On cutting toxic, clingy people out of your life
November 3, 2022 6:43 AM   Subscribe

Describes ending contact with people who want contact, but use contact for emotional abuse. Various phases, pleading, threat, etc.-- and the infuriating third parties who insist that your should maintain contact or forgive.

How to keep people with you forever A classic, sometimes paired with the first link. It describes a pattern (possibly more common in organizations, but also happens in families) of keeping people so exhausted and distracted that they don't realize how badly they're being treated. The pattern involves telling people that's they're both hopelessly incompetent *and* essential.

People realizing that they have a right to cut off contact or to leave isn't the same thing as the practicalities of getting out, but it's an essential start.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz (24 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
The line in the first article about how some people will wring hands over "but you only have one family" reminded me of a fantastic retort I saw once: "I also only have one appendix, and that's also something you're supposed to cut out if it goes toxic on you."

(Fortunately I haven't had to take this step ever, but know a couple people who have. I've told them I can loan them my parents if the need arises.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:00 AM on November 3, 2022 [35 favorites]

Issendai's post and the CIA's "Simple Sabotage Field Manual" are two pieces of recommended reading I give in the classes I teach, so that the students have a language and a mental framework for recognizing what's going if this ever starts happening to them in their professional or personal lives.
posted by mhoye at 7:10 AM on November 3, 2022 [11 favorites]

I love this so much "...the people who make an investment in silencing me have done so because they have made a cost-benefit analysis. Whatever it takes out of them to silence me is going to be less than what I will take from them if I don’t shut up." That's fucking brilliant right there.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:58 AM on November 3, 2022 [16 favorites]

The Sick Systems link is a stone cold classic. Thanks for (re)sharing it.
posted by Shepherd at 9:23 AM on November 3, 2022 [5 favorites]

"If you let it be known that you can and will cut a person off, you are unequivocally stating that you think your own sanity, health, and happiness is worth more to you than theirs is. And you suddenly learn how many people wish something far less for you." - What a great frame of reference.
posted by absquatulate at 9:24 AM on November 3, 2022 [19 favorites]

In the course of recent conversation with family, I realized that my own personal most abusive relationship was with a (previous) job. It felt good to acknowledge that (and be validated). I was isolated, my work was questioned but not appreciated. the 10 years culminated in a pretty severe depression (and my ultimately getting fired, thank Zeus!)

I'm fortunate that I have not been in such a relationship with an individual, but the same damage was done. It's so hard to see when you are inside of it.
posted by supermedusa at 9:31 AM on November 3, 2022 [6 favorites]

I'd love to find a replacement family. This has never happened.

Without triggering people directly in this thread, I have absolutely thought the paragraph after the word "Finally, you think it's ordinary" in the LJ link, because I have been in situations that are so bad and so inescapable that that would be the only reasonable way out.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:36 AM on November 3, 2022 [18 favorites]

posted by supermedusa at 9:43 AM on November 3, 2022 [9 favorites]

So glad to read this. It's been a few years now since I cut my remaining parent out of my life and I question that decision regularly. Happily I've got a great set of in-laws and my spouse and step-kids understand and don't question the decision.

Most people in my social network seem to understand and don't question it, actually. Maybe someday we'll move to a social model where it's not even assumed you have a relationship with your birth family – sort of how people now ask for or list their pronouns.

You are not obligated to maintain relationships with people just because of biological ties. If that was more of a given, maybe people would work harder on having good relationships rather than assuming you're just going to tolerate them due to accidents of birth.
posted by jzb at 9:49 AM on November 3, 2022 [9 favorites]

GodDAMN the amount of truth in that LiveJournal post is just... wow.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:59 AM on November 3, 2022 [3 favorites]

The sick systems stuff reminds me a lot my experience in the startup world, where they trade heavily on promises of a reward if you work long hours and show true loyalty to the company and it’s mission. Elements of it also exist in the non-profit world as well. In my professional adult life, I’ve always been suspicious of those who genuinely tow the company line, who are loyal to their employers beyond a fault, who will happily wear their company logo at home, at work, and at play. The sort who ask kiss-up questions to the executives at all-staff meetings when everyone else in the room is clearly ready to leave so they can go back to doing real work…

It’s something I’ve experienced but never truly fell for, in part because I’ve had the luxury and advantage of an upbringing by parents who worked as unionized civil servants, who could draw clean lines between their working life and personal lives, and were paid time and a half for overtime. They instilled an ethos in me of questioning that sort of blind loyalty to an employer, to not working long hours unless absolutely necessary, and to be defensive of one’s own time. It’s not easy to do such a thing in this late-stage capitalist hellscape, but having that attitude instilled in my from an early age has been quite helpful.
posted by SansPoint at 10:13 AM on November 3, 2022 [8 favorites]

This is my place, too. I unfortunately was working for a family business, so taking the right step to protect myself meant I had to leave a fantastic job of ten years that I really loved.
In general, I am usually surprised at how understanding most people are when I tell them I have no contact with my mother, I was expecting to be a pariah. Attempting to navigate abusive relationships over decades takes such a toll, and I will be untangling this ball of extension cords till I am old old old.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 10:19 AM on November 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm dealing with some of this right now. We're in the second hand "Well, Mom wants to send your kids some presents, could you give her their sizes / your address please?" phase of the screaming cycle.
posted by pan at 10:53 AM on November 3, 2022 [5 favorites]

A few years ago I cut someone toxic out of my life, and after I had The Talk with them his girlfriend emailed me to beg me to reconsider because she was worried that my doing so would lead to a chain reaction of other people in our circle of friends also cutting ties with him (because I was sort of the linchpin between him and a few different groups of people, and that is more or less what happened) and because he'd been "going through a tough time" during a couple of really ugly then-recent incidents that were the breaking point for me. I didn't respond because I'd already told him that our conversation would be my last word on the subject, but if I had I would have told her it wasn't my responsibility to perform emotional labour in order to put up with or "justify" his increasingly shitty treatment of myself and others over the course of literal decades.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:00 AM on November 3, 2022 [19 favorites]

One thing I've noted is how much the idea of someone being okay with not extending forgiveness without explicit contrition and penance really goes against the grain. Hence why we have rather gaslighty bits like telling victims "you should forgive them for your own sake."
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:03 PM on November 3, 2022 [17 favorites]

Here is a linked article on Psychic Vampires that was in the second links footnotes. It is not quite as good as the OP, but is a excellent supplement.
posted by burntbook at 2:06 PM on November 3, 2022

I did not come across the second link, on sick systems, until after I rage-quit a very toxic job at a company that was in the “startup culture” mindset. I found it incredibly validating to learn that no, it was NOT me and that yes, it was OK that I basically slept for two weeks straight after quitting that job.

While i have not cut anyone out of my life, there are several familial relationships which I able to maintain by having strict, well defined boundaries. The worse people to deal with are those who know the reasons why I have such boundaries, yet insist that I need to to relax because “family”. And that I am a horrible person for not relaxing them.

Maybe I am. But my kid is safe, my spouse is protected and I sleep OK at night. I can live with being a horrible person.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 3:51 PM on November 3, 2022 [9 favorites]

Very relatable, recently had an old relatively intimate internet friend - with whom I'd had a kinda harsh falling out - begin repeatedly looking in on me online after 20 years. A cursory search of his current professional/livings status conflicted with his history I'd known and confused me so I ignored it, until it continued and I couldn't. I inquired if it were in fact him and voila, it was off to the races as though nothing had ever soured and within two exchanges the old drama of his life came flooding forward along with his assumed gratitude for once again embracing our old friendship , same as it ever was. I instantly decided there was no way I was interested in engaging in that again - definitely not literally overnight based on his breathless expression of relief - so I politely replied that I was very happy to hear he was doing well and in a gratifying job and relationship and simply signed off, "Take care." That seems to have done it and while it still seems a tad awkward I'm also proud of myself for learning something over the course of two decades - time is too short and we simply must choose how we want to spend the remainder.
posted by thecincinnatikid at 5:56 PM on November 3, 2022 [6 favorites]

Hence why we have rather gaslighty bits like telling victims "you should forgive them for your own sake."

I have a slightly different take. In this case, I think of forgiveness as a zeroing out of scores, not for the abuser (hence “forgiven but not forgotten”) but to take back the mental energy I’m devoting to them. That really is “for your sake,” and occupies the same emotional zone as “you’re dead to me.”
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:32 PM on November 3, 2022 [12 favorites]

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

The More Loving One
by W.H. Auden

posted by y2karl at 6:43 PM on November 3, 2022 [7 favorites]

I have a slightly different take.

Note: while I think that my take correct (at least for me), people definitely use it the other way out of malice or ignorance, so being wary of or mad at people who say it is definitely a useful response, because he implication, like the “a few bad apples” canard, is that you should stop making a fuss and make life easy for the speaker.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:58 PM on November 3, 2022 [1 favorite]

It's amazing how often this happens in real life. For a bunch of examples, just read /r/JUSTNOFAMILY
posted by DreamerFi at 3:37 AM on November 4, 2022

I’m in the process of extricating myself from a ‘sick system’ and the content of that second link has just floored me. So accurate, and so valuable in helping get my head around what I’m going through. Thank you for posting!
posted by threecheesetrees at 7:14 AM on November 4, 2022 [3 favorites]

When I came out, my parents stopped talking to me. no threats, no comments, no anything. I just got unpersoned as far as I can tell.

They still send checks for my spouse and my birthdays, our anniversary, and for Christmas, for whatever that's worth. But I was already leaving them out of my life for many reasons, including a very toxic relationship wherein it was me not living up to their expectations and ideals of my potential.

The best advice I ever got was "You did not not fail your parents. Your parents held rigid expectations and never adjusted them even when it was clear they did not fit you. Children grow in all directions. It's not your fault if your parents weren't prepared to grow with you."

I mean, it's up there with "Run fast. Laugh hard. Be kind." as far as good life advice. But I'm still unwinding my head from all the things they told me were wrong about myself.
posted by mephron at 12:04 PM on November 4, 2022 [7 favorites]

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