Normalizing the Abnormal: Making Excuses for Toxic People

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Why do we associate with people who aren’t good for us? Why do we stick with them? Here are a few of the reasons:

  • FAMILIARITY: If you were raised in a dysfunctional family, you are used to acquaintances who injure others. Their behavior is routine. To some degree you become habituated to it.
  • THE DIFFICULTY OF LEAVING: The end of relationships can be complicated and painful. Should you wish to avoid conflict or are afraid the toxic individual will lash out, all the more reason to endure the situation.
  • INSECURITY AND FEAR OF LOSS: A person with low self-esteem and few friends might accept a poor relationship despite its limitations. He does not believe he will be better off without it or capable of finding a new buddy.
  • OPPORTUNISM: Alliances can be a simple matter of taking advantage of a situation and serving your own interest. Senator Marco Rubio is being encouraged to run again for the Senate by senior Republican Party (GOP) members. Thus, he has decided to make friends with an enemy, Donald Trump, the presumed Republican nominee for President. A former supporter of Rubio, Cecilia Durgin in the conservative National Review, states: “Rubio hadn’t just disagreed with Trump on policy but had labeled him a ‘con artist’ who threatened the GOP and was too dangerous to be entrusted with the nuclear codes. Now Rubio has gone from reluctantly upholding his pledge to support the nominee, to saying he’d attend the (Republican National) convention and would be ‘honored’ to help Trump.” Durgin finds Rubio’s shift opportunistic.
  • FEAR OF THOSE UPON WHOM YOU DEPEND: A child who perceives the potential for repetitive angry and hurtful responses from a parent can learn to bury his feelings and blame himself for generating the parental danger. He has little choice. Retaliation will only bring on more injury. Unfortunately, he may accept the parent’s verdict as just. By diminishing himself, he unconsciously attempts to make his situation more acceptable. Moreover, his life then becomes less hopeless: he comes to believe that if only he can change himself, the parent will show him love. Without eventual escape from the elder and processing his own misfortune, he is liable to accept mistreatment throughout his life.
  • RATIONALIZATION: The process of growing up is disillusioning. We discover mom and dad aren’t perfect and no one is morally pure. That includes ourselves, at least if we are honest (a contradiction in terms, I know). Many of us are not and excuse the gradual erosion and transformation of our sense of right and wrong. Thus, we might note no problem in those whose misbehavior isn’t much different from our own. People salve their conscience by thinking they will be heroic and principled when faced with a major moral crisis, no matter their small indiscretions in more routine situations. Without being tested, however, you don’t know. In my experience, morality is lost by inches. Those who are not careful gradually become something they would have rejected at an earlier time of life. When the big moral test arrives, they have long since given up whatever idealism they once had.
  • BECOMING POLLYANNA: By nature or experience, it is possible to be optimistic about individuals and look at the bright side of life. This can be a good strategy for a routine sense of happiness, despite the mistakes of judgment it leads to. If you see only the best in people then it doesn’t matter too much with whom you spend your time or, within limits, how they treat you.
  • HISTORY AND INERTIA: Relationships of long-standing are hard to give up. You share a history and a body of memories with someone special. A recent friend doesn’t replace that shared experience. A new person who appears toxic will be avoided much sooner than an old buddy or family member.
  • GUILT: Society reinforces loyalty. You risk not only admonishment if you end a relationship, but violating your own internalized sense of what is proper.
  • MISGUIDED HOPE OF GETTING THE LOVE YOU WANT: When your beloved or best friend reminds you of a parent who did not love you enough, you may endure his mistreatment in the hope he will change. You are still chasing the dream of getting the kind of affection you hoped for from the parent. This is a case of unconscious mistaken identity or — as therapists call it when they are taken for someone else (metaphorically speaking) — transference. One can almost never persuade a parent or parent’s doppelgänger to be who you want. We can only work through the transference, grieve our failure to obtain the desired love, and find healthier affections.
  • NECESSITY: In a down economy one stays in jobs with abusive bosses far longer than one otherwise would. Financial dependence on a spouse (or the inability to work) creates the same constraints. Escape becomes difficult; though, over time and with preparation, effort, and courage, a toxin-free situation is possible.
  • HOPELESSNESS: Some of us are so bruised by human contact as to assume we might as well stay put, since no one better is thought to exist. It is a false, but powerful belief and likely to be associated with depression. Treat the mood disorder. Hope (and a more objective view of the future) may then return.

One key to a good life is adapting, learning from experience, and knowing how to start over. There are millions of new people you might get to know who would enrich you. Unhappy relationships need not be maintained. We are often freer than we think.

The top Caltrans Sign is the work of Mliu92 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

11 thoughts on “Normalizing the Abnormal: Making Excuses for Toxic People

  1. So very true this post. I think it’s something that can’t really be avoided in life, getting badly burnt by a toxic person. My biggest trap that kept me in toxic relationships was the imposed guilt that they put on me about how much I was letting them down, and how disappointed they were in me. On top of coming from a dysfunctional family background it took me a while and a lot of damage to finally learn the freedom that comes from saying no to someone and not care about what they think. In fact it was life saving for me because the oppression I felt in these relationships was making me feel suicidal and I finally realised that toxic people don’t care about the impact that their behaviour has on other people. ‘No’ has been the most powerful word I’ve learnt. It’s taken me a while to remove pretty much all the toxic people in my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to to choose a workplace that is very supportive and create a life with mostly genuinely caring people. Toxic relationships can really torment your mind and increase mental illness. Starting fresh is hard and it took a few years to do but it has definitely been worth it for the peace of mind I’ve gained in return.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Well said, Claire. I’d add that not only do many toxic people not care about the impact of their behavior on others, some don’t recognize the impact and others deny it and rationalize it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I did that for many years as well rationalising and being in denial particularly if you are in some way dependant, like with family or work. Love is another strong reason or should I say the fear of being alone. Aloneness can be a frightening thing to contemplate and the prospect of leaving a bad relationship to face the aloneness terrifying. But really until you leave the toxic relationship you won’t have space for something better and much more worthwhile. It was mainly through therapy that helped me to see how trapped I was, I really needed someone else to show me how I was repeating the hurtful patterns of my childhood, I wouldn’t have been able to recognise it on my own.
        I think to is the need to recognise that you have toxic and hurtful traits within yourself that is keeping you in the relationship. There is always at least two people in any relationship and the responsibility of maintaining it belongs to both people. So it’s not only recognising the hurtful traits in the other person but seeing your own personality flaws that is keeping you there, and there can be some ugly truths about ourselves that we don’t want to look at. It’s a hard thing to gain self awareness and truly see ourselves and the hurtful things we carry, and nearly impossible to do on your own. It’s so necessary to see and take responsibility for what you have contributed to the toxicity of the relationship. I know it’s cliche but the only person you can change is you, and when you finally see the things you don’t want to see about yourself that can really motivate you to make permanent and healthy changes.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Makes a lot of sense. Thanks, good summary.

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  3. Dear Gerald,

    really interesting article, thank you for posting. Please could you suggest some questions people might ask themselves to determine whether the difficulties they are experiencing in relationships are as a result of the other person’s toxicity, or whether this might be a transference misperception? I am struggling at the moment to decide whether my new manager is verging on abusive in a manner that I a more sensitive to/recognise because of my history, or whether she is just young, misguided and making some bad decisions and I am over-reacting because of my history! In other words, how do I begin to tell if this is real, or if this is me? The eternal dilemma re-enacted..

    warm wishes

    Pink

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    • drgeraldstein

      You are welcome, Pink. You are on to something important: a question of transference or particular reactivity to someone because of your own history. Among the questions you could ask yourself: 1. What do interactions with this person remind me of? 2. Does my relationship with this person fit into a pattern of interactions? 3. What kind of relationships does this individual have with others? 4. Is she responsive to my concerns when I point them out? Good luck with your manager and thanks for your comment.

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  4. Thanks for another self-informative article, Dr. Stein. Over my lifetime, I have lived through all the different forms of toxic relationships that you have raised. Some, like abusive bosses, I endured out of necessity. Saying no to toxic relationships within my own family has been the most difficult. Loving others requires self-sacrifice, not self-destruction and the loss of one’s own soul. Loss hurts, but is inevitable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Rosaliene. Your next to last sentence is perfect, highlighting the need to give to others (and give way to them some of the time) without losing oneself.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I struggle with the excellent content and thoughts of Claire’s second comment….it takes two people to contribute to a relationship and of course there are some (or indeed many) in which one party is very much the abused or the victim of the other, but certainly in other cases, knowing to what extent we ourselves have contributed to the toxicity and also bear the responsibility for ‘fixing it’, is difficult. Does the ‘permanent and healthy change’, for example, have to involve leaving the mutually toxic relationship? Or can ‘de-toxifying’ be worked on, from the inside? There is a massive emphasis in today’s culture, particularly given the ease of both gaining and ‘losing’ (or unfriending) friends on Facebook or other social media, to cut ties with those who do not make us happy. I think there are difficulties with this on many levels, not least the automatic assumption that perpetual happiness (rather than contentment, or resilience, for example) is the goal, and the ignoring of the potential positive benefits of working through conflict and difficult situations. I’m not suggesting we should stay in situations that are blatantly unhealthy on an ongoing basis and which do not really constitute a ‘relationship’ in any real sense of the word – though I find it incredibly hard to cut ties with friends, I have done it myself on occasion. And yet, there are still the odd dreams, now and again, where I reconcile with these individuals – I guess this just confirms how incredibly difficult it can feel to make these changes!

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  6. drgeraldstein

    You and Claire are certainly correct in underlining the need to look in the mirror. It can be very hard to distinguish between one’s own responsibility and that of the other. Your question re: whether one is required to leave a toxic relationship depends on the willingness of the other to correct his part of the problem. Of course, there can be other considerations such as finances in a marriage, children, etc. that might stay one’s hand. Perpetual happiness should never be the goal: we are simply not built that way. If we were we’d have sex once and be satisfied forever, eat a meal once and be satisfied forever, etc. And, I’d add to the discussion that too many people flee one relationship for another they have idealized, only to find out that they married (or befriended) the same personality type in a different body.

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