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Column: Toxic Relationships Can Destroy your Mental Health

by Dr. Katherine Helm
Column: Toxic Relationships Can Destroy your Mental Health
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Most of us have been in a toxic relationship at some point in our lives.  They are sadly, quite common.  We can have toxic relationships with friends, family, romantic partners, occupational supervisors, and peers.  Sometimes a relationship that appears to be healthy, can end up becoming toxic over time.

There is significant research that points to the detrimental physical and mental health consequences of being in a toxic relationship.  It is well-known that the emotional and psychological stress of toxic relationships increase the risk of heart problems, high blood pressure, increased blood sugar levels, obesity, and a weakened immune system.

So, how can we recognize a toxic relationship?

Signs of a Toxic Relationship

Recognizing that a relationship is toxic is often easier than admitting to ourselves that we are actually in one.  No one likes to believe that they have fallen victim to a relationship that makes them feel badly about ourselves.  The way in which we feel about ourselves in a particular relationship can be a key indicator of toxicity.

You know that you are in a toxic relationship when you feel put down, shamed, criticized, and disrespected by the other person.  These abusive relationships lack emotional trust and healthy relationships cannot exist where there is no trust.

Healthy relationships

Healthy relationships have solid, clear boundaries. Boundaries are determined by factors such as emotional closeness and the context in which the relationship occurs.  In interpersonal relationships, boundaries are the amount of emotional distance between you and the other person.  They allow us to understand the psychological “rules” for specific kinds of relationships.

For example, your relationship with your best friend of 15 years probably has fewer boundaries than the relationship with your direct work supervisor.  Appropriate boundaries are important for establishing and maintaining healthy relationships.

Toxic relationships are often characterized by consistent boundary violations (e.g. your boss commenting on your clothes or your personal life) and character attacks (e.g. your romantic partner making negative comments about your physical appearance or attacking your character).  Gaslighting is another definitive sign of a toxic relationship.

Gaslighting is when one person emotionally manipulates another which causes the individual being manipulated to doubt him/herself.  Gaslighters deflect responsibility away from themselves, blame others for their actions, lie, criticize, and perform other hurtful behaviors to those with whom they are in a relationship. They tend to play on others’ insecurities to make themselves feel better, and they feign innocence to the consequences of the emotional damage they do to others.

Impact on Mental Health

The negative impact of being in a toxic relationship is significant.  Mental health consequences can include:

  • Feelings of anxiety, dread, depression, self-doubt, and insecurity when you have to interact with the toxic person.
  • You feel badly about yourself when you are with the toxic person.
  • Your positive life perspective shifts to the negative.
  • You blame yourself for issues in the relationship that are actually not your fault.
  • Your self-worth decreases the more you interact with the toxic person.
  • You begin not to recognize yourself anymore, the longer you remain in the relationship with the toxic individual.

These are just some of the negative mental health consequences.

Over time, being in a toxic relationship undermines who you are, how you feel about yourself, and your feelings of self-worth.  It is nearly impossible to heal from the damage of a toxic relationship as long as you remain in it.

Whether the relationship is with your direct work supervisor, romantic partner, or family member, some general characteristics of healthy relationships are feelings of mutual respect, trust and honesty.  Healthy relationships are also supportive, caring and have clear boundaries and expectations.

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