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Letting Go Of Toxic Relationships

Updated: Dec 10, 2022

“The beautiful journey of today can only begin when we learn to let go of yesterday.” — Steve Maraboli

Relationships are hard. Intimate relationships, relationships with friends and family, relationships with people at work, or with a job you’re been at for years. What happens when a relationship turns toxic? How do you let go of someone or something that has been an important part of your life?

How do you know that a relationship has become toxic?

  • You start acting in ways that don’t match your most core values.

  • You find yourself saying yes when you want to say no.

  • There is verbal, emotional or physical abuse.

  • There is repeated dishonesty or deceit.

  • You feel physically sick and it isn’t explained by a medical illness.

  • You’re doing things that are out of character for you.

We are social creatures and we crave togetherness. We want to be “a part of” not “apart from”. In order to keep ourselves healthy psychologically we need a little bit of both. Instinctively and biologically we need to be “a part of” something greater, to be connected to other people in some way. And simultaneously we need to have our own identity, to be “apart from”. It’s tough to strike that balance.

When someone tell you to “just let it go”, what is your reaction? Sometimes in therapy sessions I’ll ask a client to hold on to a rubber ball and envision something that they are trying to let go of, such as a relationship or a job or a painful memory. Then I ask them to gently let go of the ball and let it fall to the ground. You’d be surprised how difficult it is just to drop that ball – some people find it almost impossible. Even though it’s just a ball, the act of simply letting go can bring up strong feelings such as grief, fear and sadness.

How do you know when it’s time to let go?

Even if a relationship is toxic, you have to be ready before you can let go. It’s not a simple decision. There are good things even in the most toxic relationships and you have to figure out if the good outweighs the bad, or if the bad outweighs the good. There’s a DBT tool called a pros and cons grid that can help you think about the problem and decide what you want to do. Make a 4-quadrant grid like the one below. Then for each quadrant, make a list of the reasons to stay or to leave. Here’s an example with a few of the things I hear from people about their relationships:

This isn’t a simple pros and cons list. Notice that you look at 4 sides instead of 2 – pros and cons of staying, and pros and cons of leaving. Notice that the Pros of Staying and the Cons of Leaving (in orange) are similar but not identical. The Cons of Staying and the Pros of Leaving (green) are also similar, but not identical. By looking at 4 sides of the problem you get a better view. Once you fill in the quadrants, mark a couple of items out of the whole grid that are the most important to you – are those items in orange or green? This isn’t a quick fix, it’s just a way of really thinking about your situation and deciding what the next step is. Only you can decide if it’s time to leave.

This can apply to ANY relationship or problem in your life. Relationship with your mother or sibling (do I need to set new boundaries?), relationship with your job (do I quit or stick it out), relationship with a bad habit (is it time to stop smoking?). Think through all sides, make a decision, and then try your best to stick to it.

Try out a grid for yourself.

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