Recently my plan was to blog about toxic relationships. For some reason I became stuck and could not seem to motivate myself to make a start. There’s lots of written work about toxic relationships on the net and many books on the topic; how to spot the signs, how to get out of these relationships, the importance of boundaries etc. My head has been in all of that information for the past few years, for personal and professional reasons. On reflection, my real interest is more directed at the reasons why people fall prey to abusers and toxic relationships and once they identify the issue, how can they recover, change and move forward, if they want to?
I believe that more understanding is needed as to why people may develop low self esteem, why some settle for toxic relationships, why patterns emerge where people go into the same types of relationships time and time again. From my counselling work I have observed low self esteem and negative relationship attachments and patterns of abuse in all cultures and from all social backgrounds. There does not seem to be any specific group more prone to dysfunctional lifestyles. There can at times be some specific cultural influences, but again variations will be present. There may be cultures where it is more common for women to be considered less equal to men for example, but usually that is an attitude of specific groups in that culture and not the whole culture. Often people will reject cultural ‘norms’, regardless of the pressure to conform.
We see this all the time, in our culture your political stance will decide what group of attitudes you conform to, what groups will accept or reject you. Living in a multicultural society, your social class and ethnic background can affect acceptance or rejection, sad but true. People will judge others, favour some, reject others, that is just a normal part of everyday life. So we do need to learn how to accept a lack of approval from some at times in life and learn how to stop that from damaging our self esteem maybe?
We have a need to be accepted. Pressure to conform and be accepted is strong. For those of you that like a good film, if you have seen Midnight express the scene where he decides he is not going to conform and walk in a zombie like state, in the direction of all the other conforming detainees, he decides he is going to rebel against the pressure to conform. Those conforming seemed to have a sense of emptiness about them. His refusal to conform seemed like his spirit was fighting to survive. He was upsetting the ones that were conforming, they were trying to push him to remain walking in their direction, clearly becoming upset when he did not.
When I studied childcare studies in the 1990’s, I learnt about healthy ways to discipline children. How to challenge their behaviour but never their character, how to do that in a positive way, how to encourage children to think and learn. That was also where I first learnt that it is not OK to attack a child’s character whilst disciplining, how it was important for the child’s self-esteem to only challenge behaviours. I realised there were issues with my own parenting. The sad thing is, how can such vital information not be promoted, so that we all learn this and understand this better? It is a parenting tool that can affect a child’s self-esteem, a child’s self-esteem will play a huge factor in their quality of life.
Often when we do not conform, we upset others. This can be justified and part of a set of values, morals and principles. In abusive relationships, a lack of conformity will provoke more abuse, or rejection. So are our environments allowing unique individuality and growth? Are we are risk of sacrificing our unique self in order to be accepted and maintain some form of self esteem? Are too many children learning to develop low self esteem in their homes? Are some children learning to please others, rather than follow their true path? How can this impact on their lives if so?
For me I am happy to accept challenges on my behaviour, but the moment someone attacks my character, I see the relationship as dysfunctional and will try and keep a distance at the very least. That is my boundary.
It is important to have standards in relationships and to express to others our boundaries and expectations, discussing anything we may be upset about openly and honestly. That creates trust, bonding, intimacy and acceptance. I believe it is healthy to cut off from abusive relationships, if a person treats you ‘less than’ or is too controlling or manipulative and so on. Although; being a loyal person I also believe in making some allowances, as no one is perfect, some may be suffering in some way and their behaviour displaying that suffering, so at times it may be a need to detach with love and leave the possibility for a future relationship, if the person can take responsibility, understand what they have done to hurt you and have willingness to work on it. When a person does not have the desire or the ability to take that responsibility, I would personally detach permanently. The only exception to this would be my children.
The only approval and acceptance that is vital and necessary, is the approval and acceptance of yourself. The problem is, often self talk is negative and fuelled by the attitudes around us. So the pressure to conform and accept positive validation can be strong. The risk is you could lose a sense of knowing who you truly are, that can often be a factor that leads to people coming into counselling as it can feel unpleasant and can direct your life on a path that may not be the path your ‘true self’ would choose.
Often after therapy or in recovery after substance misuse, people will find that the positive changes they have made, can make it difficult to maintain acceptance from others from their past. This may sound a little odd, but it is very common. Yes people have changed for the better, but what about any dysfunction they may have come from? If they do not fit into that and if they can challenge that, then they could be at risk of attack, rejection and being shunned by others, who have not changed and improved themselves. That can put people at risk at a time when their efforts really need be encouraged and supported. Recovery networks can be a vital aspect in recovery partly due to this.
Many in recovery initially can walk a lonely path. The same applies to anyone who may go and have therapy and make positive changes. If a jigsaw piece went off and changed its shape, ready to fit into a new and better image, it would no longer fit in the old puzzle as snug. Adapting to a new life in recovery, takes on many different aspects. One thing is for sure; loneliness, isolation, rejection are a risk to anyone, not just someone in recovery. There is evidence to prove the mental decline of individuals that are often isolated.
People become vulnerable when they feel alone, isolated, lonely, rejected. In recovery from addiction that would be a high risk for relapse. For anyone it will leave them more vulnerable. Sometimes it is that vulnerability that is targeted by abusers. They are expert at giving the love that vulnerable people crave, as a way to hook their target.
So the desire and need to conform and be accepted can conflict with a persons need to truly express their true self and feel whole and complete.
People that have faced a lot of isolation and loneliness in their lives or criticism and rejection will crave acceptance from others, but their self-esteem may also be a block to finding good quality love and belonging. They may have been brought up in families that will tolerate some and favour others. They may believe they are not as good as others as a result. That can affect standards in relationships, they may be grateful for any attention. They could make bad choices and lifestyle decisions as a result and then they will attract criticism, rejection, hostility……….vicious circle. These kind of issues will not flag up safeguarding concerns and may often go un-noticed and dismissed, which is adding fuel to the fire, for the individuals experiencing this and who may struggle with the feelings throughout their lives, where at times the ripple effect can be far and wide and damaging.
I believe family dysfunction and emotional abuse needs highlighting more. It is great that new laws are identifying these issues, but currently we are only scratching the surface I believe. If these areas are managed better in the future, I personally believe that we could save billions in mental health and substance misuse services alone. Pressure to conform is strong, dysfunction is rife and the impact of the two combined could be a big factor in why so many are struggling in their lives. Can some families shape some family members to sail into toxic relationships? If so what is the true impact of family dysfunction? Are services scrambling to fund the care for the consequences of family dysfunction? Should we be targeting family dysfunction more?
Watch the walking dead, it is not the zombies that need to be feared, it is human nature.
Hurt people hurt people, they need understanding and acceptance, not judgement and rejection. People at risk of abusing blindly need educating.
If you find yourself isolated, trying to change for the better, surrounded by critical abusive or cold people, do reach out for help, as it is out there and you do need to change your circles and start mixing with healthier individuals. If you crave acceptance, start by accepting yourself, then you will attract the right kind of people in your life. Break the cycle of dysfunction.
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