Are You In A Toxic Relationship… With Yourself?

The qualities that make a person toxic to others can make them just as harmful to themselves. Here’s what to look for, and how to self-detox.

signs you're in a toxic relationship with yourself
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The term “toxic” is a well-established entry in our cultural lexicon, and most of us hear it regularly—right alongside a more recent favorite, “gaslighting.” (Maybe not a coincidence, since the two tend to go hand-in-hand.) Typically, we use “toxic” to refer to a romantic partner who doesn’t carry their weight or messes with our heads, a “friend” who’s always looking for a chance to twist the knife, or a boss who seems to relish making you squirm. But here’s a revelation for you: The qualities that make a person toxic to others can make them just as harmful to themselves. If you’ve ever self-sabotaged, self-deprecated, or self-destructed, it’s possible that you have some amends to make with, well, you. Not sure of your toxicity levels?

Here are 5 signs that you might be your own worst frenemy—and ways to self-detox.

1. You Constantly Focus on the Negative.

Remember the pie-in-the-sky dreams you had as a kid, the stuff you wanted to do, the person you longed to be? If your impulse now is to scoff at that kind of hopefulness—I can’t open a café/bookstore, that’s impractical—you’re likely prone to negative self-talk. It happens to all of us occasionally—but if you default to it, your automatic naysaying will all but guarantee that you’ll never do (or be, or have) what you truly desire.

How to do better: The Mayo Clinic suggests looking more closely at how your negative self-talk plays out. Are you filtering, i.e.ignoring good stuff, zeroing in on the bad? Personalizing, such as assuming that something that’s gone wrong is somehow your fault? Catastrophizing, or choosing to believe that not only does everything suck, but it sucks harder than anything has ever sucked? Polarizing, like seeing things as only good or only bad—you might also know this as “black and white thinking”? Once you have a sense of which you’re engaging in, you’ll have a better idea of how to curb it—half the battle is stopping mid-thought, looking closely at that thought, and seeing how unlikely it really is.

2. You Undermine Your Own Efforts.

What does this look like in real life?It could be feeling intimidated by a job that you’re reaching for, so you do nothing to prepare for the interview, or procrastinating so extremely that you’re forced to turn in something subpar. Why might someone do these thingOne explanation is fear of failure—often, we sabotage ourselves to preserve the right to say, “I didn’t give it my best, that’s why it didn’t work.” It’s a form of self-protection gone terribly awry.

How to do better: Alice Boyes, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit, recommends externalizing certain tasks so it’s not all on you—which gives your subconscious fewer chances to torpedo the proceedings. One way to do this is to use heuristics, or loose rules that reduce the need to obsess. For that interview that was “accidentally” tanked, a good rule might’ve been to use a heuristic wherein every time you feel nervous about the interview and tell yourself you’re unqualified, you sit down and spend ten minutes practicing your answers in front of a mirror.

3. You Treat Yourself with Disrespect.

Though this may seem like more of the negative self-talk from earlier, self-disrespect is something more insidious, and it’s not always verbal. Do you routinely eat until you’re full of self-loathing? Do you deny yourself things you want or even need because you feel you don’t deserve them? Do you habitually defer to those around you because you think your opinion means less than everyone else’s? These are all forms of self-cruelty, and they smack of someone who is punishing herself for some unknown crime.

How to do better: We hereby clear you of all charges—you’ve done nothing wrong. To start to believe that yourself, try a little projection: If you saw a friend behaving this way, would you let it go unmentioned? If someone you loved was as shitty to themselves as you are to yourself, wouldn’t you speak up? Beyond that, take a page from the bounty of research that says the only antidote to self-cruelty is self-compassion. If you mess up, sit with the mistake—then let it go, just as you would forgive a friend. Try to adopt a growth mindset, one that helps you to view life’s challenges as opportunities to become your best self. And focus on gratitude, which research shows can help you greet life—and yourself—with increased joy and generosity.

4. You Lie to Yourself.

There are a few ways this can occur. One, you refuse to acknowledge your feelings, either because they’re too scary or upsetting, or you simply don’t feel entitled to them—a kind of self-lie by omission. Two, you traffic in denial, pretending everything’s fine when a part of you knows it’s absolutely not. Three, you rationalize or minimize facts you find too upsetting to face—one study calls this “psychological partitioning.” And finally, you decide to believe something is true even when it’s objectively clear that it’s not; that same study calls this “twisted self-deception.” (If you’re waiting on JFK Jr. to become vice president, you might want to look into this last one.)

How to do better: There are some essential questions to ask yourself: Do you want to be alienated from those close to you? Research shows that the more we sink into self-deception, the further we drift from those around us. Do you want to stall out and make no meaningful personal gains in life? Lying to yourself has also been shown to cost you forward momentum, because personal progress is driven by an honest view of your past and present. Whatever fleeting benefits self-deception may offer, they’re heavily outweighed by the downsides.

5. All of the Above Has Come to Seem Normal.

That’s the problem with toxic relationships: they mess up your sense of what’s right and fair and good, leaving you with standards so low you don’t even realize that you’re suffering. But emotional pain can crop up in subtle ways: insomnia, anxiety, even body aches. If you’re feeling perpetually run down and vaguely bummed out, it’s time for a change.

How to do better: Spend more time around the kinds of people you view as emotionally healthy, people who can help you reset your sense of what a normal relationship with yourself looks like. Question your thoughts—particularly the negative ones—and ask yourself if an emotionally healthy person would think this way. (A therapist can be very helpful in helping you learn to do this.) And get back to basics, mental health-wise: the National Institutes of Health, among others, has a toolkit to help you make sure you’re setting yourself up to feel as good as possible.