“Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it” – unknown
As a Manhattan-based psychotherapist working with a high-functioning adult population, I am always surprised to encounter a repetitive theme in my office. People, no matter how smart, successful, and savvy, find it impossible to break up with their toxic jobs, relationships, and friends. Clients repeatedly walk into my practice frustrated with their life-draining, dysfunctional relationships or jobs.
Picture a panting dog wrapped up in a quagmire of attachments, limping into a therapy office desperate for guidance on how to break free from traps of its own making. If you are human, and a social being, this situation is a familiar one. You can sympathize with how many times you’ve experienced this kind of predicament.
Most people are well-versed on how it begins: you engage innocently with the highest of hopes, just a little fun with a piece of yarn, never-mind the little “red flag” label with the small print warning: you may get wrapped up in something you may not easily escape. Whether it’s a job that seems a little too good to be true that ends up being a dead end, a potential lover who makes you feel like you’ve won the lottery but ends up a flaking out on every major life event, or the friend who always needs your help but seems to disappear when you need a favor.
The most important step is admitting you have a problem. In my experience, the main reason why people choose to stay in unhealthy relationships is because once they’ve invested their time, they become attached to being right about their choice. It’s humbling but grounding to admit to being wrong and facing the inevitable disappointment. Once you disengage, you’ll realize that facing your shortcomings isn’t nearly as painful as the repetitive disappointment of wasting your time staying attached to something so unfulfilling and unhealthy.
The next step is to take a deep breath and reassure yourself that you’ll to figure it out. Don’t focus on how long it’s going to take. Don’t just jump to fixing or cutting or breaking free. The key for the process of understanding how to untangle yourself from unhealthy ties is clarity, understanding, and patience. Lastly, it’s critical to gather social support to bolster your confidence in yourself. Because at the end of the day, you’ll have more courage knowing you’ve got people who have your back.
Below are some questions to ask yourself:
- What part of this dynamic do you own and how much of it is about the other person?
- What were you hoping to get out of this job/relationship? What are you really getting out of it?
- How much does it cost you? (Emotionally, physically, intellectually, materially, spiritually)
- What are you afraid will happen if you end it?
Answer the questions honestly. Then, make a pros-and-cons list to counter the losses and fears. Keep the focus on yourself and what your needs are, not on the other party’s shortcomings. Ultimately, this is about you getting your needs met.
Start with small steps by taking some time away and giving yourself the space to reflect. Notice your feelings and thoughts when you have perspective. Begin to explore what it’s like to set limits:
- Set limits by using “don’t” and “won’t” instead of “can’t.” For example, “I don’t want this, I won’t do this, I prefer not to” rather than “I can’t do this.”
- Make a plan to put aside time each week to work on finding a healthier option.
- Practice having an open dialogue by using “I” sentences (I feel, I think, I want).
- Make a relapse-prevention plan to avoid future entanglements by identifying the early red flags of an unhealthy attachment.
These are simple ways to begin to disentangle yourself from unhealthy connections. If you find yourself in a repetitive pattern, you may want to consider seeking professional help to understand why you keep getting stuck in the same cycle.