5 Practical Tips for Coping with Toxic Behaviors

December 5, 2017
Anna Ciulla
Two pairs of hands clasped together.

Meet June. She recently attended a weekend workshop that I regularly facilitate for clients in substance abuse treatment and their families. June’s son was in early recovery from a drug addiction.

At these workshops, we typically spend a lot of time addressing the question of how to set effective boundaries in dealing with a loved one’s substance use disorder. Over the course of the weekend, it became evident that June, like so many family members trying to cope with the toxic behaviors of a loved one coping with active addiction, needed to correct a long-entrenched pattern of codependency. June’s responses to her son’s compulsive drug-seeking had in fact been “enabling” his habit, and thus discouraged him from taking responsibility for his addiction.

What June needed to learn was that setting healthier and more effective boundaries was in fact the very best way she could love her son and support his recovery. It’s a tough lesson, and it often comes with tears. It’s also a critical skill that, I suspect, can apply to other scenarios in which toxic behavior may be wreaking havoc in your life. What follows are five key insights I’ve gleaned that can help you set effective boundaries in response to toxic behaviors:

1. Don’t take responsibility for the other person’s poor choices or actions. Taking responsibility for another person’s poor choices is an impossible job that only succeeds in perpetuating the same toxic behaviors. In families affected by substance abuse disorders, this pattern manifests in myriad ways: lying for or assuming the role of a parent with an addiction, looking for a job for a grown adult child, or apologizing for a spouse’s drinking-related abuse—these are just a few examples.

The freeing reality is that you can only be responsible for your own choices and behaviors. With respect to toxic behaviors stemming from substance abuse disorders, I often reference this old saying: “You didn’t cause it; you can’t control it; you can’t cure it.”

2. Don’t try to save the other person from the consequences of their behavior. The naturally negative consequence of a toxic behavior can be a very good teacher and a precursor to positive core change. I often illustrate this challenge with a childhood scenario from the playground:

Imagine that your child walks in front of a moving swing with another child on it. Your first inclination is to swoop in and grab your child before they get bumped by the swing (the natural consequence). On the other hand, if your child experienced the consequence of their choice, it may hurt, there may be some tears or even a bruise; but from here on out, they’ll know not to walk in front of an oncoming swing.

I’ll admit this analogy has its imperfections, but it helps to illustrate how a well-intentioned effort to protect a loved one from the negative consequences of their actions may not truly serve them well in the long run. In fact, an experience of negative consequences, like the loss of a job or relationship, may be the very motivation that someone needs to redirect their toxic behavior.

3. Get in touch with your emotional needs and limits in relation to the other person’s toxic behavior. Before you can articulate your boundaries, you need to know what they are. Your emotions can be a helpful guide. For example, if you find that you’re always anxious and depleted in the company of the other person, explore these feelings with a view to understanding their cause. They may point to one or more toxic behaviors that need to end for the relationship to continue. Or, they may be a cue that you need to spend less time around the person or limit your interactions to only certain situations.

4. Tell the other person what you are no longer willing to do for them—or rather, what they can and must do for themselves. Be specific and follow through with what you say. In our workshops, I invite families to sit in a circle facing their loved one and tell them matter-of-factly what they are no longer willing to do for them.

How you state your limits is just important as what you state your limits to be. When it was June’s turn to share, she turned to her son and began by saying, “Honey, I love you but….”— at which point I stopped her and had her start again with this phrase: “Because I love you, honey, I am no longer willing to…”

5. Take responsibility for any toxic attitudes or behaviors of your own that may constitute enabling. When working with families, I emphasize that addiction is a family disease, meaning that the person with the addiction is not the only person suffering from dysfunctional behaviors. I therefore invite clients to observe what behaviors are enabling their addiction that also need changing (on the part of the family members). For family members, hearing what enabling behaviors they need to end can be painful. After all, the enabling on their part came from a place of love, so how dare their loved one not appreciate it, right? More processing then ensues.

In June’s case, it was incredibly freeing and empowering to realize that by setting down clearer boundaries with her son, she was loving him in a more constructive, positive way. The next time you’re dealing with toxic behaviors, remember June.

Anna Ciulla is the Vice President of Clinical and Medical Services at Beach House Center for Recovery, where she is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising the delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. Anna has a passion for helping clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery.

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