Relationships can be toxic. Regardless of what we want to believe about the people in our lives, simply being in physical or emotional proximity to them can be detrimental to our mental health.
For me, this idea took a long time to take hold, and my experiences cut to the core of what I believed – and continue to believe – about my own worth and value in the relationships that I choose to keep and give up. When I was a child, my father sexually abused me. When I was a teenager, I began to tell the adults in my life, including my mother, who threw him out of the house. A year later, she took him back.
This is one example of a relationship that was toxic to me. I severed the relationship with my father immediately; however, it took me another 14 years to cut ties with my mother and the rest of my extended family.
I know how strong toxic relationship ties can be. I also know that there’s hope.
Fast forward to the present, another ten years later, to a toxic person I had to cut out from my life just in the last week. While I am more open, whole, and willing to choose myself, there is a significant amount of grief that comes from cutting out this friendship. The losses are undeniable, but I’m here to tell you that so are the gains.
The Losses of Cutting Out Toxic People
- The Loss of What Society Expects
Cutting out toxic friendships is a bit easier than eliminating family relationships, at least in my experience. Society expects us to stick with time-honored traditions that have their malevolent side. A popular one in my family growing up was that “Blood is thicker than water.” Along with that was the inarguable idea that, “Our family business is private and we keep it secret.”
Secrecy is where our souls die. There is no healing in the closed darkness of secrecy.
Another popular societal expectation from my church years was “Honor thy Father and Mother.” Every time I’ve read or heard this sentiment, I’ve wondered what that means for people – children – like me, victimized and traumatized by the people who were supposed to love us and provide the best for us.
Breaking those time-honored traditions can feel extremely uncomfortable, but – in my case, especially – has been necessary for wholeness.
- The Loss of What You Never Had
Which brings me to the second loss. A common expectation is that our mothers and fathers are “good,” that we keep participating in this relationship as we grow into adulthood. For many families, this is fine and dandy.
For those with toxic parents, this can be an endless cycle of emotional manipulation, disappointment, and grief. I vividly remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine regarding my mother several years ago, in which she said, “Stop going to the hardware store for milk.”
In other words, my mother was not going to be able to provide me with the love and care that I needed in whatever form I was looking for. I had never had it, and I was never going to have that kind of love and security from a parent.
This is a hard truth. And it set me free.
- The Loss of Who You Are With Them
I have been working with my therapist over the last several weeks about my toxic friendship. I take my relationships seriously; the idea of cutting someone out is painful and I do not take it lightly.
During my latest counseling session, my therapist said, “You’re not just grieving the loss of this friendship, you’re also grieving the person that you were with them.”
There is a certain comfort when dealing with toxic people, especially over long periods of time. We know what behaviors and responses are expected of us. The cycle of the relationship can reinforce our own ideas of our worthlessness, requiring less work from us. We know what emotional and physical harm will result.
There is comfort in the known, but there is greater healing and movement in leaving this toxic comfort zone.
The Gains of Cutting Out Toxic People
- The Gain of Accepting Reality
There are consequences when it comes to my childhood experiences. I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One of the hallmarks of this disorder is living in a fantasy world. This is a strategy to help escape the trauma and resulting emotions, and there are two sides to it: I have a vivid and active imagination (which is fun for writing) but I tend to escape a lot through fantasy (leaving me not present for people around me).
By cutting toxic people out of my life, I have gained an acceptance of reality. In fact, I have learned that my reality is pretty good now, especially when I choose supportive, loving people.
But my latest friendship was no longer supportive; it wasn’t what I thought – imagined – it was. I had to face that while this person hadn’t started out toxic, our relationship was continuing to have a negative impact on my life.
I did not want to face this at first, but the harder I tried to hold on, the worse it got. So I first asked this person for some space.
Space wasn’t enough. The idea of even simple communication with this person resulted in a churning stomach, sweaty palms, and a squeezed heart. These were the physical side effects. The mental and emotional side effects were fun and excitement, yes, but also panic, fear, insecurity, and brain fog.
So I had to end the relationship. Yes, there is grief. But there’s also freedom that comes with accepting my reality, including relief from those exhausting and harmful physical and emotional responses.
- The Gain of Moving Forward
Accepting reality means that I am not stuck; I am choosing to move forward in my own healing. Not without some grief, mind you. Moving forward means facing and going through the grief process, no matter how “big” or “small” I believe the grief events to be.
Feeling unsettled and sad about my broken relationship, I decided to spend some time in guided meditation. During those precious minutes of settling down and in, I had an image indicating that the loss of this person echoed the loss of my family. Like my mother, for example, this person didn’t love me. My need to try and convince them to love me was similar; the circumstances were different, but the patterns were similar. As if the pattern had been traced from a book onto tracing paper, like I used to do when I was a kid.
Maybe this new grief pattern from cutting out this toxic relationship could be used to address the old one. To heal that original wound into a scar. Maybe – sometimes – grief is a tool.
I don’t have to get stuck in this grief. I can use it to move forward in my healing journey.
- The Gain of Choosing YOU
Once you begin to heal and accept your own inherent value, certain relationships will no longer fit in your life. The messages from these toxic people will conflict with the new ones from your healing.
Eventually, you will have to choose.
“Of course I would choose myself,” I often think. The practice of choosing – believing – in my inherent value proves to be more difficult than expected. Changing the ways in which we think and feel about ourselves is uncomfortable, there is no denying it.
But the gains! The freedom, peace, joy, balance, and even grief is better than we can imagine. That leap of faith is blind and terrifying, ending with a blast of confidence and love for ourselves that we cannot get from anyone else.
There are toxic relationships. There is healing. Eventually, we all have to choose.
I choose me.