About a year ago, I severed ties with a toxic member of my family. With the help of my therapist, we decided it was in the best interest of my mental health that I do not continue to rehash all the trauma of my past, as this person likes to do.
It has made dealing with my trauma, much easier, and enabled me to focus on healing. However, recently I was speaking with my sister, and the guilt set in. It is hard to not feel guilty when you have emotional ties to someone else who sees you as the villain in their story.
My sister reminded me that this person has also suffered trauma in her life, and it is the reason she is the way she is. My family member raised us and did the best she could. I believe that, and I know also that I am the strong person I am today, because of her and her actions, both the good and the bad. A lot of those good and bad things overlap.
For instance, she pushed me to be the best I could be, but also made me feel like nothing I did was good enough. She taught me to be strong and not let the circumstances of my early childhood hold me back. However, that meant bottling it all up and trudging through, focusing on control, not healing.
All of this, coupled with my family member’s advanced age and failing health, weighs on me. Am I doing the right thing? Should I change my mind and speak to her because I feel guilty when I remember the wonderful memories? I believe the answer is no, and I try to remind myself of all the reasons not to feel guilty for removing yourself from a toxic situation.
“A bad relationship is like standing on broken glass, if you stay you will keep hurting. If you walk away, you will hurt, but eventually, you will heal.” ― Autumn Kohler
What makes a relationship toxic?
Dr. Lillian Glass, a communication and psychology expert, is the author of the book Toxic People. She defines a toxic relationship as “any relationship [between people who] don’t support each other, where there’s conflict and one seeks to undermine the other where there’s competition, where there’s disrespect and a lack of cohesiveness.” Now, every relationship has its challenges. However, deep-rooted issues like disrespect for boundaries and manipulation should not be ignored.
These types of relationships cause both parties emotional pain and mental anguish. There are also effects on our physical health in these relationships. When that happens, it is a vicious cycle that ends up hurting everyone. The realization of that fact is one reason I remind myself not to feel guilty.
It took me years to realize that I am not capable of giving her the answers, absolution, or love she wants from me; any more than she can give the same to me. She is the victim when she tells the story of our past, and I am tired of defending myself. Every time she and I argue, her blood pressure rises to unhealthy levels. She is clearly as hurt as I am. So severing ties is as good for her as it is for me, even if she can not admit it. It also does not mean that I do not love her, because I do, and always will.
“We can deeply love our poison. We can love the taste of it, the scent of it, the comforting weight of it in our belly and find ourselves woken in the night with stabbing cramps, arms around porcelain toilet bowls, hurling every last bit until collapsing on bathroom tile, limp from dehydration. Sometimes parting with love is essential for survival. I’ve found the most tragic aspect of losing loved ones wasn’t the big boom of the fallout, but realizing later how much healthier I was without them.” ― Maggie Young
Why you shouldn’t feel guilty
The guilt that I feel is exacerbated by several emotions, like loyalty, fear, and love. Society teaches us we should be loyal to our family, above all else. It is a tool that toxic people use to control other members of their family whenever they seek to spread their wings and reach for independence. We should build loyalty from the respect of our boundaries and care for one another, not just created by blood or accidents of birth.
Fear plays a big role in my guilt as well. I fear how I will feel when I can’t speak to her anymore because she is no longer around. I can assume how I will feel, but I do not have a crystal ball. Earlier, in our relationship, she used to scare me with failure so I would do things the way she wanted me to do.
She would say things like, “When you fail, don’t come back to me.” Or, “You can do this your way, but it won’t work and no one else is going to help you.” I learned at a young age to rely on myself and face my fears. (It is one of those things that I learned from her, and that I am thankful for.) However, the people who love and support you should not use your fears to hold you back. Remember that when the guilt gets heavy and you feel afraid of your decisions.
Perhaps the strongest emotion that brings about the guilt people feel for removing toxic people from their lives is love. I think about the happy memories we have, like playing Canasta and laughing, or how much I loved her for staying when both my parents left me. Part of me truly wishes that she could be around and visit, and take part in our lives.
But sadly, love is not always enough. Self-love is essential to living a healthy life. There are people in your world who need you to be a happy and healthy version of yourself because they love you and you love them. You shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to make sure that you can give them the best version of yourself.
Having these emotions contributes to the guilt people feel when they choose to let people into or stay in their lives. Only you know what your breaking point is, and what you can live with. There are a few steps you can take before cutting someone off completely that might help you feel less guilty.
“There are only two kinds of people who can drain your energy: those you love, and those you fear. In both instances, it is you who let them in. They did not force their way into your aura, or pry their way into your reality experience.” ― Anthon St. Maarten
What you can do if you aren’t ready to distance yourself
If you are unsure if cutting off the toxic person in your life is the next step, ask yourself if you have tried these things:
- Take a break where you can assess your feelings
- Speak up and make sure the other person is aware of your boundaries
- Stop seeking validation from them and learn to validate yourself
- Acknowledge your own shortcomings in the relationship
- Ask yourself what you gain by cutting off this relationship instead of focusing on what you are losing
- Get help from a moderator or therapist if you need it
You will be less likely to feel guilty if you have taken these steps and know that you did whatever you could to salvage the relationship. You should never feel guilty for safeguarding your health and making yourself a priority. It is your life and living it in a way that serves your purpose is up to you. Guilt can be difficult to wade through, but living in the moment and being at peace with why you have done the things you have done can make it all a little more bearable.
“If it comes, let it come. If it goes, it’s ok, let it go. Let things come and go. Stay calm, don’t let anything disturb your peace, and carry on.” ― Germany Kent
There are so many feelings when you decide to cut off a toxic person. There is not an actual answer or one that works for everyone. Ask yourself which is harder to deal with and make the decision that works for you. It is your right to live your life with as much peace as you can find. It isn’t easy to find peace in this world, and anything that helps you get there is the right thing to do. Whatever you decide will probably hurt, but your feelings are your own, and if you feel healthier and more stable, then that is all that matters.