Last week, I wrote a post on gaslighting, a toxic pattern of behaviour that is a form of psychological abuse.
The post covered:
the different signs of gaslighting
the effects of being gaslighted
the steps someone can take to recover and heal
I’ll be the first to admit that it was a difficult post to write. While the term “gaslighting” is becoming increasingly more common in our colloquial lexicon, we may easily forget how seriously toxic it really is.
Perhaps the post may have been slightly uncomfortable for you, for a variety of reasons. Maybe you realized you or someone you know had been gaslighted.
Or maybe, you recognized that some of the gaslighting tactics as behaviours you may have engaged in before, knowingly or unknowingly.
If this is the case - how do you deal with the uncomfortable realization that you may be the person perpetuating harmful behaviour?
Which brings us to this follow-up post: let’s talk about the other side of toxic behaviours.
What happens after you realize you have a pattern of hurting others?
What concrete steps can you take to be better and unlearn these destructive habits?
I’ll be talking about that and more, so let’s get into it.
Before We Begin
I want to be clear – I am not excusing toxic or abusive behaviour in this post. There is no justification, no reasoning, no excuse that absolves an abuser of their destructive behaviour. Full stop.
Having said that, I do think we all need to take a step back and recognize that no person is perfect. We all make mistakes and we all do things that we wish we hadn’t.
We deserve a chance to reflect on our behavior and make an active effort to become better in our ways, be it toxic behavior, unhealthy eating habits or change a sedentary lifestyle.
In particular, for those of us who have done things to hurt others and caused pain and suffering, the path to healing and redemption is going to be difficult. However, we owe it those we’ve hurt and to ourselves to take responsibility to be and do better.
I should also mention that when it comes to redeeming one’s self after exhibiting toxic behaviour, we need to remember that no one owes us their forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness and being forgiven are two different things.
Asking for forgiveness is the only thing we can control.
But even before getting to the point where we can ask for forgiveness, we need to do the work in order to be accountable and actually have a shot at being forgiven.
Let’s take a step back now, and talk about some reasons people may engage in toxic behaviour.
Where Do Toxic Behaviours Come From?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. I can’t tell you exactly where toxic behaviours come from or what kind of person will become an "abuser".
What I can tell you is that anyone can exhibit toxic behaviour. It may start as a comment here or there, a lie every now and then. But when toxic comments are left unchecked, they can become a pattern of behaviour with serious consequences.
We often learn toxic behaviours from our environment. People who grow up observing or being in toxic relationships and see them normalized can internalize these behaviours and in turn, exhibit it themselves. The phrase “hurt people, hurt people” is a good example of this.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every person who has been exposed to toxic relationships learns to hurt others the same way. But for some people, being in such an environment can warp their perception and understanding of a healthy relationship.
p.s: there's also a great book by Dr. Sandra Wilson - Hurt People, Hurt People that gives more insight into this.
For other people, toxic behaviour is a result of issues surrounding control and power.
We all want to be in control of our lives and what happens to us, but the simple truth is that we can’t always be in control. Some of us however, may not deal well with this lack of control.
In an effort to gain control and exert power over people around us, we turn to toxic behaviours, such as gaslighting.
Like I mentioned in my previous post, using toxic behaviours as a defence mechanism is a way for a person to maintain control over others while not taking any responsibility for their own actions.
It’s damaging, hurtful and can jeopardize other people’s wellbeing.
But, there is hope. If we take responsibility for our actions, we can learn from our mistakes.
So, What Now?
You may have noticed how much I love lists on this blog. For such a complex and difficult post, what better way to break things down than through a list?
If you’re looking to unlearn toxic behaviour and actions and need some concrete steps to take, I’ve laid some things you need to think about and remember.
How To Work Through Your Own Toxic Habits
1. Listen To The People You’ve Hurt
The first step is probably the most difficult – for you and the person you’ve hurt. You need to sincerely listen to their emotions, experiences and feelings.
Do not interrupt, do not minimize, do not deflect.
Just pay attention and listen to them.
When we’re confronted with our own wrongdoing, our first instinct may be to become defensive and see it as a personal attack, when it really isn’t.
In fact, by taking the time to tell you what you’ve done wrong, the other person is doing you a favour. They are showing immense courage and patience by confronting you, even if they are scared and uncomfortable. For this, express your gratitude - "I appreciate you telling me that, I know its a difficult thing to share''
On the other hand, you may not have the valuable opportunity to listen to others, because they don’t want to talk to you or maintain any communication, which is completely understandable.
In those cases, you must reflect on your past toxic behaviours on your own. Taking the time to think about the ways you’ve hurt others and perpetuated toxicity is going to be difficult and challenging. However, it is an essential first step that must be taken.
2. Acknowledge Your Harmful Behaviour
Again, your first instinct when being confronted with your hurtful behaviour may be to ignore it or to deflect away from the situation.
Try to break that habit, and just pause.
Pro tip: if pausing is tough for you, try biting your tongue (literally) or your index finger, gently ofcourse.
Acknowledge the realization that you have hurt other people and that you can no longer continue doing so.
By taking this pause, you’re breaking your own cycle of toxic thoughts. In previous situations, you may have become defensive and lashed out when someone you called you out for your mistakes.
Now, you are allowing yourself to think first, act second. Sit with your emotions. They’re going to be strange, slightly foreign, and likely very uncomfortable.
But instead of running away from them, recognize how you’re feeling. Be mindful of them rather than judging them as good or bad. This will help give you some perspective as you continue to unlearn your toxic habits and re-learn healthier ones.
You may need to take a break, as it truly is very challenging to sit with uncomfortable emotions. If this is the case, I suggest going for a run, dance or watch a movie. Once you feel slightly more grounded, come back to reflecting on why you felt that discomfort.
The trick is go keep going at a pace that works for you.
3. Accept Responsibility For Your Actions & Be Accountable
After recognizing and acknowledging your toxic behavior, you need to accept and take responsibility for your actions.
As humans, we’re prone to making to excuses. We want to explain why we did something, especially when we’ve done something wrong.
You are allowed to explore the reasons for why you think you’ve engaged in toxic behaviours but in a case where you’ve hurt other people, these reasons and excuses are not helpful. They are a way to minimize your responsibility.
Instead, it will be helpful to own up to what you did and apologize for those actions. This involves taking full responsibility for your actions, without any ifs, ands or buts, no matter how tempting it may be.
Be accountable for the pain you've caused and the after-effects of your actions, for yourself and for the other person.
4. Don't Be Afraid To Be Vulnerable & Ask For Help
One reason you may have engaged in destructive behaviour is that you may be afraid of being vulnerable. It’s time to roll up those sleeves and do some work to face that fear!
Reach out to someone you trust and someone who you feel comfortable talking to. It may be difficult to find someone in your social circle, which is a why a therapist can be a good neutral option to choose.
They can work with you in a safe place without judgment of your past but still hold you accountable for your future actions.
5. Commit To Change
The next step is making a conscious commitment to change. As with all things that arent good for us, it is going to be very easy to fall back into old toxic patterns of behaviour. It is normal to slip up, especially at the beginning.
By committing to change, and reminding yourself that you can and will do better, you can work through those setbacks. Be patient with yourself and remember that you are capable of change.
It can be easy to give up and think to yourself “well, this is just who I am”. But that’s not the truth. Humans aren’t inherently toxic, they simply engage in and perpetuate toxic behaviours.
Separate yourself from your toxic behaviours. Remember that you can adapt healthier actions instead.
6. Don't Expect Forgiveness
Yes, apologizing for your actions is important, but if your sole focus is seeking forgiveness from the people you’ve hurt, then you’ve got the wrong idea.
Forgiveness isn’t about you. This is going to sound harsh, but no one owes you their forgiveness. No one owes you their time.
In fact, people may never want to hear from your or speak to you again because they’ve taken steps to prioritize their well-being by staying away from you. People heal in different ways at different paces and it is very important to respect that process.
In reality, by working on yourself and overcoming your toxic behaviours, you are aiming to be accountable for your actions and avoid making the same mistakes again for the sake of your current and future relationships.
Check in with yourself :
What have you learned so far?
How have you improved?
What can you do better?
How are you feeling?
Asking these questions will help you hold yourself accountable and take responsibility on your journey of healing and self-improvement.
7. Forgive Yourself
This step is last on the list, but really, it’s going to be an ongoing process. Remember the phrase “hurt people, hurt people”? If you don’t stop hurting yourself, how are you going to stop hurting others?
This is going to be difficult, I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. When you take such a close look at your mistakes and analyze all the ways you’ve hurt those around you, it’s easy to see yourself as the Big, Bad Villain.
However, that isn’t helpful on this journey. Yes, you need to hold yourself accountable. Yes, you need to be vulnerable and ask for help in order to change.
But hurting yourself and internalizing all this pain isn’t going to help you be better. You can choose to identify yourself as a person who engaged in toxic behaviours OR blame yourself for being a toxic person.
Those are two different things, and hopefully by now, you’ve realized which way of thinking is healthier than the other.
So here’s my advice for you: be kind to yourself. Be compassionate. Even when it seems impossible, love yourself. Show yourself the kindness you wished you had shown others. Start with yourself, so that being loving, caring and kind becomes easy and simple.
Give yourself and your relationships the space and time to heal and recover. The work you’re doing is difficult but absolutely necessary. You can do this. And you will.
Before I Say Goodbye
I want you to know that by clicking on this point and getting to the end of it, you've done something pretty courageous.
Not everyone is able to look at themselves and say "I need to change. I need to be better".
Self-improvement is a life-long journey. There have been hundreds of books and blogs written about this topic. So remember, you aren't alone.
By taking the steps necessary to become a better person, you're doing the work to improve your relationships as well. That's also going to be difficult, but by investing in yourself, you're investing in those precious relationships as well.
As always, if you have any questions with this, flip me an email, or leave a comment below!
Until next time!