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Keeping the Compass Pointing North

If early caregivers violate principles of nurture, honesty, or fairness, we frequently spend a lifetime trying to reconcile this behavior with acceptability. The result is accepting mistreatment in later relationships without realizing it. (The lack of realization does not take away the damaging effect).

To recover clarity and sanity, it is sometimes helpful to learn to recognize certain patterns of behavior that leave a wake of confusion. This Difficult Behavior section of my website is intended for that purpose. I think of it as "keeping the compass pointing north," or regaining and strengthening an unskewed internal detector of toxic behavior. I certainly endorse the truism that we cannot change others, we can only change ourselves. However, if we are on the receiving end of toxic behavior, there is a need to change ourselves in relationship to others.

In the other articles in this section, some of my ideas about how to think about specific difficult behavior are spelled out. What is essential to remember is that these are meant to help the reader get clarity, not accuse or convict another person of something. It will never work to try to solve one's problems by changing another person. Rather, what is called for are realistic responses to present treatment.

Even facing difficult behavior, however, it is not necessary to become 'strategic', or respond with special behavior on one's own part. The best interpersonal practices are universal. There is no danger of them getting in the wrong hands. On the other hand, complete openness and trust may be inappropriate for some relationships. I call ideas about relating to someone who may be difficult at one time or another relationship hygiene.

Toxic Situations

Where there is persistent strife and trouble, it is important to distinguish a 'merely bad' situation from a toxic one. In a merely bad situation, healthy behavior can improve one's experiences, even if no one else changes or uses healthy behavior. In a toxic situation, neither healthy nor unhealthy behavior leads to improvement. Always there is the tendency to be made crazy, frustrated, become disoriented, and be doubt-ridden.

In a toxic situation, obstacles are made larger by addressing them. In a non-toxic situation, trying harder may or may not be worth it, but any results will be clear and can be evaluated. In a toxic situation, trying harder is a trap because the investment and commitment is used by toxic persons as a handle to manipulate.

A toxic person is a person who insists on behaving in such a manner that all shared situations are toxic. Boundaries are not respected and are made to seem offensive. It is possible of course with great experience to learn to interact with a toxic person and not to be 'pulled in,' but that is not usually available to someone who is trying to extricate him- or herself. Therapy that encourages vulnerability, openness, or trust in a toxic situation does a disservice to the client. However, truly toxic situations are rare, mostly occurring where there is strong narcissism, sociopathic tendencies, or addiction.