In the past few years, the public has begun to pay more and more attention to topics relating to mental health and psychological well-being. One buzzword that has come up increasingly more often is the term ‘toxic relationship’ – but what does it mean? And can you apply it to describe the relationship you have with yourself?
“Why do you always mess everything up?” – “You don’t deserve to study at UvA!” – “Pull yourself together, it’s not like the task is all that hard.” – “Of course nobody called you today, you are worthless, why would people want to spend their time on you?” – “The paper is not good enough, because you are not good enough.”
Do these sentences sound familiar? Do you recognize the derogatory tone, or even the content? For me, thoughts like these are no rarity. I often would catch myself right in the act of criticising myself for things I am not in the slightest to blame for. I shower myself with harsh words after failing to finish something on time. Sometimes, I even tell myself that I am not worthy of having relationships at all, be it with friends, a significant other, or family.
One day, I suddenly realised how toxic my thoughts had become, and wondered if I would stay in an actual relationship with someone else if they treated me the way I treat myself. Wouldn’t I have ended the relationship ages ago? Yes, I probably would have left them for good. But obviously, one cannot leave oneself. Despite that, the question arose if it is possible to have a toxic relationship with yourself? And can you mend it?
‘Toxic’, according to Merriam Webster Dictionary, can refer to a poisonous substance as well as something being extremely harsh, malicious or harmful, for example someone’s sarcasm. In the past years, somehow, this expression has found its way into the public dialogue with a multitude of YouTube videos, podcasts, and blog entries being released on the topic, shedding light on the relationships that can be affected and on approaches to deal with them.
Background Knowledge: What Does Psychology Say?
In 2003, Psychology Today published an article around the question ‘Are problematic relationships a new type of dysfunction?’. There, it is said that considering a relationship itself as dysfunctional is a huge philosophical step. However, it was not yet clear if the ‘toxicity’ takes root in a personality disorder of at least one party involved, or if the combination of two mentally healthy individuals alone can result in a toxic relationship. Recently, a meta-analysis from 2018 documents that personality disorders are in fact related to interpersonal dysfunction and relationship impairment, although specific dynamics are not investigated yet.
One example for the severity of toxic relationships is shown by Lisa R. Starr, Ph.D. and colleagues, who found that interpersonal dysfunctions can be a main mechanism through which anxiety disorders promote later depression.
Detecting Toxic Relationships
Most people have experienced harmful relationships in one way or another, be it with (ex) friends, with (ex) life partners, or at work. Randi Gunther Ph.D. says, “All relationships are more or less dysfunctional in different ways and at different times”. But when is it too much? When is the relationship truly dysfunctional and unhealthy?
Tell-tales for a dysfunctional relationship are, among others, the urge to always determine the bad guy, threatening with abandonment, dominant behaviour, and disrespecting each other’s boundaries.
Tell-tales for a dysfunctional relationship are, among others, the urge to always determine the bad guy, threatening with abandonment, dominant behaviour, and disrespecting each other’s boundaries. According to Randi Gunther, a dysfunctional relationship can be mended if enough care and communication is put into it.
A relationship being toxic has an even more severe ring to it, however. Red flags, according to Women’s Health can come in various shapes. For instance, if someone is always criticising you, if they are continuously undermining your self-esteem, or if they are controlling and jealous, these patterns can be toxic. As a result, you might not be able to take the time to care for yourself anymore, you feel insecure and take the blame for the majority of the arguments.
Am I Toxic To Myself?
Of course, if we define a relationship as the way in which two or more people feel and behave towards each other, it is impossible to have a toxic relationship with yourself. I mean, we are just one person after all. But did you too recognize some of the toxic traits mentioned above in the way you treat yourself?
It might be no scientifically approved theory, but I believe that sometimes you have to take a step back and observe the imaginative interactions you have with yourself from an outside point of view. After all, a therapist’s advice often entails to treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
So, if you realise that you always blame yourself for everything, that you don’t take time off, that you are constantly criticising yourself, you might have something akin to an interpersonal dysfunction – but with yourself.
This is complicated as you are not only the one hurting, but also the one inflicting the pain.
We already read that dysfunctional relationships can be mended if we acknowledge their dysfunctionality. For yourself, this could be adapted like this: If you detect toxic patterns in the way you treat yourself, you first have to really see them. Then, you could address them and wonder ‘why am I doing this to myself’? However, this is complicated as you are not only the one hurting, but also the one inflicting the pain.
Randi Gunther says that only by identifying such dysfunctional patterns you can break them. So, try to listen to yourself when you turn to toxic habits like overly criticising yourself and actively counteract the negative patterns in your relationship with yourself. Be kinder to you.
Toxic Relationship – An Umbrella Term
It is important to understand that the term ‘toxic relationship’ is neither scientific, nor often used by psychology scholars. Instead, it is a self-constructed buzzword that somehow developed over the years and has weaved itself into the public mind. Nevertheless, interpersonal dysfunctions and relationship impairments do exist and need to be taken seriously as they can partly accelerate other disorders, such as depression.
I am by no means a psychologist, but I have realised that I feel better if I am much more attentive about myself. As soon as I detect these so-called toxic patterns, I try to make them visible, make them apparent to myself. This way, I can call myself out on them, and in turn, I can break and change the pattern towards something healthier.
Just imagine your best friend telling you that you are too dominant and too controlling and that they hurt because of you. Wouldn’t you try everything to save the relationship with them? Wouldn’t you want to change your toxic behaviour for them because you value and respect them?
Of course you don’t have to put up with dysfunctional or toxic relationships yourself, if the cost would be too high to save them. Your (mental) health always comes first. But the relationship with yourself is different – it is the longest, deepest, and most important relationship you will ever have. And you are stuck with it. So, why not pay the same respect to yourself and actively tend to the relationship with yourself? Give yourself the attention you deserve and invest in being the opposite of toxic – healthy.
Cover: Courtney Nuss
Edited by: Andreea Rebegea