Toxic people prey on others. They dominate and control, disregard your needs and feelings. They focus on themselves and don’t seem interested in you at all. They seem to see other people as tools instead of whole, autonomous beings.

You may wonder, who would put up with this?

It seems like toxic people zoom in on those with low self-esteem. When you can’t appreciate yourself, it’s hard to stand up for yourself. You’ll second-guess whether you should walk away from toxic relationships, wondering if maybe your perception is off or you did something to deserve to be treated poorly.

It’s an ideal situation for the toxic person. You’ll keep coming back for more. They don’t worry about losing your relationship, so they can let it all hang out. While they inflate their ego, they will suck the life out of your self-esteem, keeping you low so you’re always looking up at them.

It took years to realize that I was visiting a therapist every week and working on my depression and anxiety, but I really just wanted permission once and for all to walk away from the toxic people in my life. I didn’t understand that permission wasn’t necessary, that I’d have to improve my self-esteem in order to get myself free.

I never wanted to belong to any club that would have me. I truly believed that statement. There were days that I was down and when I tried to put my finger on why, the only thing I could come up with was that I was just tired of being me. I didn’t want to be in my head any more. I was tired of seeing the world through my eyes, processing information the way that I do, and interacting with others in my usual way. I didn’t want to crawl into a hole; I wanted to crawl out of my skin.

What was so bad about being me? Well, according to the toxic people in my life, I was worthless. Everything was wrong with me. I had adopted that view so wholly that I never even realized that the self-devaluing voice in my head wasn’t my voice. It was the voice of others.

My self-esteem is still a work in progress, but over time it’s getting easier to be happy in my own skin. When I am cognizant that my self-evaluation is starting to receive low marks, there are some truths that I cling to:

You can’t depend on the praise of others to in order to value yourself. It would be a beautiful world if we were all walking around telling each other how much we appreciate one another. But how often do those things go unsaid? When was the last time you walked up to someone and told them, “You look beautiful” or “You’re a fascinating person” or “I love your laugh, it lights up my day”?

When you spend so much of your time comparing yourself to others, you can easily compile a pretty terrible image of yourself. The fact is that everyone’s situation seems a little better from the outside, but everyone has their own troubles.

You can trust your gut. Self-doubt loves to pummel self-esteem. Not feeling like you can trust your decisions or perceptions can make a person feel defective. That’s when the judgment snowball begins to roll.

I’m sure you’ve heard of mindfulness — observing your thoughts and feelings in the moment and accepting them as they are, without judgment. I’m not the meditative type — I’m the get on the elliptical and run type. But there is a way to practice mindfulness in a small way throughout the day.

It’s been important for me to put the brakes on when I start to self-judge and feel less than great about myself. Much like snapping a rubber band on your wrist when having anxious thoughts, I picture a big stop sign. Then I tell myself: “You don’t need to self-evaluate right now. This isn’t a test. You don’t need to report marks at the end of the day. You just need to live.”

Toxic people would hate this mantra and that makes me love it even more.

Toxic people don’t appreciate you, so they don’t want you to appreciate yourself, either. They need you to ignore your own needs and desires so you can devote all your time to their needs and desires. They use intimidation to keep you down, which means keeping you from living your truth. You are a whole and valuable person deserving of respect and love.

Stop walking on eggshells and get the courage to walk away. Real friends and loved ones appreciate you as you are and wouldn’t never make you feel unworthy or insignificant. The only thing that might be worthless is continuing to expose yourself to toxic people.