How To Practice Self-Care In A Toxic Relationship with Katie Anthony

How to Practice Self-Care in a Toxic Relationship with Katie Anthony

Katie Anthony is a collaborative and trauma-informed therapist. She is EMDR trained and currently completing her traumatic stress study certificate, a certification program led by author and researcher, Bessel Van Der Kolk. I don't know if I said that right, but he wrote the book The Body Keeps Score, which is a bestseller.  Katie sees individuals and couples and she's also a solo parent to four children, ages 10, 12, 14, and 16.

Let's start with getting some clarity. When we say the word toxic, what does that really mean?

It can sometimes be a tricky word, and it's a word that we're hearing a lot more of, especially with social media. It can be a catchall term that means different things to different people. There's a rising awareness of the word toxic. I look at this word through two lenses. The first way is, that the word can encompass any relationship or person that really needs or desires to keep you locked into a pattern of dysfunction in unhealth. When I think of a toxic person, it’s an unhealed person who actually doesn't think that they need help. That means we've all been toxic at one time or another. There's an ouch factor when I think about it through that framework.

The second lens I use to think about the word toxic is as a therapist. It strikes me as something that's a lot more pervasive and even pathological. So what's the difference? We’re going to call toxic people those people who really engage emotionally.  They can be emotionally abusive, verbally abusive, and even have physically abusive behaviors. These people oftentimes struggle with addiction, and most of them have been really deeply traumatized themselves at one point or another in their lives. This type of person that we'll be talking about today feels really generally that their behavior and way of being in the world is actually not a problem at all, even though we may experience it as really problematic. They don't usually understand the hurt that they cause, and they typically experience quite a bit of shame that is so painful that they often blame the people around them quite a bit for the things that happen in their lives and for other people's behaviors and even their own.

You've been counseling people for a while dealing with these toxic people, whether it's ex-spouses or family members, and helping them out of it. What are some of the most common difficulties that your clients are facing when it comes to toxic relationships?

When people come to see me, the very first thing that I see them struggling with is the validation piece. The first question they ask is, “Is it actually me? Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm the one who's difficult or toxic or unhealthy.” There may be some unhealthy there, but really that validation piece is so important. There's this part of being involved in these relationships where we lose our objectivity.

People have a difficult time being objective about this toxic person in their lives, or they've been really traumatized to the point that they aren't really sure what the truth is. When I say the truth, I mean the truth about themselves and the truth about others. Sometimes even they've been traumatized to the point that they don't really know what the truth is about the world or how they exist in it anymore. They have a hard time trusting themselves and trusting other people. They also have a hard time remembering or really knowing in a very deep way, one really important truth. And the truth is that the toxic person's actions, reactions, and treatment of them are actually not about them at all. It's really about that toxic person's pain and their shame.

The second thing, and probably the most difficult that I see my clients struggle with is this very heightened emotional and physical response that they experience in the body when they know they're going to interact with this person or when they do interact in the aftermath of these interactions.

It feels very automatic to them, and it actually is very automatic. So why is that? Why do we have these very emotional, visceral responses to people that are automatic? The reason is that when you're in a close relationship with a spouse or a caregiver who's inconsistent or unpredictable, what happens is that over time it sends people into this feeling of being on edge where they react. They experience a state that we call hypervigilance, and this is when our brains are constantly looking for threats. The brain's actually doing a great job of looking for threats and keeping us safe but to the point of dysfunction. And so this way of being can become so automatic and such a norm for people that they really find it difficult to function in any other way, but this pattern that they're pre-programmed to function in.

If we have an ex-spouse who is toxic, chances are more than likely we are going to be in a continual relationship with them in some form or fashion. As we continue in our relationship with our ex-spouses, and our ex or former family members, how do we keep that relationship moving without getting triggered?

There's so much to unwind in that question. The first thing is be patient with yourself. The idea of not getting triggered really is a matter of practice. You really have to be patient to experience things differently, think about things differently, and practice things differently with every interaction you have. I'm going to get into a little bit of sciencey talk, so y'all stay with me. When we've been in a close relationship with a person like this, our brains basically get wired to respond a certain way. We see our interactions with these people through this. I would call it a trauma lens, which is when we do have these automatic responses, and those responses do become really ingrained, and they're innate and they actually really keep us safe, but they get dysfunctional and they create difficulty for us when there's not actually a threat anymore.

But your nervous system and your brain haven't gotten the message yet. They're still there. The good news is that God created us with malleable brains that can change over time by practicing new things. We call it neuroplasticity. Not getting triggered isn't something you just get good at one day. You can breathe your way through or talk your way through the first time you try. It's something that you actually practice over and over again, both in the difficult interactions and outside of the difficult interactions. How do we get triggered less often? The first key to being triggered less often or less intensely, absolutely has to first start with addressing what's happening in the body and giving your body the care that it needs.

Until you can see these automatic responses and give them a physical outlet, your thinking brain will never get the good chance it needs to come online and help you out in these situations. A good place to start is to practice being a curious observer. Watch what happens when you hear the person's name. When you see a car like their car, or you anticipate an interaction with them, grab a pen and paper and write it down. For example, my palms are sweaty. I can't control my racing heart. I want to punch a wall. I'm angry at them. I'm angry at myself. Whatever that experience is like for you, I encourage you to write it down and then do something physical.

Take that list that you just wrote, throw it in the trash, scream into a pillow, step into the bathroom and throw some air punches. Go for a walk, curl into a ball on the floor. Just give yourself permission to get a little weird with it. There's no right or wrong way in those moments to practice, and you might feel a little nuts, but go with it. Your body knows what it needs to be an outlet for those intense feelings that you're experiencing, and it will tell you what it needs, honestly. My encouragement for you is to let your body do what it needs to process these really intense feelings as long as you can stay safe while you do it.

Can you go into even more practical suggestions of ways we can care for ourselves?

First, forgive yourself for not getting things just right. Actually, you're a human being, thank goodness.  What do you need to do to return to calm? And we talked about this before about giving the body what it needs, but can you take a walk? Is there a trusted friend that you can call? Do you need to pray about it? I would invite you to lean into this idea that it's best for you to get yourself back to center. But then let's take it a step further and get a little bit more practical about it because we really need to think about what we can do to plan for better reactions the next time this happens.

I'm very much in favor of looking at what happened and acknowledging it, looking at where your emotions got the better of you and making a plan to do it differently. You can't get better if you don't get curious first. After the dust has settled and you've done these things to take care of yourself, get out a pen and paper again. Scribble out a quick list. This list should very practically name what happened, how you felt, and what did you think when the event happened? And then write down how you responded and what those consequences were. You might walk away with regret or you might walk away with shame. Maybe you felt like you lost a piece of yourself in this interaction.

That’s the acknowledgement piece. Now let's plan, let's make a list beside or below the other one. I'd like for you to think about how you would rather feel in that moment, in those interactions, how you would prefer to think, how you would like to respond instead, and what you imagine the consequences of this better, more healthy response might be. As you do this, you'll probably start to see a pattern. You're going to see a pattern for your triggers. You're going to see a pattern for your emotions. Your behaviors are going to follow a pattern. My hope for you is that over time you'll be able to say in those difficult moments, “Oh wait, here I go again. Let me try something different this time.”

A really important piece of what we're covering today, which is trusting yourself in that moment to know what you need. And again, that's something that people who are in these patterns have such a difficulty with. It’s such an important piece of healing and doing things differently.

It doesn't matter where you are in your co-parenting journey or even dealing with family members from someone that might've passed, or many years out from your divorce. I'm 17 years out from my divorce. It doesn't matter if it's fresh or if it's ongoing. I have an event coming up and my kids are all adults now, but it's a family event. We're all going to be together, all of us and closest friends, and my ex is going to be there. And I know that it's going to be a very tense situation, and this is 17 years after the divorce happened.

For everyone that has to go to sporting events or to church, or whatever, what can we do? What can we do to care for ourselves before we get into that situation so that we can better handle the tension?

This is something that we face for a lifetime, honestly. You've experienced that as you've walked through your children being young and now they're grown and it's still a relevant thing that you have to face. There are a couple practices that you can use to put in place to prepare for situations that are going to be tense, like the one that you're describing. First and foremost, it's good to remember what we talked about earlier, that nine and a half times out of 10, the toxic person's treatment of you has absolutely nothing to do with you at all. That's great to have in mind, but let's have some resources in place. One of the things I really like to recommend to people is to literally write down what the actual truth is. This is really powerful.

What I mean by that is, what is the truth about you? You can take one of two approaches to this. One way to get to this list is to think to yourself, what does the Bible say about who I am? Who am I in Christ? When I get quiet with God and I ask Him who I am, what is that kind whisper He gives me about who I am and what my identity is? Write it down, take a paragraph or so and write it down. There's another framework you can use and you can combine these two if you want, is this very much like rubber meets the road view, which is using I statements.

I'm the best mother I can be. I'm the best father I can be. I love my children unconditionally. I will always do the next right thing. Being right is not as important as my peace. Whatever those phrases are that resonate with you personally about who you see yourself to be and how you want to show up in that situation or with your family or your children, is what you should write down. What I love about this is you can take this note card, you can make multiple copies, you can stick it in your office, you can put one in your purse or wallet, in your car, and then when you're going to face that difficult interaction, or you find yourself becoming uncured or unmoored at any point, pull it out. Remind yourself of what the truth is. And then lastly, right before that moment when you're going to have the interaction, if your kids are with you, send them on ahead. Take a few minutes to yourself, get yourself grounded. And what I mean by that is just get present in your mind and present in your body. The best way for us to do this is actually to just do some deep breathing, which you can do anywhere at any time. In through the nose, you hold it for five seconds and you really focus on taking a long breath. Science tells us that this really long outbreath can actually lower our heart rate. And while you're doing this, you can take a second to notice the light behind your eyes or the noises if you're in your car, outside your car, wherever you are, that will also bring in the five senses and help keep you grounded in the present. And that's going to give you a moment of peace and that pause, which we'll probably talk about a little bit later, that's so important to staying present in your physical body, in your mind, in your spirit.

When you don't have to come face to face, but sometimes there are text messages and emails and phone calls that have to happen, especially if you're co-parenting, but even you work with someone who's toxic and you have to, maybe you work from home, but you've got to take phone calls and emails and be in meetings with them and whatever.

When you know you're walking into a situation with someone you work with and you’re going to get criticized and blamed for all the things that are wrong that ever happens. It's not just face-to-face interactions. It comes through emails, texts, and posts. We're walking into criticism and blame, and all the things hurt that they're dealing with.

How do we gear up and arm ourselves when we're walking into that?

It’s such a common issue that we all face as we especially navigate the co-parenting relationship or the co-working relationship. I think about this idea that failure to prepare is actually preparing to fail. I know that sounds a little bit hokey, but I think it really rings true in this situation. It’s good to come up with some responses in advance that take your usual reaction out of it.

The pause is so important. We don't just react and act instead of thinking in these situations. So what does that look like? First, ask yourself, does this email, text, or call require an answer? So not just is there a question here, but is this a question I really need to answer? So, this question that you need to answer would be like, “Does Susie have homework? What time is the meeting tomorrow?” These types of things. Of course you should answer them, but you should answer very straightforward for example, “Yes, homework is the math problem on page 12. Yes, the call is at noon tomorrow.” But we know we get these other types of questions too, and these are questions we know are going to create conflict or get triggered.

This is where the pause is so important, so you actually can respond tomorrow. You don't have to respond immediately. There's this immediacy that comes with these types of communications, but we actually don't have to get sucked in. We can pause if we want to, and we can say things like, “I'm not sure about the answer to this, so let me get back to you.” And so the pause can last as long as you need it to, and it will keep you from reacting out of that automatic trauma response, and it will buy you some time to calm down and use your thinking brain. So you've taken the pause. So now what do you actually say? Let's get down to brass tacks and get practical here. What I like to do and what I recommend for other people to do is to write down some responses in your notes app on your phone.

It's really that easy. Those responses might sound like, “I don't want to have conflict with you, and I'm concerned that if I respond, it may create conflict between us. Thank you for letting me know your thoughts. I'll consider them.” Or “I'm not willing to do that.” If they're asking you for something, say, “Thank you for asking.” If you're getting criticism or blame, what you're saying here is untrue, but you don't want to engage in an argument. You can even shut it down a little bit, by saying for example, “I've received your response. Thank you so much for sharing your opinion, these are really thoughtful.”  Low engagement responses that allow you to show up with kindness, show up with authenticity, but they're also boundaried in such a way that you're not inviting more difficulty.

If we have a toxic relationship with our ex, our kids are obviously going to be involved. What does self-care look like when kids are involved in the situation?

This is such a challenge. Solo parents often have really thin margins. It’s a special challenge, for co-parents in these situations because not only do they find themselves having these really thin margins, but they also experience the co-parenting relationship as a draining one. They can also find themselves struggling to undo some of the parenting or counter parenting of their ex. Then there's this additional layer where our children maybe have these special challenges when they come home, they have a difficult time transitioning from one home to the other, or they're acting out because of the transition.

What’s so important to remember in these situations is that we can only be responsible for so much. Your child has their own will and they have their own energy and their own perspective and their own choices to make, and then the other parent has theirs, and then we have ours. And then of course there's the Lord's will, which is no small thing. There's room for you to take a deep breath and relieve yourself of some of the burden of having to get it right all the time. And so I do really think that accepting that truth is a radical act of self-care.

In more practical terms though, we're going to get down to those practical pieces. It’s so lovely to actually insert some indulgences into your life that will keep you grounded in the present and keep you grounded in gratitude.

Things that are presently focused and small that you can access at a moment's notice. These would be things like buying yourself some chocolate and hide it in your closet so your kids can't eat all of it. Sneak in there, take a bite, take a hot bath, journal, but don't put pressure on yourself. Go outside. Take a minute to engage in the five senses, which we've talked about, put on music that you really like. They don't have to be these big radical acts or over the top amazing acts of self-care or even scheduled acts. Life really does take place in these tiny moments. It’s good for us to invite gratitude and calm into smaller, really present focused acts.

What role does community play and what could that look like?

This is a really important question because this is a challenge that parents with toxic ex-spouses feel even more acutely than other people because not everyone is co-parenting the way that your co-parenting or the way that you have to boundary your relationship. Some people can co-parent peacefully, and they can collaborate with each other, and they can interact in positive ways and have some compromising. Then there's this other truth that if parents are facing similar challenges, the one that you might be experiencing with a toxic co-parent, they're not necessarily volunteering this information. They're not advertising it with a flashing sign above their head when you first meet them. It’s hard to know where your community is. There's also this idea that there are so many divorced people with toxic exes who really lose the support network that they had when they were married.

Especially early on these parents who've been in these relationships have this added layer of self-doubt, and they have this heightened emotion that we've talked about. So on top of isolation, there are these other layers for parents in a toxic parenting situation. I really believe that we are designed for community. All of us deeply long to be known and seen by other people. I would say to find your community, consider joining a support group or an education group for parents that are facing similar challenges where you can learn, you can share your own story, but you can also hear the stories of others. This is a great way to feel less isolated and more connected. Another great way to find community is through a trusted friend, or even a therapist who can hold space for you to talk about your experiences.

This is so important as you process your life. There's some grieving that happens with being involved in these relationships. And of course, healing that needs to happen. So no matter which one it is, or even if you're able to find both whoever this person or persons is, they should make you feel safe, they should make you feel seen, and they should know you well enough and be bold enough to point you back to the truth of who you are as a person during those times when you experience a feeling of being lost.

And of course, Solo Parent is a great community to be a part of; we have groups every single day of the week. These podcasts are great, but really the healing happens in our support groups. You can find a group any day by downloading our app, and you'll see our online calendar.

Listener Question

Hi, I’m Angel, a single mom. In my marriage, there was a lot of emotional, mental, and physical abuse. My son's love language is touch, and I find it difficult to have him constantly hug me and it breaks my heart. I feel like he gets really sad when I ask him to give me my space. How can I fix this situation?

This is such a great question because we can get touched out as parents, especially when we have younger kids. And if that's something that you find triggering for you, then it's an especially challenging situation. But I want to go to your kids' need. We don't want our kids to ever feel that they're a source of stress or discomfort or pain for us. This is where our good boundaries come in. This is where we can say, I will wrap my arms around you. I will hug you, I will touch you. I will love you. I want you to feel safe, seen, secure, soothed, all those really important things.

But it's also a wonderful opportunity to say to your son, “You know what? Mommy's feeling a little bit uncomfortable, and it's not you. I love hugging you. Your hugs are the best. I'm going to take about five minutes and I'm going to step away and I need to do whatever it is.”

Maybe it's go to your room for a minute and take care of yourself. And then say, “When I come back out, I want us to spend more time together.” And then have in mind some structured things that you can do with your son when you come back out so that you're not over touched even more.

It’s also really important to acknowledge your child's feelings in that moment. “Oh, I can see that you're sad that mommy needs to step away for a minute. Here's why I'm doing it, and I see your feeling and I understand it, and I empathize with it.” Really get down on their level, look in their eyes, hold them a little bit more on the outside of the body so you're not being completely enveloped. The message he will receive is, “I see how you're feeling, and the desire of my heart is to touch you and spend more time with you, but right now I need to take care of myself.” It can be five minutes that you step away and then you can step back into a more structured activity that allows you to have some good boundaries, but still engage with your child in a warm, connected way.



Katie Anthony is a therapist at Therapeutic Services, in Franklin, Tennessee. She sees children, adults, adolescents, and families. You can also find her at or on Instagram at @KatieAnthonyTherapy.

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