Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #270) and blog, I talk about how life is not an “either this or that” game. Rather, it is an “and” game, which means that it is normal to hold two or more opposing ideas or feelings in your head at the same time, even in your relationships, and accepting this will save you a lot of mental distress!
I decided to do this podcast in response to a social media post I put up recently: “A person can have good qualities but still be toxic for you, and you can still love that person while not needing to maintain close proximity for a season.” We all need to realize that our relationships are not a zero-sum game. They are not about “either this or that”.
As I mentioned above, life is an “and” game. It is common to hold two opposing ideas at the same time, especially when it comes to the people in our lives. For example, you can love someone but need to pull back a bit so you aren’t enabling them or supporting toxic behaviors that harm them. Or, there may be someone in your life who you love very much, but something they are doing is triggering what you are working on in your own life, so you need to temporarily create some space or set up some boundaries for yourself. It is not unusual that someone may be toxic for you right now where you are at—this doesn’t mean it’s a permanent thing, nor does it mean you are a bad person.
It’s normal for situations and relationships to change over time. One example of this is when your children grow up. Adult children, for example, need to “invite you in”—you shouldn’t just assume that your adult children want your advice and so on. We literally rewire our brains at each stage in our life with our mind, which is why it shifts in relationships and situations take some getting used to and feel strange at first. (Remember, it takes around 63 days to rewire a thought pattern!)
These changes are especially important in a relationship. When you recognize you need to reduce proximity to a toxic person or situation, for instance, understand it will be awkward, challenging, uncomfortable and maybe even a little painful. At the same time, it can also be temporary, and it may be necessary for healing, developing healthy relationships and achieving optimal mental health. This is often true for both parties in a relationship—this kind of space gives you perspective, which lays the foundation for true healing to take place.
Of course, in a relationship, you do need to have some parameters so that the space doesn’t become avoidance. Toxic avoidance can increase anxiety, so the creation and explanation of boundaries in a kind way are key. Open, honest and empathic discussions about what is causing your distress, how a person is triggering you and what you need to be a better person are key! Your goal should be to move from reacting towards responding.
So, how do you do this? First, I recommend getting to the root behind your thoughts, feelings and behaviors through mind management. To this end, I recommend doing a Neurocycle, which is a way to harness your thinking power through mind-management that I have developed and researched over the past three decades, to identify where you are at and whether you need this kind of space in your life. (Any task that requires thinking can use the Neurocycle, which means everything can, because you’re always thinking!) This process has 5 steps:
First, calm the brain down by breathing deeply. I recommend breathing in for 5 counts and out for 11 counts, and repeating this technique 3 times (for around 45 seconds).
Then, 1) GATHER awareness of the emotional and physical warning signals your body is sending you about the person or situation, such as tension in your shoulders, feelings of anxiety or snappiness. Embrace these signals, don’t judge them and don’t try to suppress them. (Spend around 30 to 45 seconds on this step, but not too long as you don’t want to ruminate on the negative.)
Now, 2) REFLECT on how you feel: ask, answer and discuss why you are feeling the way you do. Use specific sentences, like “I feel this tension because …”. Sometimes, you may have to distinguish between a person who is toxic and a person who simply triggers you more than other people do, so observe yourself interacting with this person and how you react (that is the “when, what, where, how and why”). Do this for around 1 minute.
After reflecting, 3) WRITE down what you feel and why for around 1 minute. This will help you organize your thinking, and give you insight into what your body and mind are trying to tell you.
Then, 4) RECHECK what you have written, looking for your triggers, thought patterns and the “antidote”. For example, you might notice that you start snapping and speaking louder when asked something simple by a certain person, as though this is the straw that broke the camel’s back and released all your pent-up tension and anxiety. In this step, you can think about what to do to prevent this from happening in the future.
Lastly, take action. I call this 5th step the ACTIVE REACH. This can be a positive statement that validates your feelings or a boundary you put up to give yourself time and space to process how you feel. But remember to explain why you need a boundary; try to get a “neutralizing person” involved in the discussion if necessary and say things like “I am not going to listen if you yell” or “we can talk about general things but not deep emotions until I am in a better place”.