Toxicity and Its Tough Decisions

Women in their 40's, 50's and beyond need friends and family. Researchers agree that women especially thrive in mid-life and retirement when they have close friends and supportive family to rely on. But what happens when we're distracted by tough life transitions and a toxic friendship or family relationship seeps into our life?

I know from my own experience how subtly this happens. It may begin with a kind gesture, a declaration of love, or thoughtful assist with something difficult, but when "caring" turns to interference, manipulation and lies that create mental, physical or emotional distress, that's toxic. We may wake up one day to a life that is no longer our own and wonder "What now?"

For the time being
The emotional fallout from any toxic relationship can be far reaching and often so devastating that making the decision to cut ties can be scary and difficult. Sometimes, at first, a choice is made to do nothing when a course of action eludes us. According to Marc Hays, Family Counselor, when a situation is so emotionally difficult to face, "For now, we can choose not to choose!"

What then?

"What then is to weigh the value of temporary and imperfect processes." Marc adds. "Say to yourself… 'For the time being, I will do this [perhaps distance myself] and not that [cut ties abruptly]. Then when I am further on my journey and/or possibly have more [strength], I will change direction and do that [perhaps cut ties] instead of this [creating some distance].'"

Shedding toxic relationships can be especially hard for women of an assured age who are already mired in tough life transitions. It's just one more awful thing to deal with, but we must deal with it. By not making an immediate choice we gain time to educate ourselves and become comfortable with the decision to stop toxicity from continuing.

Identifying toxicity in your life
Sometimes it's hard to know if a person is toxic or just highly negative. In either case, we may want to distance ourselves, but knowing the impact a person is having on us first is important. We need to determine if we are actually in a toxic relationship. We must ask:
1. Does this person make me feel bad about myself?
2. Do I dread seeing or have anxiety around this person?
3. Are my other relationships suffering?
4. Have I tried to set healthy boundaries? Do I stick to them?
5. Am I talking or complaining about this person a lot?
6. Do I stoop to their level to try to control things?
7. Is this person bringing out strong negative emotions or rage in me?
8. Do I blame my reactions or behavior on this person?
9. Am I using food, alcohol, drugs or other unhealthy means to cope?
10. Do I pretend that this person's toxicity is ok?

Answering 'yes' to any combination of these questions likely points to a toxic relationship.

Identifying toxic people
Once you've recognized toxicity, the toxic people aren't hard to identify unless we've become immune to their machinations. If we're not sure about someone, or we want to confirm what we already know, we need to ask ourselves these additional questions:
1. Does this person tell flagrant lies or perpetrate hoaxes?
2. Is this person's life a constant drama?
3. Does this person try to control me?
4. Does this person own their choices or actions?
5. Has this person inserted themselves into my private life?
6. Does this person respect my boundaries?
7. Does this person rationalize, make excuses or blame?
8. Has this person criticized me repeatedly?
9. Does this person thrive on being lauded?
10. Do gifts or assistance from this person leave me feeling obligated?
11. Am I expected to give to or pay for or praise this person constantly?
12. Does this person believe that they are always right?
13. Am I aware of this person manipulating or exploiting me?
14. Does this person admit when they are wrong?
15. Has this person played victim to get attention?
16. Has this person ever taken responsibility for their mistakes?
17. Does this person make me uncomfortable or unproductive?
18. Has this person shown me a lack of compassion or empathy?
19. Does this person hide behind passive aggressive behavior?

For me, these questions were the most difficult step because I didn't want to believe that someone I cared for could be so toxic. Even as I write this, I'm reminded of the profound emotional pain I experienced. I learned that my toxic person is mentally unhealthy, so it's important to note that many toxic people don't realize or simply can't see that they are toxic. Toxic people are often driven by their own failings and self-hatred. When their toxicity is a deep mental health issue, hard choices will have to be made to salvage our own mental health.

Taking steps to shed toxic people
For women approaching and over 50 who are already vulnerable, toxicity can be contagious if left unchecked. It spreads from the toxic person to us and potentially to those around us. To avoid derailing our own personal growth or becoming toxic to others, it's important to identify the toxic person early and take steps to move past them.

Shedding toxic people is an ongoing process and requires patience and determination. (No boundaries + manipulation + never wrong = hard to get rid of.) Because this is such a tricky situation, often met with volatility, it helps to have some guidelines to follow before having a conversation.

If the toxic person is a family member, consider a few things before adjusting and applying the guidelines below.
1. Will distance be better than separation to avoid tension throughout the family?
2. Do I want to establish ground rules (like safe conversation topics and/or scheduled visits) or solid boundaries?
3. Am I honoring my needs first over efforts to appease a toxic family member?

A few guidelines
Write it down - It may be helpful to write down what's been happening, what you want to say about it and what your end goal is (distance or separation). You can refer to this during a conversation if you become overwhelmed. Keep in mind that you don't need to justify your decision. Be succinct, clear and calm. Try to avoid emotional or inflammatory language.

Choose a safe place - Have your conversation in a place where you feel safe like a restaurant or coffee shop. A toxic person will likely not take this conversation well and being in a safe place may deter them from causing a scene. If that happens, you are free to leave without explanation.

Clarify your boundaries - Know your limits and state them clearly. Establishing your boundaries and standing by them lets the toxic person know what you will and won't tolerate. Do not argue or apologize. Stay focused on distancing or separating from this person.

Maintain an even tone - Be assertive in your delivery, but avoid the traps of condescension or being overly considerate. State your case firmly and briefly, then distance or separate yourself to be sure your message is received.

Don't let your resolve waiver - Toxic persons don't let go easily. They may be resistant to your effort to separate. They may create a crisis or respond with a victim mentality. Stand your ground and remind yourself that this is part of the reason you chose to move on.

Once, twice, three times - Restate your boundaries and your desire to distance or separate if the toxic person attempts to return to your life. You are not responsible for them, it's not your job to fix them. They must solve their own problems and realize that you are serious. And, while some toxic people seek help, most don't change. Don't live in the hope that they will.

Going forward - You must move on. Open yourself up to healthy relationships. Spend extra time with trusted friends and supportive family. You may even consider removing all connections to the toxic person by blocking their phone number or social media.

Remember this!
Threats, physically abusive retaliation and property damage are not ok. If the toxic person engages in threatening behavior, physical abuse and/or vandalism, these offenses must be dealt with by legal authorities. Do not hesitate to call the police and press charges.

You can help. Leaping the Chasm is asking women of an assured age to help us understand the unique struggles and needs of this age group by answering ten anonymous questions. It's fast, it's easy and it's the first step toward developing solutions.

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About Leaping the Chasm
Leaping the Chasm™ (LTC) provides candid conversations and social media engagement for women in their 40's, 50's and beyond who are undergoing the personal, physical, financial, education and employment transitions that often accompany mid-life. LTC shares experiences, transfers knowledge, improves outlook, connects people, and helps identify opportunities for this powerful demographic.

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