Toxic Alliances: Relationships that Hinder Your Growth
- Thursday, April 30, 2009
Do you have anyone in your life who has perfected what I call the drive-by jab? This person doesn't really tell you what's on her mind; she carefully wraps the dig in sarcasm or an ever-so-innocent comment. The next time she drives by with one of her innuendos, look her directly in the eye, smile warmly, and say, "I think I hear some feedback in there somewhere. Is there something you're trying to tell me?" (She will immediately fold and declare her innocence. Of course she didn't mean anything by it! She was just joking. But I guarantee that she'll think twice before driving by again.)
What about the co-worker who brings you the latest gossip about another colleague? You are not comfortable with this information, but you don't know what to say. Try this: "I would feel horrible if someone said that about me." (Expect a stunned silence here. And if your co-worker has any sense, it will be a stunned and embarrassed silence! She probably won't be bringing you her news bulletins in the future.)
Then there are people who infect everyone with their negativity. The next time they are whining and complaining, ask a solution-oriented question like: "What can you do to make this better?" or "What pieces of this problem do you control?" (Again there will be silence, because you are asking for solutions, and they don't have any of those handy.)
In each of these scenarios, you are essentially teaching people how to treat you. You are setting boundaries and laying ground rules. Firmly and gracefully you are sending a message: "Knock it off! Don't go there with me." The key is preparation. If you are dealing with a toxic person, write your script in advance.
This is a little like shock therapy for toxic people, so you'll have to be patient in the process. You may have to repeat the lesson more than once, so stand your ground. Eventually they will get it. They will either snap out of the toxic pattern or move along to someone who doesn't have a good script. (You win either way.)
There may come a time in your life when you must decide to completely disengage from a toxic person—to end a relationship. It's helpful to remember you aren't moving them. You are moving you. You are making a healthy choice for your life.
Sometimes nothing needs to be said in situations like this. You go your way, and that takes care of it. If only it were always that easy! In the case of long-term relationships or even family members, it probably won't be as simple as just moving on.
Remember Bev with the perfect sister? The family gatherings became so unhealthy for her that she could no longer accept the behavior by participating. For two years she successfully avoided family events with a thousand lame excuses. This may have excused her from the table, but it did nothing to solve the problem. Eventually she did muster up the courage to tell her mother the truth. "It was agonizing, but when I finally said it . . . when I actually told her how I felt, it was such a relief! A huge weight lifted, and I felt stronger," Bev recalls. "I used a script, and it gave me confidence to confront the behaviors that were alienating me from my family."
Bev used a format that first described what was happening and what she felt. She then asked for a change in behavior. She asked to be treated differently in the future. Her script ended by stating a desire to participate in family gatherings if the interaction became healthier. When you put those pieces together, it sounded like this:
When we are together as a family, I am constantly being compared to my sister and falling short of the mark. This hurts, and it is damaging my relationship with her and with you. I need the comparisons and the competition to stop. I love this family, and I want to participate in our gatherings. I can only do that if we can learn how to respect and encourage each other. If that's not possible, I must decline future invitations.
Notice the "I" messages in this script. Bev took complete responsibility for what she felt and what she was asking for. She did not assign blame by saying, "You compare me, you hurt me, or you need to stop treating me this way." She also asked for what she wanted; she asked for a change in behavior. That is the key that will unlock a new pattern of interaction.
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