Recently, a dear friend informed me of her plans to buy an electronic device for her personal use. She then assigned me the responsibility of procuring the device and transporting it to her residence, without first asking me whether I would be willing or was available to do so. This wasn’t the first time she’d taken me for granted and I finally lost my cool. This resulted in a lot of hurt feelings and misgivings,” says Earl D’Souza, a 31-year-old voiceover artist and designer.
Looking back, he believes that he could have approached this scenario more constructively. “Unfortunately, no one prepares us for these conversations and it’s only after the rifts in our friendship get wide enough that we even think about discussing them,” he says.
Although the word ‘toxic’ has begun to gain more currency, most people tend to use it in contexts that are removed from themselves. This often leads to them not recognising their own negative behavioural patterns, says Dr Sagar Mundada, a psychiatrist at Health Spring.
Stopping the cycle
The first, most important step, is to recognise your toxic traits. This, experts warn, can be easier said than done since most people are already so set in their ways that they find it difficult to accept any criticism or to understand why change may be needed.
1. Making everything about yourself
Such individuals often take over conversations or reframe the focus to themselves. For instance, when someone shares with them news of a gravely ill family member, they may try to make themselves the ‘star of the show’ by expressing their own views about the illness, or a competing scenario where they or someone they know is/was also ill and how this affected them. Even if the other person or their social group is concerned about something that has absolutely nothing to do with them, they will still find a way to twist the situation so that it appears to directly affect them. Often, this leads to others avoiding such conversations or the person altogether, Dr Mundada says.
Change it: This tendency is typical of individuals who have, in their formative years, never experienced objection to such behaviour, says Dr Mundada. “Attention-seeking behaviour is observed in either single or over-protected and pampered children. Conversely, children subjected to neglect or a lack of care could exhibit the same as they believe it to be the only way they will receive sympathy and attention,” he explains. To remedy this, seek feedback from those who are closest to you. “Understand that you don’t have to agree with them. Instead, wait until you are less emotionally charged and examine their views objectively,” he adds. Learn to listen without responding. Allow the other person to complete what they have to say. When you do respond, be mindful about your words and notice how often you include ‘me’, ‘my’, and/or ‘myself’ in your response. Avoid such phrases or sentences.
2. Being emotionally unavailable
An emotionally unavailable person may be comfortable speaking about general topics or current affairs, they but is unresponsive when the other person shares their feelings, thoughts, and deep emotions, says Sushma IR, a counselling psychologist at ReFind You. “As a result, their friends and loved ones feel disconnected, because no matter how hard they try, they can’t cross the invisible wall built by the emotionally unavailable person,” she explains.
Change it: Being unable to voice intimate feelings and thoughts stems from a fear of being hurt or rejected. Such individuals fail to develop deep bonds and push away those who care about them. “Understand that you are actually denying yourself companionship, just because of a fear of what might happen – the first is a reality while the latter is only a possibility. Remind yourself that you deserve to enjoy close relationships and that they can be healing and enriching in many ways,” she adds.
3. Taking others for granted
Such relationships lack mutuality or symbiosis. In fact, one person is exploiting the other with complete disregard for the other’s well-being. To determine whether you too are guilty of this toxic trait, seek the opinion of close friends or family members, says Dr Mundada.
Change it: Practicing unconditional care can be therapeutic for you while making your relationships stronger. “Heightened oxytocin levels in new mothers enrich their bonds with their babies. Engaging in small acts of caring for others triggers the release of this hormone, increasing your feelings of contentment. Consciously begin helping five people in small ways, every day. Although this may feel like a chore at first, you will realise that it makes you feel happy,” he says.
4. Responding negatively to someone else’s good news
When someone shares positive news with you, can react in four ways, Dr Mundada explains. The first of these is active-constructive, where you express enthusiasm and a constructive or encouraging point of view. This, he points out, is the best way to respond. Unhealthy responses include active-destructive responses, where you show interest but negate the positive news. For instance, if someone tells you they were recently promoted, you will respond with, “But that’s so much more work for you!” A passive response would be, “That’s good for you,” with no other indication of interest. Finally, a passive-destructive response would mean not showing your interest but changing the topic instead.
Change it: Be mindful of your words and understand which category they fall into. You must then consciously convert your responses to active-constructive statements. In this example, the ideal response would be, “Congratulations! I’m so happy for you.” You could even follow this up with a helpful suggestion if you are so inclined, says Dr Mundada.