How Toxic Relationships With Family, Friends And Yourself Can Be Detrimental To Your Health

In an earlier post, I talked about 6 Ways That Family And Friends Can Support The Cancer Sufferer. They include providing a resource for them as they select their treatment option, following their wishes about who they want to tell about their disease and never betraying that confidence, encouraging them to keep going when times get rough, and, if the treatment plan clearly isn’t working, having the courage to suggest an alternative approach. However, sometimes, toxic relationships with family and friends can actually play a role in helping to create a disease or health condition in the first place and hinder recovery if that relationship isn’t either altered or severed.

In this post, I want to focus specifically on two aspects of emotional pain which affect the healthy functioning of the body, both of which you can do something about. The first comes from outside of yourself, and that is invalidation by others, while the second originates from within and that is attachment to this temporary, physical world and all of the fears that come with it. 

Let’s begin with invalidation which might manifest itself, for instance, in a family member or boss who constantly criticises or suppresses you over a long period of time. They could do this in subtle ways, a comment here and there, or they may do it in humiliating and overt ways like putting you down in front of other people and trying to make you feel small and worthless. The poison that lies within invalidation is that after a while, without realising it, you might actually start to believe the invalidating statements at a cost to your mental and physical health. These beliefs become deeply entrenched within you and you give your power away, losing contact with your self-love, and habitually betraying yourself and the vibrant potential locked up inside your soul.

It’s worth recounting here my own experiences with my elder brother so that you can also recognise the pattern in people around you. I understand that this is my perception, but for me, the instances which follow, as well as many others not mentioned here, and his responses to being confronted on the issue, cannot be explained any other way than his attempts at invalidation. He’s the oldest of four boys and I’m the second born, with just 14 months separating us. Although he’s tried both subtly and overtly to invalidate me over many years, I’ve never come close to allowing him to do so as I’ve always known the sense of powerlessness that drove his behaviour in the first place. We had a mother who valued intellect over everything else, often proudly saying that she was “an intellectual snob”. I was brighter than my brother, but he was very artistic which my mother didn’t value to the same degree that she revered intellect. This was, of course, completely wrong. Both of us wanted her approval, as almost all children do, but I received it much more than he did. I got into university first and got my degree first. In fact, I seemed to be first at everything: getting engaged, getting married, presenting the first grandchild and so on. This, to him as the eldest child, was very much against the natural order of things. A couple of years after I got married, my wife and I, together with our baby son, moved to Turkey, and after three years there, spent another 28 consecutive years abroad in Saudi Arabia (2), Dubai (6), South Africa (14) and Qatar (6) before returning to the UK in 2016.

So, how did my elder brother’s subtle attempts at invalidation manifest themselves. While in South Africa, I wrote a book, ‘New Perceptions’, published by Pearson Education, the biggest publishers of academic books worldwide, which sold over 10,000 copies in the university sector. My wife and I also ran our own soft skills training company and designed many courses with high quality training manuals for our corporate clients. Despite visiting us in South Africa with his family twice, he never once asked to see my book, even though it was in plain sight at our home, nor showed the slightest interest in our business because to have done so would have been to acknowledge my success and thus elevate me in the relationship. Twelve years later, he and his wife also visited us in Qatar where I was Group Training Manager in a large holdings company, yet never did he once visit my workplace where I had a lovely office nor ask to look at any of the training resources I’d designed which, again, were in plain view in our apartment. When we returned to the UK in 2016, my wife and I started an online business but when we launched the website and messaged our family in the UK as well as all of the friends we’d made overseas to let them know about it as they’d all shown a keen interest in our new project, every single one of them replied wishing us good luck … with the exception of my elder brother who simply ignored the message.

His overt attempts at invalidation were very obvious and sledgehammer-like. For instance, when I received the letter informing me that I’d secured a university place, his exact words, lying in his bed opposite mine, were “I don’t know why you’re so happy: it’s only a bummy old degree course!” Also, I recently attended my uncle’s funeral and got to speaking with my cousin and his wife who I’d not seen since I’d got married. In talking about my most recent position in Qatar, my cousin’s wife asked why I’d left to come back to the UK after so many years away and while I was explaining how my employers had, as a cost-cutting measure due to the drastic fall in the oil price, laid off many staff and closed the training department, of which I was head, my brother blurted out “He got made redundant.” There are just so many examples of both my elder brother’s subtle and overt attempts at invalidation over the years that I can’t possibly list them all here, but you do need to understand that the person who is invalidating you is doing so either because they’re threatened by your accomplishments, which applied in the case of my elder brother, or they’re co-dependent and scared of losing you if you pursue your own dreams. This is your life: It’s yours to claim and, if you stay in such a toxic relationship, your health, vitality and dreams may all be jeopardised. Of course, you should always confront the person who you feel is invalidating you first to try and get them to change their behaviours but be watchful of their responses which may attempt to invalidate you still further by putting the problem back on you. “Don’t take yourself too seriously”, “It’s all in your head, stop whining”, “You’re imagining it” etc., together with personal insults, should all set your alarm bells ringing.  I received the whole range of abuse from my elder brother when I confronted him and, like me, you might have to cut the emotional cord between you both for the sake of your own sense of personal well-being.

Another source of emotional pain is that of attachment. In the 13th Century, renowned mystic and theologian, Meister Eckhart, declared that attachment to this temporary, physical world is the cause of all pain, suffering and illness, and that detachment from the outside world is the highest state that one could achieve. He explained that this can only happen if we empty our hearts and souls of all turmoil and worry so that we’re then able to access our divine “inner-most being” and share its greatest gifts and talents with the world. The Washington-based AARP Foundation lists numerous mental and physical diseases either exacerbated or even caused by chronic stress including depression, heart disease, stomach ulcers and other gastric problems. More recently, Eckhart Tolle, author of numerous best-selling books including ‘The Power of Now’ focuses on the ego’s attachment to the mind, and how this forces us to live in the pain of the past which we then project into the future. He teaches us about the power of the present moment and how it’s only in the now that we can live a life of fulfilment, high energy, optimum health and creative expression. The problem is that most people live towards the next moment (the future) in order to get to some end point as if the present moment were a hurdle to be overcome. However, the future exists only as a thought form, something you’ll never experience. ‘The now’ is all there is and even when you’re remembering the past or thinking about the future, you do it in the present moment. Only when you live in ‘the now’ can you not be anchored to the pain of the past nor project it into the future. You can watch the short video in the sidebar where Eckhart Tolle explains this concept of living in the present moment, with able assistance from the great American media executive, actress, talk show host, television producer and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey.

Another best-selling author, Dr. Caroline Myss, also focuses on our need for detachment if the body is to heal. In her book ‘Why People Don’t Heal And How They Can’, she points out that detachment isn’t easy to achieve, particularly in western culture where the term itself is often perceived as representing a cold and distant attitude. However, in healing, you need to see detachment as a way of separating yourself from the fears of your mind and viewing your circumstance as an experience that you’re passing through rather than as one that controls your physical life. She suggests that one way in which you can detach from the fears of your mind is to create a mantra, or chant, that helps you focus immediately on a transcendent perspective. You might want to create a short, easy-to-remember mantra like ‘Fears no longer have authority over my spirit’, close your eyes and repeat it in your mind or softly to yourself. If you catch your negative thoughts quickly and then say your mantra consistently, you’ll be surprised at how you’re more easily able to stop yourself indulging the fears of your mind.

So, relationships with people who invalidate the essence of who you are as well as your attachment to the outside world with all the turmoil and worry that this brings with it are detrimental to your mental and physical health. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to remain in a toxic relationship with other people nor with yourself. Hard though it may be to end relationships with family and friends after you’ve confronted them about their invalidating behaviours towards you, only to find that nothing changes, you do have the choice to sever those relationships. Equally, you can free yourself from the fears of an illusory ‘future’, safe in the knowledge that the present moment is all there is, if you choose to do so. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have some sort of plan that you’d like to materialise but you shouldn’t waste energy in becoming too attached to it. If it happens, then great, but if not, accept what is and remind yourself of the famous quotation, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

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