Toxic relationships are dangerous. They can ruin your self esteem, your happiness and the way you see yourself. These relationships might start out great and then slowly take a turn for the worst. More often than not, victims don’t see it coming.
In order to gain a better understanding about the effects of these relationships, I spoke to two therapists; Mike Wilkins is a counsellor with the Irish Online Counselling and Psychotherapy Service and Ciara McKeown is an Art Psychotherapist.
If you think you might be a victim and don’t know what to do or how to get out, then I hope this article will help you in some way.
What is NPD and gaslighting?
Someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NDP) shows symptoms of a self-centred attitude, no empathy for others, an obsessive need for admiration and they are arrogant and demanding. They think they are unique and should have better treatment than anyone else. They need others to think highly of them and they can’t handle criticism or losing. They ‘act’ as though their self esteem is high, when in reality it is quite low and they are easily humiliated.
Gaslighting is the action, but it is a narcissist who often executes the behaviour. It is often seen in abusive and toxic relationships and is a form of manipulation and brainwashing on a regular basis, by forcing a person to question their thoughts, memories and events surrounding them.
Mike explained gaslighting as, in simple terms, “subtle emotional abuse”.
Ciara refers to gaslighting as “a technique that people use, either knowingly or unknowingly, to get you to doubt your version of reality”.
It’s important to note that gaslighting, narcissism and toxicity don’t always occur in romantic relationships. You can find yourself being a victim in a workplace, in a friendship and even in family circumstances.
What are the effects of gaslighting?
The effects are quite severe. Someone may find themselves in a position where they are a victim of gaslighting for many, many years. As a result, your self confidence is in your boots, you doubt your self judgement and you start second guessing yourself, a lot.
Ciara explained that when you are a victim, you are unsure if you remember correctly or you think you are overreacting: “That’s exactly where the toxic person wants you to be”.
She further explained that the after effects of these relationships “are absolutely devastating”.
It can be quite dangerous, stated Mike, as “over time after all of this emotional control or abuse, you end up thinking something is wrong with you because this other person has been saying it for years and they must be right”.
Mike also explained to me that the person who is gaslighting the other does so, a lot of the time, on a subconscious level: “they have their own insecurities or issues and they don’t want to deal with them. So if they can make someone feel or look bad then it takes the heat off them”.
How to recognise you are a victim of gaslighting
Well, according to Mike, someone doesn’t just gaslight “straight away”.
“It can build up over time. There can be a lot of good points or good qualities in the relationship, so if there is gaslighting you might think ‘oh no, he or she doesn’t mean it’ or ‘they’re having a bad day’ or ‘they’re ok in other areas so I’ll let this one go’. But, over time, it can build up and affect people.”
He advises you to trust your gut instinct: “What is your body telling you. If you’re feeling that things aren’t right, then talk to a friend or family or a professional”.
Ciara explained it as a “fire in your belly, or a righteous anger”.
“If you recognise that the way someone interacts with you drains your body then the chances are there is some sort of toxic manoeuvre happening that is most likely gaslighting.”
Do they ever feel remorse for hurting you?
The simple answer is no. According to Mike, those that gaslight find it hard to change “because they don’t recognise that they are doing anything wrong. They don’t feel remorse [for hurting you]. They might feel that you are at fault and that you caused them to act that way”.
He further explained to me that he has spoken to women who “may be married for years or in a long-term relationship and their partner is on a dating website openly looking for another woman. It’s almost like their cycle has finished and the man is looking for someone else now. They need someone new”.
What is love-bombing?
Love-bombing is a very effective gaslighting tactic and it occurs primarily in romantic relationships. However, it’s anything but romantic.
Mike explained that the person could be “very charismatic, charming, shower you with love, attention, gifts and be all over you. You’re the only thing in the world, in order to draw you in. Then, the gaslighting can come”.
According to Ciara you “get this rush of endorphins, it’s like a drug rush. We become bonded to this person”.
She continued: “They’ve set us up to have this expectation and magical experience and then suddenly they slowly start to withdraw. It will leave us craving for more and hanging in there. It’s a technique to hook people in”.
Ciara says it is like a jigsaw puzzle: “This person [who’s love bombing the other] is also dealing with their own emptiness. They meet somebody and they can sense that this person is handing over their power. They have the power to make that other person feel amazing, and they have the power to take it all away”.
What are toxic workplace relationships?
We can’t always pick who we work with, that’s for sure. At some stage in our lives, we will all work with a tyrant in the workplace. It’s a given. If you have never experienced that dreaded feeling of waking up in the morning, flinging back the covers and thinking to yourself ‘why, just why do I have to go to work today?’, then consider yourself very lucky.
It might be manageable at the start but over time, when we are stuck in a toxic workplace environment, we can start to feel helpless and our anxiety levels can increase. Our home life suffers as our conversations are centred around work, our sleep becomes affected and burnout is inevitable.
There are signs of a toxic workplace that you will be able to recognise. These include intimidation, gossip, feeling excluded, lack of or passive-aggressive communication, constant ‘off-hours’ communication, unfair policies and unequal enforcement of them, narcissistic leadership, bullying, failure to listen, unmotivated co-workers or high turnover of staff.
There are ways you can deal with this toxicity. Find people who feel the same way you do so they can have your back, do something after work to relieve stress, create lists to keep yourself busy and search for a new job.
What are toxic friendships?
Toxic friendships can also be a major problem in someone’s life. Whether you are celebrating a successful career move, going on a beautiful holiday, losing weight, looking fabulous or have gotten into a new relationship, this friend has to subtly bring you down. You never feel support or compassion. They aren’t there for you when you need a friend the most, they can make you doubt yourself and can add unnecessary stress or anxiety to your life.
They can be competitive, overly jealous, two-faced and/or a bad influence. Toxic friendships tend to sneak up on you because, as I mentioned, the signs are subtle. When you find that your friend is emotionally harming you rather than helping you, then you need to wave goodbye.
“You’re not allowed to enjoy your moment and they can’t celebrate that moment with you. They want to take from your moment and there is a touch of guilt-tripping in there as well,” Ciara explained.
Now, don’t get me wrong, friends are absolutely allowed to make mistakes. If they messed up on one occasion, then I would not necessarily classify it as toxic.
Don’t just take my word for it, I asked Ciara what she thought: “if it was a pattern and went on over a period of time, then it is a toxic friendship”.
If you notice that you are giving more than you are getting (regularly), you no longer trust them, you dread checking your phone, you don’t enjoy spending time with them, you know they talk badly about you or you just simply don’t know why you are friends with them, then they have to go.
How to ‘get out’ of a toxic relationship – and never return.
So how do you end a relationship with a toxic person, whether it be romantic, friendly or in a workplace?
Mike says that the sooner you recognise that you are a victim, the better: “Reach out to someone, so they can back you up and say you’re not crazy or stupid, like what you are being made out to feel. That can take a lot of courage, because your confidence is on the floor”.
Ciara recommends working with a therapist: “You’re going around in mental loops of self doubt and it’s really hard to break out of that pattern, unless you’ve someone externally validating your feelings”.
She further explained: “It helps you to trust yourself again and say ‘yes my experience was valid’ and ‘my feelings matter’. It’s just the repetition of that in a relationship with a therapist, to help us recover our sense of trust in our own inner voice”.
You could try and speak to your partner, your friend or your colleague and express your concerns. If they choose to listen and are willing to work on themselves, great. If not, then it’s time to walk away.
When you seek help and speak to someone about what is going on, then you can begin to work on yourself. Reinforce your boundaries and focus on your happiness. You could start by cutting off communication with the toxic person. If that isn’t easy to do, for example if children are involved, then keep communication direct and minimal.
Accept that the relationship is over and don’t blame yourself. Focus on the healthy relationships in your life. Allow yourself to be sad, take some time to heal and take up some new hobbies. Don’t wait for an apology, it’s not going to come.
If it is a romantic relationship you are healing from, it’s important to work on yourself before getting into a new relationship. Keep telling yourself why you left, think about the bad times you had with them and stop romanticising the good times. Take off the rose tinted glasses. Praise yourself for being strong enough to end the relationship and maintain your self respect by staying away.
The way Ciara works with clients is by using art. She is running a six week program in October for those “caught up in or recovering from toxic relationships, particularly Narcissistic Abuse. It aims to “guide you back into connection with yourself after many months or years spent in a relationship that required you to ignore yourself and focus on the other”. Full details on this course can be found here.
This article has also been published on the RTÉ website.