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This could have been titled “how to learn to set limits because your health depends on it.” Because we do teach people how to treat you, either by doing something or not doing something and whatever we end up tolerating does have an impact on our health. If you have been putting up with other people’s bad behaviour, this is the right place for you.
What you should not tolerate
When we say “ toxic relationships” a lot of what has been written is about romantic relationships and family relationships. And those are the most important ones in our life because those people should be the ones who can be a soft shoulder to land on and they should be the safest.
However, any relationship can be hazardous to your health. Bad bosses, insensitive co-workers, bossy friends, intrusive neighbours and all the other takers that are in your environment can impact your health negatively, sometimes as bad as closer relationships, if you let them.
Examples of stuff you should not tolerate: someone who does not respect your “No” and tries to intimidate you by making you feel guilty, stupid, not intelligent, etc. Someone who insults you, calls you fat, stupid, or worse. Someone who talks behind your back. Someone who tries to force you to do anything. Someone who does not respect the agreement you had with them. Someone who criticizes you constantly. Someone, a boss who abuses of your goodwill and expects you to work overtime, either without pay or habitually, when he-she knows you have family or other obligations. Someone who yells at you – be it partner, boss, co-worker, friend or neighbour. A co-worker who does not pull his or her weight. Someone who takes your possessions without permission – borrowing means to ask first. Someone who uses jokes to belittle you and tells you you have no sense of humour. I could go on and on. Usually you can recognize you are about to tolerate because you don’t feel good about what is happening. I did not mention physical abuse: slaps, blows, pushing, etc. because they are obvious.
Why we tolerate
If you are in an unhappy marriage, friendship or other relationship or in the job with a bad boss for a while, it may have become the norm. It most likely became the norm because you avoided speaking up the first time something unpleasant was said or done, by your partner or the boss or the colleague. And if you avoided speaking up at the beginning, it was 1) most likely because you did not want to rock the boat, or 2) you did not think it would happen again, or 3) you were afraid of their reaction or 4) you did not think you had the right to. You may have convinced yourself it was no big deal. The psychological forms of abuse are harder to pinpoint simply because we can be manipulated into feeling we are too sensitive, we have no sense of humour, we are party poopers, etc. The literature is clear that many in those unhealthy relationships do not realize there are in unhealthy relationships because they have low self-esteem and they blame themselves for their problems (and they often never saw what a healthy relationship was.) If they were treated poorly as children, they simply believe that that’s life.
Many of us have been brought up to “be nice”. Not that being nice is not nice. It’s absolutely better than being rude or arrogant. But the being nice we have been told to practice means to be tolerant (tolerate), to try to understand, to put our needs last and stop being so selfish, to not ask for what you need or want. Unfortunately not speaking up and swallowing your unhappiness can be can be lethal to your health, both your physical and mental health(s).
Speaking up is also scary because we are afraid it will lead to people breaking off the relationship. The more unhealthy your family of origin was, the more likely you are to tolerate in life, unless you became an abuser or a bully, in which case you would not by reading this article. The more the relationship is important, the scarier it becomes to speak up. And the less self-esteem and self-confidence we have, the more we become sitting ducks for those who like to take advantage.
How tolerating affects your health
How does a lack of setting boundaries impact your health? Let’s just look at one time when you were nervous about an interview, or the time you almost had a car accident, or the first misunderstanding with your sweetheart, or the time a loved one was very late and you were worried “sick”. All these events have one thing in common: stress. Whether it was the nervousness, the sadness or the worry, you most likely felt it in your body. Sweat, digestive issues, palpitations, headache, difficulty sleeping, etc.
Now imagine that this kind of stress becomes chronic. So chronic that you don’t even realize it anymore. Yes you have headaches, trouble sleeping, digestion problems, but you can’t pinpoint it to one single event like in the above paragraph..
In a 2000 study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women who had moderate or severe marital strain had 2.9 times more chances to need heart surgery, to suffer heart attacks or to die of heart disease. The same holds for unmarried women who lived with their life partner. Dr Dean Ornish, a cardiologist who treats his patients with diet, also reports that a good marriage has a huge influence on the health of his patients and their recovery from heart disease. “The diet can play a significant role,” he said. “But nothing is more powerful than love and intimacy.” You can read more in his book Love and Survival.
From The American Psychosomatic Society we learn that more conflicts and disagreements put one at higher risk of elevated blood pressure, abdominal obesity, high blood sugar, and elevated bad cholesterol.
The Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine in a 1993 issue links marital conflicts with disruptions of the immune system and the Journal of Physiology and Behaviour links marital distress to a worse recovery from breast cancer.
Analyzing data from nearly 5000 participants, with a follow up at 10 years, researchers have scientifically established what most people know intuitively. If your relationships are bad, your mood is likely to follow. “Our study shows that the quality of social relationships is a significant risk factor for major depression,” says psychiatrist Alan Teo, MD, of the University of Michigan. … “The magnitude of these results is similar to the well-established relationship between biological risk factors and cardiovascular disease,” Teo says. “What that means is that if we can teach people how to improve the quality of their relationships, we may be able to prevent or reduce the devastating effects of clinical depression.”
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO ABOUT IT?
I would like to say that speaking up and setting boundaries will always work out, but I can’t because there will be times it won’t. Not only it won’t but it can cause huge drama and break the relationship. Although it can be upsetting when it happens, we must remember that if we want to live a healthy life, we also must let go or minimize the time we spend with less than healthy individuals. Even if it does not work out well, I can vouch for the fact that every time you exercise your “setting limits”muscle, you will feel more confident and you will be proud of yourself for really taking care of yourself. I know it did for me.
If you are dealing with mature people, there is a good chance that you can come to an understanding and mutual respect for your needs and the other person’s needs. However, the more toxic or immature the person you are dealing with, the worse the chance of a peaceful resolution. If you are dealing with someone who is emotionally immature or worse, toxic, there are good chances they will turn your request to respect your needs as an attack and it will end up in a shouting match. If you are dealing with someone who has been physically violent or you fear can be, do not attempt to reason with them. For your sake, get outside help or if, as it happened to me in a bus a long time ago, being harassed and threatened by a male passenger, keep quiet and try to get away, fast.
How to set limits
Give yourself a break if you are terrified of setting limits after many months or even years of tolerating. It’s a process and we have to learn and practice. It’s also easier to practice when the stakes are not very high. Easier to say no to an acquaintance than to a friend, or a life partner. Start small. Learn to say “No”. One of my favorite sentences is “it does not work for me”. I also used that sentence to terminate a romantic relationship.
I you want to come to an understanding with someone who is usually stable and mature, do use the “I feel…. when you…. and I need-prefer-want……. Can we talk about it.” A good way to start the conversation is to express how much you value the relationship and that’s why you are coming to them to find a solution that will benefit both of you and make you feel closer.
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