Maybe it’s the current political season, maybe it’s our obsession with the #selfie generation, but as a psychologist I am aware of how much narcissism and self-involvement is on display these days. I have long held a particular curiosity about this personality structure and the people who manifest the pathological expression of it.
Dealing With Difficult People
Toxic relationships will cause monumental breakage to people, families and workplaces, but they aren’t necessarily the territory of the weak, downtrodden or insecure. Strong, healthy, independent people can find themselves in the white-knuckled grip of a toxic relationship. Similarly, relationships that seem to begin strong because ‘omg we’re soooo in love you guys,’ can dissolve into nothing but ash and legal fees that could have bought a castle on the river Seine, if they weren’t being used to divide half your assets more ‘half-ly’.
If life ran like a storybook, the person we fall in love would not be the person who broke us. Sadly, we humans tend to be a bit more human than that. We fall in love, we commit, we get hurt – over and over – and we stay. People need people, but sometimes the cost is a heavy one. When it’s a toxic relationship, the breakage can be far-reaching.
One of the toughest things about parenting is that the results aren’t always obvious. If we use the immediate behaviour of our children as a measure of how we’re doing as parents, there will be days that we could rightly swan around with the only thing in need of adjustment being the tilt of our crown. Then there are the other days – the ones that could see us crushed by the rawness and spectacular chaos of it all. This is the messy nature of raising beautiful small humans into thriving big ones.
Stress is a normal part of life, and so is our response to it. The physiological response to stress is hardwired into all of us and is evolution’s way of keeping us alive. In times of stress, our heart beats faster, our blood pressure increases, and adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) surge through our system to make us stronger, faster, more alert and more powerful versions of our normal selves. In short, the physiological changes that come with stress are to give us the physical resources to deal with whatever might break our stride.
One of the joys of being human is that we don’t have to be perfect to be one of the good ones. At some point we’ll all make stupid decisions, hurt the people we love, say things that are hard to take back, and push too hard to get our way. None of that makes us toxic. It makes us human. We mess things up, we grow and we learn. Toxic people are different. They never learn. They never self-reflect and they don’t care who they hurt along the way.
It’s one thing to be dipped in venom by those you don’t really care about, but when it’s by the person who is meant to love you, hold you, and take the sharp edges off the world, while teaching you with love, wisdom and warmth how to do it for yourself, it changes you. There is a different kind of hurt that can only come from a toxic parent – someone who is meant to love you. Kind of like being broken from the inside out.
Even if toxic people came with a warning tattooed on their skin, they might still be difficult to avoid. We can always decide who we allow close to us but it’s not always that easy to cut out the toxics from other parts of our lives. They might be colleagues, bosses, in-laws, step-someones, family, co-parents … and the list goes on.