Toxic relationships aren’t as saucy and exciting as Britney Spears made them out to be. Being able to distinguish whether a relationship is noxious — Is your partner gaslighting you? Are they a narcissist? — is actually vital to your safety and mental health. But statistically, not everyone can be on the receiving end of harmful actions: Many of us have problematic habits ourselves (though hopefully, they don’t equate to emotional or psychological abuse). Toxic behavior manifests in many different forms, some more severe than others, so SoCal-based psychotherapist and Prospect Therapy owner Sara Stanizai is here to help us spot ours and then put a stop to them.
1. Get feedback from your loved ones
Warning: This step is the hardest, so don’t stop reading just yet. Because honest introspection is so difficult, hearing firsthand from a person you may be hurting (whether they’re a family member, S.O., friend) about how you’re hurting them is the most direct way to discern your toxic habits. But you need to make it safe and comfortable for them to do so. It’s a significant step that you’re even indicating a desire to adjust your behavior, so that should be a cue to them that it’s okay to discuss this topic with you.
“It’s up to them to speak up, but it’s also up to you to make it safe for them to speak up,” Stanizai tells us. “The number one way to do this is not to be defensive. Even if it’s an ‘ouch’ when they say something.”
Instead, for the most productive results, process the information they’re providing you, and then express your feelings and reactions at a later time.
“It takes some time because they may still be hesitant, especially if you have a habit of exploding or shutting down,” Stanizai says. “But as they see you genuinely be open to what they say, they are more likely to say it in the future and will be kind about saying it too.”
2. Be open to others’ input
Stanizai suggests joining a healthy relationships group (“I know, not for everyone,” she adds) or reading topical books. Her fave is How to Be an Adult by David Richo. The healthy relationships groups — which can be mixed-gender, single-gender, or religious- or age-specific, according to the therapist — cover subjects such as anger management, healthy boundaries, sex and intimacy, and finances.
“What’s nice about groups is that those with more experience can help people less familiar with a topic,” Stanizai encourages. “That way, when someone with experience calls you out on your toxic behavior, you’re more likely to hear it because you’ve built a trusting relationship with that person.”
Whether the advice or constructive criticism is from an author or another member of your therapy group, outsiders can typically offer a more objective perspective on a situation with “no skin off their back,” Stanizai explains, unlike a person being directly affected by your behavior.
3. Start walking the walk
Now that you’ve pinpointed your harmful habits, it’s time to address them. To start, this simply means making up for them — and going all out.
“I’m talking, the cheesiest, most romantic things you can think of,” Stanizai says. “But make sure it’s something they would want. Some people don’t like you touching their car!”
She proposes gestures such as preparing meals, buying flowers, and thanking them for everything they do for you. “It will feel silly, but it will also send a message that you’re willing to do what it takes.”
Once you’ve incorporated these actions into your routine, they will likely stay there. However, the specifics of how to correct your problematic behavior (e.g., passive aggression, being controlling, being manipulative) will be on a case-by-case basis.