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The Recovery Expert
with Sharie Stines, Psy.D.

Stop the Madness: Breaking Free from Toxic Relationships

stopmadnessDo you find yourself wanting to fix, change, control, rescue, placate, or scream at someone close to you in your life?  Is your relationship with this person driving you crazy? Does it feel so true the adage, “you can’t live with him and you can’t live without him?”  Then you might be stuck in a toxic relationship.

Is it hopeless?  Never.  You can find hope and healing and the ability to stop living life on the end of someone else’s yo-yo string. You can become the author of your own story. You do not need to spend you life reacting to someone else’s nonsense.  How do you break free?  Answer: Practice.

It takes lots of practice to break free from the habits, the emotions, and the belief system that keeps you entangled in a toxic relationship.  In order to grow and mature past the insanity, it is helpful to act as if you are in a war and must have a plan to attack on three fronts:  (1) your habits; (2) your attachment system; (3) your belief system.

Your Habits

In order to break free from toxic interactions you must learn how to identify what your side of the equation entails. Understand that you allow yourself to be involved in the relationship to the point that it is not healthy. To break free from the habits of the relationship it is necessary to develop new habits.  One good habit to develop is learning how to say, “no.”  You can learn how to say this word to both you and the other person. Tell yourself, “no” whenever you think you are about to do something reactive and unhealthy for your own emotional growth. Tell the other person “no” and let the chips fall where they may.

If the person has learned how to manipulate you with guilt or anger, learn to handle your feelings of guilt or anger.  One way to learn to handle difficult emotions is merely to learn to have them; do nothing else but be with your emotions.  You may feel guilty when you say the word “no.” If so, then sit with the feeling of guilt and experience it.

It is also important to learn how not to take the bait when your perpetrator hooks you.  You get hooked when an uncomfortable emotion is evoked in the interchange.  You give in to the toxic person because you do not like how you feel. Realize that as you develop the habit of sitting with your uncomfortable emotions, they will eventually subside.  The more you practice this, the easier it gets and the less hold the toxic relationship has on you.

Your Attachment System

Your attachment system has taught you how to “be” in this toxic relationship. Well, actually, your attachment system is present in all of your relationships, but with regard to the toxic person, you have learned an unhealthy method of being in the relationship. You have learned that the terms of engagement with this person have been set, and that the ways you relate to each other are your method of attaching.

If you have strong dependency needs (as most people do and should,) then you may put up with a lot in order to remain attached to the toxic person. It may threaten you to think of doing anything different because you may fear losing this attachment figure.  Part of you is willing to experience the difficulties in the relationship rather than risk having no relationship at all with this person.

The best way to untangle yourself from a toxic attachment is to identify your needs.  In addition to your needs, it is also useful to identify what it is you want from the other person.  Do you want or need this person to “see” you? To approve of you? To validate you?

There are many needs you may have within this relationship, and if you think deeply about it, you may even realize that none of them are ever met, but you stick around in hopes that you will finally get that validation for which you yearn.  The best approach to coping with unmet needs within a toxic attachment relationship is to learn to grieve the loss of not having those needs met. This heals the brokenness within you and teaches you to let go of the hope that keeps you entangled.

Your Belief System

We are most imprisoned by our own belief systems.  We have decided that certain things just are. We tell ourselves that, “we must,” “we can’t,” “it has to be this way,” etc. We put our lives in a box and follow certain relationship rules. If one of our parents is the toxic person in our lives then we learned from a very young age what the rules of engagement are.

The term “cognitive restructuring” addresses this problem.  Cognitive restructuring is another term for changing the way one thinks. In order for you to break free from any toxic entanglement you are in you must examine your own belief system around the dynamics you participate in. Write down both your destructive beliefs and your constructive beliefs about yourself, the other person, your relationship with each other, and your beliefs about relationships in general.

Examine the self-defeating beliefs that keep you stuck. For instance, here’s a belief I hear often: “I have to do whatever my mother wants.”  If you are an adult, you need to examine why you believe that you still have to do whatever your mother wants. You also need to examine where this belief came from, and how it serves you. If you realize that you do whatever your mother wants because if you don’t she will give you the silent treatment, then you can see how you have been conditioned to adhere to this belief.

Self-defeating beliefs are as unique and as numerous as there are people to have them. As you examine your own belief system, start writing down the beliefs that keep you trapped in the toxic encounters. Learn to step back, reevaluate how you think, and develop a new belief. For instance, in the above example, your new belief could be, “I don’t have to do whatever my mother wants.”

It is important for personal growth and self-empowerment to learn to give yourself permission to grow and to change and to let go of manipulation and coercion. You are allowed to speak up for yourself and live a life that includes your own personal choices.  Give yourself the gifts of self-empowerment and freedom of choice.


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Stop the Madness: Breaking Free from Toxic Relationships

Sharie Stines, Psy.D

Sharie Stines, Psy.D. is a recovery expert specializing in personality disorders, complex trauma and helping people overcome damage caused to their lives by addictions, abuse, trauma and dysfunctional relationships. Sharie is a counselor at LIfeline Counseling & Education Inc., in Southern California ( Lifeline Counseling is a non-profit organization 501(c)(3) corporation. Sharie is also an abusive relationship recovery coach -


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APA Reference
Stines, S. (2016). Stop the Madness: Breaking Free from Toxic Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 14, 2020, from