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How to Recover From a Toxic Relationship

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJuly 29, 2019

Few things feel as freeing as leaving a truly toxic relationship. It’s such a relief to escape the constant criticism, continual conflict, and emotional manipulation. But what if you discover that you’ve taken the poison with you?

Unfortunately the toxicity of bad relationships very often outlasts the relationship itself, like a “gift that keeps on giving” (in the worst of ways) long after the relationship is over. Maybe you find that you’ve internalized the harsh voice of an emotionally abusive parent, and now your self-talk carries the same messages and tone that you parent’s did. Perhaps you find that your ex-spouse’s harsh judgments of you are coloring your relationship with your current partner. Or you might have left a gaslighting partner, only to realize that you continue to doubt what your senses and intuition are telling you.

The dynamics we experience and the negative messages we hear can be sticky, attaching to our psyches and continuing to affect us even decades later. Our minds are often the longest captives of toxic relationships.

But that doesn’t mean we can never be completely free. I’ve seen hundreds of people manage to free their minds from their past relationships in my work as a clinical psychologist. While the work is never quick or easy, it can be tremendously rewarding. The following principles can be very helpful in the final phase of liberation.

  • Be patient with yourself. Keep in mind that it takes time to retrain your brain. You’re a work in progress. Messages you received throughout childhood can be especially long-lived. Even if your toxic relationship was in adulthood and relatively brief, the patterns you learned can be hard to break. Give yourself compassion when you find that the toxic relationship is continuing to color your thoughts and reactions. Being impatient with yourself just reinforces the toxic voice; instead, allow yourself the time and space needed to heal.
  • Notice how you speak to yourself. Be on the lookout for what your internal voice is telling you. Be curious, like a scientist, as you explore the patterns of your mind. It’s very important that you write down the thoughts you find. Actually getting the thoughts out of your head with pen and paper is much more effective than simply noting them mentally. You’ll be in a much better position to start developing more useful ways of thinking.
  • Adopt a gentler voice. Begin to replace your harsh, critical thoughts with more supportive ones. Not sure what to say? Imagine how you would speak to a dear friend, or to your own child. Practice using this gentle response deliberately when you catch the old way of speaking to yourself. For example, if you make a silly mistake, replace “You’re such an idiot!” with, “Everyone makes mistakes. What can you learn from this one for next time?
  • Lead with kindness. Don’t wait until you catch the harsh internal voice to practice self-kindness. Instead, be proactive as you reprogram your mind. Start training your thoughts in the morning, before your feet even touch the floor. Write down three thoughts you want to strengthen, and leave them on your bedside table. When you wake up, read and repeat the thoughts to yourself before you get out of bed. For example, you could practice thoughts like, “I am enough to face whatever this day brings.” See what happens when you fill your mind with thoughts that serve you well. (Adapted from The CBT Deck.)
  • Find your strength. Do more of the things you enjoy and are good at—the activities that bring you alive. You may have given up these activities during your toxic relationship, since manipulative people typically don’t want to see you thrive. Witnessing your own competence is a powerful antidote to seeing yourself as weak or inadequate.
  • Embrace who you are. Toxic relationships often lead us to hide or deny important parts of ourselves. For example, if you’re naturally exuberant, a constantly critical parent might have led you to bury that joyful part of yourself. Find moments of stillness to listen for what is longing to be expressed. Look inward for urges you might be squashing. Begin to make space for more of your experience.
  • Be where you are. Toxic relationships can lead you to feel bad, not only about who you are, but about even existing, as though you don’t have the right to take up any space at all. But your existence is nothing to apologize for. You have a right to be here, because the universe has seen fit to welcome your presence. Don’t try to shrink your body or excuse yourself for being where you are. Stand firm in the space you occupy, unapologetically. It’s yours. As you breathe in, say to yourself the words, “I Am.” As you exhale, say to yourself, “Here.” Exactly where you belong.

Finally, take heart—with attention and practice, your mind can be yours once again. In the process, count it a victory each time you catch the old patterns. The fact that you’re noticing them means you’re learning, you’re growing, and you’re coming home to yourself.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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