What makes a relationship toxic? “They lack the following: empathy, compassion, respect, mutuality and reciprocity. And they may also include the following, invalidation, disrespect, gaslighting or insulting. It’s both what’s missing and what’s present,” said Dr. Ramani Durvasula, Author, Clinical Psychologist, Professor and Relationship Expert.
Our lives open to new levels of fulfillment with the relationships we have. And we all want satisfying careers, romantic partnerships and friendships, but it requires careful navigation. Maintaining self-love, confidence and respect, while balancing the needs of others gets tricky. How do we hold firmly onto our values, yet stay vulnerable enough to grow?
We discussed all of this and her newest book, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Ramani, an expert on narcissistic abuse and champion for positive relationships, shares wisdom about how to protect our energy and mindset in an increasingly combative society.
Healthy Relationships Require Difficult Conversations
We need personal boundaries for relationships to thrive. “Boundaries are a two-step process. It’s setting and enforcing. The enforcing is where people struggle,” Ramani explained. “You’ll never please everybody. It’s about how to find the solution that’s the most respectful.” Ramani explained what we choose to accept from others is the part we can control, “Setting boundaries is about having difficult conversations. If the person is difficult or unreasonable 80% of the time, they’ll attack you, ignore you or make it worse. A healthy person will apologize, ‘for example, I’ve been stressed as hell, I’m sorry I shouldn’t have reacted that way.” So true! Although conflict is uncomfortable, it’s often necessary to reset relationships that aren’t working.
Meet Toxic People With Radical Acceptance
However, it’s often easier to shed bad habits than bad people. So, there’s some nuance to finding the right balance. Ramani said, “…be mindful not to enable the difficult people. We appease them and the pattern continues. Have realistic expectations and radical acceptance for what the situation is.” Wise! We discussed how some stressful people in our lives can’t be avoided. She said, “If it’s the holidays and it’s the in-laws, you might decide ‘let’s just get through this meal or this week. Prepare in advance. Just like stretching before a workout.” Love that! She added, “Step away if you need to or think about pleasant imagery that might help you get through it. And give yourself permission to walk away if needed.” It’s all about the permission we give to ourselves.
When Stressful People Are Unavoidable Detox Afterwards
A bad relationship at work can be as disheartening as one at home. She said, “If it means you get to do work that’s meaningful to you it may be worth it. It’s not always possible or easy for people to change jobs, they may have important reasons, such as: health insurance, the economics or it’s the only offering in their field. Find other gratification in your life. You can create healthy relationships with other pleasant people and create other pleasant interactions at work.” She also explains we can indulge in self-care rituals after interactions with painful people, “Detox afterwards! Take a walk, breathe, light a candle or drink some tea.” There are ways to manage the feelings if we prepare for them.
Embrace Realism vs. Optimism
Ramani wisely stated, “Self-care is being in a realistic mental space, not a positive false one. Realism more important than optimism. People may think they have to say, ‘I love it’ when they’re not feeling it, but that kind of inauthenticity takes its toll.” Halleluiah! She added, “It’s better to own that it’s miserable but acknowledge that it fits into your life in some way.”
Extract Positive Lessons
Ramani also advocates finding the lesson. She said, “You can extract meaning from any situation. You learn about your endurance, your ability to be serene. And learning not to yell at that person who is yelling at you at the coffee shop is something you can take with you into other situations. It’s learning not to personalize everything.” Bravo! She also explains, the difficult relationships create contrast we can appreciate. Ramani said, “It can be a magnifying glass for all that’s good in your life, like that amazing mother or mentor you have. It’s a call to arms to take care of your healthy relationships. Call someone dear to you on your drive home.”
Protect Your Energy as an Activist
In the book, Ramani describes how our political climate contributes to toxicity but she doesn’t suggest we remove ourselves from all debate. She advises choosing wisely, “If you’re going to get into the mud, choose the mud. For example, getting into the mud with someone whose political views are deeply polarized against you, and which may make you uncomfortable, isn’t worth it. You’re not going to change that person’s mind. They will become more entrenched in their position and it will leave you depleted. Get into the mud with your local representative about their voting record and their support of issues that matter to you. Protest and community building have proven to revolutionize important issues.” Absolutely. How can we discern productive conflict from toxicity, when we’ve become so intolerant of difference?
Engage in Healthy Conflict
Ramani wisely shared, “Healthy conflict is respectful, present and it recognizes the person, even if you disagree with them. It attacks the opinion or point of disagreement, not the person. We live in an era where everyone is making everything personal.” Sigh. It’s true but what’s behind it? Ramani said, “Conflict is more entertaining than civil discourse. Everyone wants to be entertained.” The need for levity is stronger in times of chaos. Is that part of the problem? Ramani said, “Yes, it’s like the Roman rhetoric of the bread and circuses. ‘Keep people fed and entertained, and they may demand less from their public officials.’ People are living under tremendous economic insecurity. That unites us. We question, how am I going to take care of my aging parents? Will my kids be able to afford a house? Will I be able to take care of my needs in retirement?” Insecurity is taking a toll on everyone and it’s causing anxiety.” How can we manage our stress levels?
Enjoy Self-Care & Time Alone
Ramani who is a caregiver at work and home, admitted, she’s still prone to being overwhelmed. “I went a bridge too far and I’m a burned-out woman right now!” Something we can all relate to. She added, “I’m passionate about narcissistic abuse and feel compelled to help everyone, but you can’t help everyone. We receive over 50 emails a day!” As with most Moms who juggle multiple opportunities and passions, Ramani said when she needs a reset, “I spend a lot of time alone.” Of course, this surprises not-one-Mom. We reflexively care for others first. She shares how solo time creates self-care space, “Even if you’re with someone who asks ‘how can I help you,’ sometimes even the demand of conversation, can be exhausting.” Exactly.
Ramani, who is often in the public eye, loves her work but wants the opposite from her downtime. “I don’t go out in large groups. I would rather sit on my daughter’s bed and watch silly videos with her. Or, just have a quiet conversation with my partner.” She also sets limits on how she engages with others. Ramani shared, “I know that politically polarized conversations make me uncomfortable. Because I have to deal with it as part of my work, I don’t let them into my social space. Setting boundaries angers people and you have to be comfortable with that.” YES! She added, “I also protect my sleep.”
Thank you to the talented Supermom, Dr. Ramani Durvasula! Check out her amazing new book, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Also enjoy Ramani’s TEDx Talk and follow her great adventures on her website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
About Dr. Ramani,
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica and Sherman Oaks, CA and Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, where she was named Outstanding Professor in 2012. She is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
She is the author of the modern relationship survival manual Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist. She is also the author of “Don’t You Know Who I Am?”: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility, and You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life, as well as the author of numerous peer reviewed journal articles, book chapters and conference papers.
Dr. Ramani received her B.S. in Psychology from the University of Connecticut, and her MA and Ph.D. degrees in Clinical Psychology from UCLA.
The focus of Dr. Durvasula’s clinical, academic and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle and on the Mel Robbins show. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine. Dr. Durvasula is an authentic and brutally honest voice on the struggles raised by narcissism in the US and globally.
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