In part I of this series, we discussed how sometimes you have to – where possible – cut your losses. But what if you really can’t do this?
First, a word of caution: is this really true or are you just scared? Anxiety almost always convinces us that the big, bad monster under our beds will be intolerable and last forever, but this is rarely the case.
Yet, sometimes cutting your losses isn’t possible. For a variety of reasons, you may really have to stay in contact with someone who is unlikely to change. This person may be an adult sibling, an ex-spouse, or your parent: you’d like to wash your hands of the person, but they’ve burned all other bridges, and you unfortunately are the person left holding the bag. One of life’s greatest ironies is finding yourself being the “nice” person who didn’t tell someone else to go to hell earlier. Such nice people typically switch between feeling resentful and then feeling guilty for feeling resentful. “I should just forgive her,” they may say. But forgiveness and compassion are extremely difficult if your boundaries are being violated repetitively. At a bare minimum, you need to get some emotional distance first.
“I feel so guilty for admitting this, but I just can’t stand talking to my mother!” Janis told her therapist. Janis would have dinner with her elderly mother each week. Unlike her other siblings, who had all sworn off mom years ago, Janis was the only person her mother had left. Although she felt extremely guilty at the thought of leaving her mother alone, Janis’s mother was indeed toxic: every week she would berate Janis for being divorced. Most Sundays, Janis would try to defend herself—but it was all in vain. “I’ll never be good enough for her,” Janis lamented. Janis had tried talking to her mother several times about how such comments affected her, but Janis’s mother was unmoved and undeterred.
“Sounds like you may need to get some distance from her,” Janis’s therapist remarked. “I wish I could, but I told you, I’m all she has left. If I don’t visit her, she will just keep calling me and calling me. I can’t stand the guilt trip I will get if I don’t go!” Janis replied. “You misunderstand,” Janis’ therapist said. “I’m not talking about giving yourself physical distance, I’m talking about giving yourself some emotional distance.” Janis and her therapist decided that Janis’s attempts to change her mother were all destined to fail; therefore, she could only change herself.
Over time, Janis began to mentally prepare for her visits by visualizing putting her sense of self into an impenetrable, cast-iron box. As her mother would speak about Janis’s divorce, Janis would imagine the words bouncing harmlessly off the box. It took a lot of practice, but eventually Janis noticed that her mother did not upset her like she used to. Although her mother never changed (she remained bitter and negative), Janis noticed how something in Janis was changing: As Janis gave up on changing her mother, her resentment seemed to be gradually subsiding.
When you cannot escape a toxic person, you have to accept two things: (1) you cannot change them; and (2) you have to emotionally disengage from them while still protecting yourself. The second point needs more explanation. Many believe that you can win over anyone if you continue to be extra nice to them. But this only creates frustration because we’re using “being nice” as a control technique. When you are dealing with someone healthy, then connecting with them is the priority. Yet, when you are dealing with someone who is emotionally toxic, healthy disconnection – or even mindful numbing – is the priority. In a weird way, before you can feel compassion towards someone who is toxic, you have to be able to disengage from them emotionally. Safety before connection; otherwise, you’ll continue to feel jerked around.
“….you have to accept two things: (1) you cannot change them; and (2) you have to emotionally disengage from them while still protecting yourself.”
A metaphor may help illustrate. Imagine you and the other person are treading water in the ocean we call life. You want to help the other person, but he is metaphorically tied to an anchor called “crazy-making” behavior. The crazy-making behavior may be a chemical imbalance, a bad habit, or an addiction, but because of the tie of love (or guilt) you have toward the person the behavior threatens to drown both of you. In fact, the more you try to “love” the other person (the more you try to change him) the more your leg also becomes welded to the other person’s crazy-making anchor. With each control attempt (each harsh confrontation, each cold shoulder, each act of controlling niceness) your sense of self becomes further entwined with that person’s problem.
If you’re emotionally tied to another person’s crazy-making behavior, you won’t be able to look with true compassion on that person because his crazy-making behavior will be too threatening. This was true of Janis: she lived and died on each of her mother’s comments.
Years ago, while I was in Boy Scouts, I learned that if I was on land and came across someone who is drowning in a lake, I should not be a hero by immediately jump in after them. Rather than jump in and drown with the person, who would pull me down in his panic, I should see if I could throw the drowning person something from my current place of stability and strength on the shore. The drowning person may not like the life preserver I offer them, but that is his decision, not mine. No one is served by jumping into the water and both people drowning. This can contradict our turn-the-other-cheek sensibilities, but it’s true. In order to feel compassion towards someone, you have to have the ability to first emotionally disengage from them. We have to first sever our sense of self from that person’s crazy-making behavior and get ourselves to a place of safety, like so:
You cannot forgive or have compassion towards someone who has the power to violate you. Instead of forgiving or having compassion, your brain will experience the “fight or flight” response of being pulled underwater, and you’ll be dragged back into co-dependent ways of responding.
After some success emotionally disengaging from her mother’s biting comments, Janis wanted to try an experiment. The night before their Sunday meal together she phoned her mother, “Mom, I’ve told you several times that it hurts when you talk about my divorce, but, for some reason, you keep bringing it up. Just so you know, from now on, when you bring it up during Sunday dinner, I’m going to ask you once to change the subject. If you can’t do that I will simply leave, and we will try again next Sunday.” She had said things like this before, but now, given all the practice she had with emotional disengagement, Janis was prepared to follow-through. “What happened that Sunday?” Janis’s therapist asked. “It went like I thought it would,” Janis replied. “She threw in a couple of snide comments and I followed through. I asked her once politely to change the subject and when she kept going I just left without another word!” “Did she call?” asked her therapist. “Yes. But each time she did I just repeated what I told her the night before and hung up.”
It took three months before Janis’ mother got the message. Janis would refuse to be guilted by her mother who would say, “What do you want from me?” Janis would offer the life preserver she was prepared to offer, “I will be happy to keep coming over if we can switch the subject.” “So I can’t even talk about what I want in my own home?” her drowning mother would reply as the life persevere Janis offered her was swatted away. “Only if you want me to stay in your home,” Janis sweetly replied.
Sadly, Janis’s mother never had a dramatic change of heart. She died as she had lived, a bitter person who would say rude, manipulative things to others. Yet, Janis was able to disengage from the manipulation. After her mother died, Janis felt good that she was able to give her mother a chance, even if her mother never took it.
What was most rewarding for Janis, however, was the fact that she was able to feel compassion towards her mother before her death. Janis had always felt guilty for her feelings of resentment. Yet, as she practiced detaching from her mother’s crazy-making behaviors, she was able to see her mother in a new light: a tired, regret-filled woman who interacted with others the only way she knew how. This did not excuse her mother’s behavior, and Janis still got frustrated with it. But, once Janis’ sense of self was detached from her mother’s snide comments, Janis was able to perceive her mother from a greater place of compassion and security. This would never have been possible before.
Before you can engage someone effectively, you have to be able to emotionally disengage from them. It’s worth repeating that you can’t experience love towards someone who, at any moment, threatens to (psychologically speaking) assault you. This is especially tricky when it comes to the crazy-making behavior of our children. After all, we are “responsible” for their behavior, aren’t we? If your child refusing to do his homework frustrates you, for instance, that’s fine. But if the same behavior feels like a slap in the face, then it’s you who has the problem, not your child. And if you don’t own your problem, it will sink both of you. Your child will feel the pressure of your mental well-being on his shoulders and this pressure will cause him to sink faster.
Before you can engage someone effectively, you have to be able to emotionally disengage from them.
The ultimate test of whether or not you’ve successfully demonstrated healthy detachment is this: Are you able to have a good day, even when the other person has a bad one? You can care about their struggles, but don’t allow their bad day to define you. If you find yourself incapable of having a good day independent of another person’s problems, whether it is their toxic personality, their addiction, or their bad mood, you have an issue with co-dependence. As a result, emotional independence—not another communication technique—is your first order of business.
No communication technique will help you if your sense of self, regardless of how noble your intent may be, is tied to the other person. If this describes you, get yourself to safe emotional ground, spend time emotionally detaching, and then (and only then) can you hope to influence the relationship. In a weird way, before you can positively influence someone, you sometimes have to give up the idea of changing them.
[The information above is an excerpt from the book, Becoming Okay (When You’re Not Okay), which is published exclusively on Amazon and can be found on the link below.]