In my experience, when clients seek therapy, they are typically in a state of confusion and internal chaos. They verbalize feelings such as not being able to make sense of their thoughts, or feeling as though they are “stuck” and unsure of how to move forward. This is particularly true of those struggling with a toxic relationship, whether romantic, friendship, family, or even a toxic job.
Ambivalence, confusion, fear, pain. The idea of leaving a toxic situation can spur all of these emotions and that’s totally normal. My job is to help break down these difficult feelings so people can understand what they are ready for in terms of change. Change is scary. The unknown seems like a deep abyss. Add in a global pandemic and our Fight or Flight response is kicked into overdrive. As a clinical therapist, I use our sessions to understand what that person is ready to do. It is as simple as that. I meet my clients where they are.
I am not here to force a client to leave a toxic situation, but rather to assess and help provide clarity around his or her readiness for change. To accomplish this, I like to utilize the Stages of Change Model introduced in the late 1970s by researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente.
For those experiencing a toxic relationship or situation, there is no clarity of boundaries, no clarity of respect and authentic love, no clarity of connection and no clarity of mutual trust. The Stages of Change Model provides a simple framework for clarity around these things so you can identify how much change you’re ready for and begin to take actionable steps.
This period can be subtle. You may start to notice changes in your relationship or situation. There are typically red flags that we don’t want to see, so oftentimes we are in a state of denial or we try to rationalize behaviors we normally would not. Many try to change the behavior of the person by overcompensating, appeasing their partner and engaging in the “fawn” response. This might sound like,“If I wasn’t so emotional these conflicts wouldn’t happen.”
Be gentle with yourself: we are all human beings who desire a deep connection. But it’s important to assess your risk in this situation. Are your mental and physical health being compromised? Safety is key. And safety does not mean just physical safety, but emotional safety as well.
I work with clients to identify the red flags first. Healing is not about changing the other person or people, but about working on identifying the red flags and how those red flags are impacting your feelings and behaviors.
During this stage, we have more awareness of their tumultuous situation, but are conflicted during the moments when things are stable. It gives a sense of hope that things can improve, causing confusion and ambivalence about leaving or making a major change. This is natural.
I work with clients on making a list of the benefits and costs of staying in the toxic situation. Is it costing your mental and/or physical health? Have you lost other meaningful, close relationships? Is it impacting your work or career? It is important to take inventory of these things.
Many clients stay in this stage of change for a long time- often referred to as “feeling stuck”. It is important to be compassionate with yourself during this stage of change- you are a work in progress. It's ok to be fearful, to still love the toxic person or people, to feel hope for the future and confusion all at the same time. This is work. You must be willing to put in the work. There are days when it may be exhausting, but identifying and validating your feelings around this is a huge step forward.
During this stage, we are working on small changes in our life to minimize the turbulent emotions within the toxic situation. They can be the simplest things, for example not engaging in conflict.
I work with many clients who go NO CONTACT with the toxic person or situation…and break it. So in this stage, we are working on ways to slowly redirect back to NO CONTACT and initiate protective steps to keep this in place. We set realistic goals around setting boundaries, practicing small self-care rituals, and developing a support network/ system.
I celebrate my clients each time they can go NO CONTACT an extra day, week, month, or year from a toxic person.
In this stage, we are taking direct action to leave or break contact with a toxic person or situation. There is a NO CONTACT game plan in place. We have done the work and taken the proper steps to ensure we are ready and prepared to go NO CONTACT, or minimal contact if need be. Stage 4 is when we leave the relationship, start to seek out support from others, and take legal action (if necessary, such as filing for divorce).
This is a scary time because we are putting the plan into action. Making a life change and leaving a toxic person or situation can be a loneliest and debilitating process. It is common for people to have increased anxiety and hypervigilance during this stage. This is why it is so important to develop a support network/ system ahead of time. You will have more success leaving a toxic situation if you have people and resources aligned with your action plan.
During this stage of change, we are practicing daily NO CONTACT, or minimal contact. We are avoiding triggering situations that may cause us to break with NO CONTACT. We are working on remaining consistent with self-care rituals and leaning on our support network/system to establish new routines.
This is a time to dig deeper into the work of understanding how we ended up in the toxic situation. This stage is when I see my clients more consistently. We leverage therapy sessions to address attachment issues in childhood, slowly process the trauma bonding, and practice enforcing healthy boundaries with people in their lives.
I’m afraid to say, but relapse is part of the process. Breaking with NO CONTACT is oftentimes part of the learning and healing curve. Be gentle with yourself.
This is when a support network/system is most important- so you can unpack all the feelings of guilt, shame, disappointment, anger, sadness, and fear. Because you will experience these.
I use this time with my clients to simply ask, “What can we learn from this? What were the triggers?” We work on regrouping and simply starting over. We revisit their goals and refocus on keeping their eyes on that prize. It is important that you recognize relapse as part of this process, and not failure.
Change can be a scary thing. But, with help and determination, leaving a toxic relationship or situation is an achievable goal for anyone. If you want to embark on the journey of lasting change, here are some questions to help you get started:
On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being Not Ready and 10 being Ready to Rock, where are you today? It is important to know that if you ask yourself this question daily, your answer could fluctuate- and that’s ok. You must go at your own pace. No one can force you to make a life change. Only you can do this once you feel that you are ready for a significant period of time.
Do you have the support (mentors, therapist, friends, and family) who can help you make this commitment to leaving a toxic relationship? This is so key because it really does take a village to help someone accomplish this.
Also, make sure that your support system does not have contact with the toxic person/ people. It is important for you to have people who are not going to be muddled, manipulated, or pressured to choose sides during your recovery. That is why finding a therapist is a good start. Therapy is a place where everything you share and discuss is kept confidential. It is an objective, unbiased space for you to have a sounding board for the steps that you want to take to make this change.
If therapy is not for you, a vetted and trusted support group can also be a valuable resource during this time of transition. Also, consider investing in some reading materials as you go through this process. Allow yourself to read books that you gravitate towards, ones that support transformation.
Lastly, take stock of your internal resources. This is an opportunity to take some time and think about an accomplishment, a long-term goal you have achieved. Identify your skills and assets and the things that make you unique and special as a person. Ask yourself, “What are the qualities I admire in myself?”
Unfortunately, a toxic person or situation can do a good job of dismantling self-confidence. This is where your support system can come in handy! I like to think of establishing a support system as building your toolbox- and a tool box is filled with a variety of tools that can help get the job done.
It helps to sit down and write out a list of the things that are getting in the way. Is it fear? Guilt?
I have worked with clients who shared that they feel a stigma about leaving a long term toxic relationship- they fear that people will judge them for staying in an abusive situation for so long. Oftentimes, clients contemplating a divorce struggle with the residual effects of the transition on family members, especially when children are involved. (Again, this is why a support system is critical. There are many well-versed divorce coaches and lawyers who specialize in high-contention divorces, so take time to research these resources so you can navigate the transition easier.)
Sometimes, what’s keeping you stuck is less emotional, and more basic. I have worked with clients who have struggled to make a change because they rely on a toxic person for some of their most basic needs like shelter, money, food, and other necessities. It is important to connect to agencies and resources (many of the free/ pro bono) that can offer the right kind of support throughout this delicate transition.
Whatever is keeping you stuck, it’s critical you identify it.
Triggers. Triggers are our teachers. They teach us the areas where we may need to be more consistent with our boundaries. They teach us what emotions get activated quickly and how those emotions prompt behaviors that do not protect us. They can cause a “relapse”.
Triggers can be as simple as places you visited with the toxic person, items that remind you of them, or engaging with people that are still in contact with them. Triggers can prompt negative emotions and behaviors, for example reading old text messages when the toxic person was love bombing you.
Take inventory of what you struggled with while you were in the toxic situation. Take inventory of your physical health and mental health. Were you having difficulty at work? Did you isolate yourself from family and friends? Write out a list of what you experienced. Keep looking at that list daily to remind yourself of what it was like when you were with that toxic person or in that toxic situation.
As you embark on the journey of transforming your life, be gentle with yourself. Trust the process. And believe that you deserve all the peace and happiness.