Guest contributions by Dr. Thara Vayali
Partners, colleagues, friends and family: the world of other people is a jumble of meaningful connections and challenging dynamics. On a good day, all pieces fit well and we can enjoy our time together. On a bad day, one or all parties involved can be on edge, interact poorly, and create a toxic emotional environment. Unfortunately, a negative interaction can trigger our opinions about one another much quicker than a positive interaction. To build healthy relationships we need to see the good in each other again; we need to “detox” our relationships.
To do that, first let’s uncover what makes a negative interaction. What puts us on alert, what makes a relationship “toxic”?
Generally, negative interactions arise for five reasons:
- Someone is experiencing stress, consciously or unconsciously, and transfers their stress to the current dynamic.
- A misunderstanding escalates or is perceived personally.
- We overextend our time/resources/attention, or cross an unstated boundary.
- Silence becomes a refuge for resentment or to gain power.
- The desire to be seen as ‘right’ overrides the purpose of interacting.
These situations happen every day, not because we intend to hurt one another, but because we are social-emotional beings. We come to interactions from our own perspectives, not noticing that others may have different expectations, desires and information. We can forget to check in with our personal state before engaging with others and the wrong combination can lead to a toxic dynamic. To detox a relationship, instead of calling out or enforcing other people check to themselves, we can lead by example and identify when we fall into one of these five behaviours and use a few tools to start to “detox” ourselves in relationship.
Five ways to build healthy behaviours in relationships
1. Check yourself:
A dysfunctional dynamic occurs when personal stress reactions get transferred onto others. If you feel your “stress thermometer” has been high all day, it is very likely that your “temperature” will influence your interactions, no matter how hard you try to ignore it. Without divulging the details, let people know that you need less pressure right now and more connection and care, or maybe some alone time. Connection to others and to oneself can defuse this pressure.
Recognize that if your thermometer reading is consistently high, you may be building a personal dynamic that takes out internal pressure on others. If this is your situation, your first priority before stepping into conversations with others is to use a mindful breathing pattern to take your temperature from boiling to tepid. Start with six slow five-count inhales and five-count exhales.
Recognize that others might not be working with the same pace or demands as you, and they don’t have to be.
2. Assume you have misunderstood:
When a conversation seems to be going sideways, take a breather and ask yourself – Am I missing something? Have I assumed/interpreted a statement incorrectly? Am I taking this statement as directed at me? Are they using the word “you” when they really mean “I”?
More often than not, interpretation is the culprit. Someone’s statement may seem personally offensive or intended toward criticism, when they have no malicious intent. Learn what language triggers you and let them know. Perhaps others do not notice how their language/tone/comments are affecting the dynamic. If you can listen deeply – pausing your initial reaction – you may find valid points hidden within a poorly communicated but important perspective.
Give your relationships the benefit of the doubt – Pause your response, listen, and ask for clarification of intent before jumping to conclusions.
3. Know your limit and stay within it:
You may be a people pleaser or a boundary crosser, or both. Neither overextending nor over-asking serves a healthy relationship.
When someone asks you for your time/resources/attention, remember that you are not a bottomless cup. Know how much time/energy you have to give, state upfront how much you have to give and stop when you have reached that limit. You are not disappointing anyone when you set expectations beforehand.
If you consistently ask others for their advice/time/energy, you may not notice the boundaries you are crossing. You cannot take responsibility for another person’s unstated boundaries, but you can start your requests by being specific and clear about how much time/energy/attention you would like of them, and allow them to answer honestly.
By taking a moment to start the conversation with boundaries/limits before engaging, we all have an opportunity to take responsibility for what resources we have to share and to be respectful of that boundary.
4. Be heard:
To feel that your voice has space for expression without criticism or judgement is a crucial part of healthy relationships. In a challenging dynamic, this space may not be in the moment of interaction. The time may show up later and the space for expression might be through writing, building, cooking, painting, singing, movement, or communicating directly to the person involved. Whatever it is that your personality/situation needs, ensure that the feelings inside are processed and expressed.
Overthinking/Dwelling/Avoiding magnifies the impact of a situation. Festering or trying to control a situation through quiet contempt slowly destroys “the good” in a relationship.
5. Consider the collateral damage:
When the urge to defend your position arises, ask yourself these questions:
- What is the purpose of this interaction?
- Am I in danger?
- Is being right important?
- Could I allow for the reality of being wrong without being personally offended?
What would it be like to agree to have a differing opinion, without forming a negative opinion of the other person?
Challenging dynamics are inevitable in a social world. Since birth, we have had to navigate our way through expressing ourselves to be understood and balancing that expression with respect, kindness and compassion toward others – and it’s not always easy! Very rarely can we classify a person as a negative force in every interaction – we all have phases along the journey toward healthy communication. Instead of focusing on others, we would be better off if we tried to detox our own communication skills. Begin with these five common communication habits in relationships; then choose healthier ways to interact. To “detox” our relationships takes stepping back from and shifting within ourselves.
Thara Vayali is a Naturopathic Doctor & Yoga Teacher in Vancouver and is also a UBC alumnus. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. She is the creator of Change Natural Medicine: Budget conscious, membership based health consulting.