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PTSD from Toxic Relationships

Laura Richer, Seattle Therapist

Feb 10, 2017

Why You Might Want to Rethink “Passing Time” with Mr. or Mrs. Wrong

Through my own personal experiences, as well as witnessing the lives and struggles of my clients, I began to notice a pattern with people who seemed to be blocked in finding and maintaining healthy relationships. Many years ago, I was told that all relationships are a reflection of the relationship you are having with yourself. Although I believed it on some level when I heard it, it would take many more years for me to grasp what that actually meant.

All relationships are forever—even the ones that end, are brief, or seem to be insignificant. They are always with you, and they leave a mark (or scar, depending on your perspective) that will never be fully undone.

In many ways, this is a good thing.

All of my relationships, romantic and otherwise, have been a path to self-discovery and have provided me with life lessons that I would never change. They were the barometer that showed me where I was in terms of my relationship with myself, which—painful and embarrassing as it is to admit—wasn’t always in the best place.

I work with clients everyday who are struggling with low self-esteem and feel unworthy or unloveable. Somewhere in their lives, past or present relationships reflect those feelings, whether it shows up as an emotionally unavailable romantic partner, a toxic job, or codependent family dynamics.

I work with the most amazing people. They are talented, attractive, successful, creative, interesting, and funny—just really all around great people. Truly! I am not exaggerating. I can see it the second they sit down in my office. The only problem? They don’t see it, which is why they’ve found their way to me—just as I have found my way to a therapist or coach on several occasions.

Although the storyline might have changed, the problem was always the same: I had forgotten what I was worth. As a result, I found myself tolerating subpar romantic relationships, which actually weren’t that bad in the beginning. I knew he wasn’t quite it, or he didn’t really treat me in the way that I wanted, but I justified it by saying, “It’s better than being alone.”

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I feel “lonely” is like nails on a chalkboard. What does that even mean?

But it’s the single thought that led me into one toxic relationship after another. It created chaos and heartache and way more trouble for me than spending an evening alone ever could. I actually quite enjoy spending time alone. I could hole up in my house for a week with a good book and Netflix and be perfectly content. What I was really saying when I said I felt lonely was that I felt a level of discontent, but I wasn’t sure what it was about, and I assumed a romantic partner would be the fix. This was definitely a false belief.

When I ask my clients what they mean when saying, “I feel lonely,” they usually need to stop and think about it. It’s not that they mind the physical state of being by themselves; it’s that something is off and they sense that the right relationship would correct it. Although that’s true, it’s just usually not in the way they are imagining.

We are always seeking our own love and approval. We feel that if we could just get the outside world to give that to us, then we would have the right amount of justification for loving ourselves. And it would all be OK. Well, it doesn’t work that way, and thank God it doesn’t. It’s a lot of work to try and control what other people think of me; it’s much easier to manage the way I perceive myself. Not easy, but easier for sure.

So, what are some practical tools for creating a healthy self-image?

One in which you feel so fucking fantastic about yourself that you can’t help but attract the right circumstances and relationships to you, because you won’t have the patience for anything less than what you truly deserve? I believe the number one way to boost your self-esteem is to ditch the people who are bringing you down so that you can work on strengthening the most important relationship of all: The relationship you have with yourself.

Do you have a friend who passive aggressively insults you with backhanded compliments? Are you seeing a someone who doesn’t want to commit to a relationship but hits you up on his or her way home from the bar, leaving you feeling used and disrespected? Are you in a one-sided relationship with someone who makes you feel like your needs and desires make you a bad person? Are you stuck in a job that eats away at your spirit on a daily basis? Do you feel certain that you were put on this planet for more than a soul-sucking 9-to-5 and unsatisfying relationships that leave you feeling empty and unsupported? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time to reevaluate who you are engaging with and time to create space in your life for something better.

The problem with staying where you are until something good shows up is that toxic relationships will keep chipping away at your self-esteem. You will feel so unworthy of what you really want that you won’t allow it into your life or even recognize it when it shows up. And if you do allow it into your life, you’ll be certain to sabotage it because you won’t believe that it’s real.

Overcoming toxic relationships Please know that even when you finally leave a toxic relationship, it might take years to bounce back from the damage that’s been done. Toxic relationships are traumatic and damaging, and even when you get out, you might find yourself experiencing the symptoms of PTSD as a result.

You might become suspicious of new partners who are genuine.

You might start to doubt yourself and begin questioning everyone and everything. You may isolate. Or worst of all, you might find yourself attracting that same toxic relationship over and over again. Just imagine how much space it would create in your life for something new if you were to just let go of all of the negativity and stress that’s been occupying the majority of your head space for too long.

I know this is easier said than done.

I used to hate it when people would tell me to just let go and move on. Of course I wanted to do that, but how do you let go of heartbreak, a job that sucks (because there is the practical matter of bills that need to be paid), or the fear of being alone? And really how long is that going to take?

There is no simple answer because it’s different for everyone. However, I do know that the longer you allow yourself to engage in toxic relationships, the longer it takes to get over them, and the longer it takes for the damage to finally be undone. I also know that you must feel good enough for what you want in order to attract it into your life. So if the things that are showing up aren’t what you were hoping for then it’s time to work on loving you first!

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