Lesson #1: Don’t take anyone’s word for anything as 100% truth…not even mine. Always check in with your Wise Mind.
Lesson #2: You know you. You (and only you) know what is best for you and what you can handle. F^*k em if they don’t get it.
Some people end up in “difficult” relationships whereas others choose them. Many professionals in the mental health industry would suggest that if you are the latter type, you are probably disturbed. I vividly recall a liability insurance conference I attended years ago in which the speaker chuckled about therapists who would actually CHOOSE to treat Borderline Personality Disorder and how there must be “something wrong with them.” Don’t worry—I made sure to raise my hand in the middle of the room to passive-aggressively #represent, but I was disgusted. This same attitude permeates our industry in other ways.
Being in a relationship with a partner who is using drugs or alcohol, for example, is often automatically considered to be “codependent” and evidence of boundary issues, lack of ego strength, or poor “self-esteem” by those in the mental health field. And unless you are doing “self-care” the way that Brene Brown does it, you are just in denial and “self-medicating” by taking care of others (as if that was the worst thing that could happen).
My unpopular opinion? There is a subset of people who have a higher threshold for emotional pain— and thankfully they exist to help people with a lower threshold. I am one of those people…as I SHOULD be because I’m a therapist who helps people with THEIR emotional pain. And not only do I CHOOSE this profession of working with highly suicidal and severely depressed/anxious/angry people, but I have been known to choose to stay in personal relationships that some might call “toxic” (I call it “difficult”) because I think there’s something I can learn from it and I care about the person. *GASP *
So what’s the difference between a “difficult” vs a “toxic” relationship? A toxic relationship causes damage that is greater than the benefit received from it. A difficult one is just uncomfortable, but not harmful. I think of it like the difference between 2 people sitting in the sun for the same amount of time…one is soaking up the Vitamin D with no ill effects while the other gets burned. Different genetics, different experiences, the same amount of exposure. That’s how it works with relationships—some can take more heat than others. But you’ve gotta be real with yourself about what you can take. If you numb out, you won’t know you’re getting burned. The trick is to check in with how you’re feeling and whether or not you can truly keep going without causing yourself damage. We take our hand away from a stove because it’s hot…we FEEL it. The key is to FEEEEEL the emotions in full. I know when I’ve had enough…for now, at least, and I’ll stop then. But if you find that you are getting depressed, self-harming, anxious, or otherwise symptomatic, you may be kidding yourself about what you can handle. THAT’S when it becomes toxic…both for you and the other person. Because you end up blaming them, you, or both.
At the end of the day, you are the only one who knows how long you can and should “swim with the sharks.” Happy diving. ;)
—Stephanie Vaughn, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist-HSP, owner of PSYCHē