we mean someone who is causing us grief. As we discussed, feeling angry/sad/upset can be so uncomfortable, we have the urge to ignore those feelings. Sometimes, however, people try to push their feelings onto others in an effort not to deal with them*. This isn’t always a conscious process. Sometimes this happens when people engage in the defense mechanism of displacement, by taking out their negative feelings on someone else instead of taking the time to give themselves that space for acceptance. Sometimes people treat us poorly because we are seen as a target to boost themselves up if they are insecure. Sometimes people lack empathy. There are many ways we can explain the phenomenon of someone treating someone else poorly, but when you’re in that situation yourself, it’s helpful to redirect the focus back to you.
One of our jobs is to prioritize our well-being. Sometimes people consider this to be “selfish” when it’s actually incredibly important for us to do. We can have wonderful support systems in our lives, but ultimately we have to be our #1 fan. We are responsible for taking care of ourselves and we have to prioritize those needs. This means we have to evaluate whom we allow in our lives. This might seem like a cold way of looking at it but really others do it for us, too, and it’s a kind thing to do. After some time, we can get to know someone better and build trust, but even then, we can take the time to ensure the relationship is still healthy. Most relationships aren’t going to be exactly 50/50 in terms of effort, but we want it to be pretty close to that. There’s no way to quantify the process but overall, something to pay attention to is if the relationship feels reciprocal. Can you trust that the person will be there if you need and you’d be willing to do the same? Contrarily, do you ever feel hypervigilant or worry the relationship is conditional? If a relationship is inhibiting who you are or the person is taking too much from you, it’s no longer even. Part of a relationship is being supportive, but we don’t have to tolerate poor treatment.
So why do we stay when someone is no longer a healthy presence in our lives? Why is it hard to detach? For many of us, fears of loss or abandonment prevent making some changes. Hoping things will get better, or waiting for people to treat us like they used to, feels less scary than making a big adjustment of confronting or removing someone. It’s a good idea to remember we don’t have to immediately cut someone out of our lives the second something goes wrong. This is where we can engage in that evaluation process. Addressing conflict is terrifying to a lot of people, but it’s one of the most powerful tools we have. Healthy relationships can withstand and grow from conflict; conflict is not a bad thing! Relationships can change over time and one of the ways we sustain that is by communicating our thoughts and our needs. Being open to those needs is a way we show commitment to the other person and that’s how we build trust. A healthy relationship can also sustain boundaries when someone needs to draw them.
As much as we try to mend relationships with these tools we have, sometimes we ultimately decide someone is toxic for us and there’s no foreseeable hope for that changing. That doesn’t mean we’ve failed, it actually means we’ve succeeded in identifying something hurtful in our lives. When that happens, it’s ok to let people go. Remember the discussion about negative feelings and honoring them? We can listen to ourselves when we are reacting negatively to someone in our lives. We don’t have to pretend we never experience negative feelings AND we don’t have to pretend we never experience toxic people.
This means the kind thing to do—for ourselves—is to release those people who are causing more harm than good. This process can range from an in-depth conversation to simply taking more and more space. Of course, it’s not always easy and no one is either completely good or completely bad, but this is where our judgment comes in. Once we are more self-aware of our emotions and needs, we become more familiar with what does and doesn’t work for us. To honor ourselves and release what we have decided is unnecessary is how we harness our control and our power.