On Avoiding Toxic Relationships and Making Amends

The more I clear away internalized negative beliefs about myself and feeling states that accompany these beliefs (e.g., “I’m not good enough”), the more I clearly understand how vital it is to minimize and, where possible, avoid spending time around anyone who relates to me from a place that reinforces these negative beliefs. I will not automatically return to any past relationships tainted with emotional toxicity. I would need the other party in question to indicate some significant changes having happened in themselves, demonstrated by them freely admitting to any hurtful statements and actions they had said and done to me and expressing remorse over these. I would then gladly admit to any I had said and done to them and apologize. That would be a healthy start.

Initiating the making of amends is a courageous act. Over the years, I have made it a point to do this where and when I can, when doing so would clearly not cause any harm to the other party. This has been very healing to do, even when the other person has received my amends with some reservation. It has still felt like the right thing to do.

12 thoughts on “On Avoiding Toxic Relationships and Making Amends

  1. I learned about making amends from AA a very long time ago (around 40 years ago). It was most likely the most healing lesson they taught me. Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Your post was a great reminder. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you for commenting, as you so often do on my posts. Much appreciated.

      I too learned about the importance of making amends, including when to make amends, through 12 Step recovery. That lesson has repeatedly come back to me, with more of a sense of rootedness inside of me now, long after I last attended a 12 Step group, now so many years ago.

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  2. Yes 🙌 I’m all for eliminating or minimizing contact with people who speak and behave in “toxic” ways, and people who exacerbate my own already toxic “inner critic” parts and profoundly vulnerable parts. I deeply wish it were easier to do this!
    I was in a program through AA for adult children of alcoholics for a short time when I was in my twenties, and as a result of some of my professional work became very familiar with 12-step programs (about which I have very mixed thoughts and feelings)—there is much wisdom in their teachings! Making amends for our errors and harms we have done is critical to healing—our own and 🤞those beings we have hurt (IMHO). To your point about your self-beliefs PFP, I have come to believe that in “making amends” we have to find ways to make amends to ourselves as much as to other beings for true healing to occur all-around (🙄😂 my own abilities in this area are seriously compromised). Perhaps “Forgiveness” ought to be considered less a noun than a transactional verb. And perhaps “forgiveness” only fully completes when we can feel good about ourselves even having said/done things that hurt others, and when we can resonate with the goodness in even the most toxically behaving others?

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    1. I largely agree with all of what you say here, which feel like great elaborations and deepenings of what I quickly typed out in my post here. Thank you for your thoughtful, eloquent sharing.

      I too have mixed thoughts and feelings about 12 Step programs. I was just writing about something I valued and took from that system of thought and recovery, while leaving a lot of the rest. As 12 Step says, “Take the best and leave the rest.” I think that is a helpful “save” or loophole that helps to keep 12 Step helpful and legitimate. That said, I am glad to see assorted re-toolings and outright alternatives to this limited, somewhat outdated praxis.

      Re: Forgiveness. That is something that I am cautious about, but value, where indicated case by case. First of all, I do think that it is not an absolute requirement in all instances for full healing to occur. Also, it is best done by an offended/hurt party when they choose to do so freely and not at all from out of feeling and/or being pressured by anyone. I appreciate Dr. Janis Abrams Spring’s take on this concept and course of action in her helpful book HOW CAN I FORGIVE YOU? In it, she talks about forgiveness best being done when the offended/hurt party receives some clear acknowledgement from the other party that they indeed did something(s) wrong and hurtful and feel remorseful. I do not remember exactly what she said about situations where the offending party is dead and/or completely out of a person’s life. She does talk about releasing the hurt/s, however, without necessarily “forgiving.” In the end, forgiveness of others/another is a personal choice. Forgiveness of oneself is too and is, I believe, best done first, whether or not one decides to forgive another/others.

      If you detect a bit of forcefulness in my tone about forgiveness, it is because I am responding to this ethos I detect in general culture that forgiveness is a requirement for spiritual growth. That kind of pressure is often shaming to people. Letting go of pain inflicted on you/me/us and finding a way to hold compassion for others that have hurt you/me/us are important and helpful, but I do not think of those as necessarily the same as forgiving. Perhaps I am splitting hairs here. What one person views as forgiving may be different as I understand that term.

      I do appreciate and agree with your statement: “resonate with the goodness in even the most toxically behaving others[?]” Yes, seeing the positive aspects of these other harm-doers’ humanity is helpful, so long as one also keeps in mind that being close to such individuals can and will result in re-traumatization. Compassion from afar can then be practiced.

      You wrote a lot to unpack, some of which I probably did not respond to, but there you have some response from me at least.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wowee thank you for the deeply thoughtful response to my response! You’ve offered much more for me to contemplate. 😀 I shall look up Janis Abrams Spring’s book!

    I agree completely with your comment, “If you detect a bit of forcefulness in my tone about forgiveness, it is because I am responding to this ethos I detect in general culture that forgiveness is a requirement for spiritual growth. That kind of pressure is often shaming to people.” I actually put forgiveness in scare quotes in my comment because, as I was writing, I felt a waffling about the ways most in our culture conceptualize forgiveness. I think so many of our cultural concepts are so steeped in Christianity (sometimes toxic Christianity!) and Abrahamic faith traditions that whether consciously or subconsciously, many of our beliefs and motivations continue to be driven by its teachings. Even those who reject these faiths. And “forgiveness” is central to Christianity—so much so that the stories that drive it are based upon it (i.e. Jesus as the uber-forgiver/savior in New Testament, and throughout the Old T, the various rewarding and punishing for behaviors all connect to remorse and forgiveness). And, I’ve found through my (very surfacey) learnings about other major religions that they too seem to hold up forgiveness and being forgiven as central aspects of being a “believer.” (I suppose this is because as much as the function of religion is to offer meaning and purpose in life to individuals, it is also to inculcate moral and ethical codes for behavior…there’s the theology, and there’s the social teaching, and they’re all tangled up.) Even the spiritual practices of many (not all) Buddhist traditions that have been morphed for the West and popularized teach the difference between thoughts/feelings and “higher consciousness” and hold up “letting go” as something very akin to “forgiveness.” Though different from many traditions in that the teachings embrace self-compassion, the takeaway for most seems to be that only those who can “let go”/experience non-attachment, etc. are making spiritual “progress.” So many practitioners (and a lot of the teachers too) of these spiritual practices don’t see the irony in this…that someone can somehow get better at spirituality 🤣, and it’s sad that the way it plays out in real life (vs theory/philosophy) is many folks feel pressure to force-change their thoughts and feelings…such as letting go/forgiving and feel some semblance of shame when they aren’t “good enough at it.”

    Yikes, we humans do torture ourselves!

    Anyway, I added the link to David Whyte’s mini-essay on forgiveness because I find it keenly insightful on the true dynamics of forgiveness, and that it offers a beautiful response to your (and many’s) issues with our cultural ethos of forgiveness…even more so when paired with his piece on confession.

    I’ll copy both and post them. I’ll be curious to hear how you and your other readers take it!

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    is a stripping away of protection, the telling of a truth which might once have seemed like a humiliation, become suddenly a gateway, an entrance to new territory; even a first step home. To confess is to free oneself, not only by admitting a sin or an omission but to profess a deeper allegiance, a greater dedication to something beyond the mere threat of immediate punishment or the desolation of being shunned. To confess is to declare oneself ready for a more courageous road, one in which a previously defended identity might not only be shorn away, but be seen to be irrelevant, a distraction, a working delusion that kept us busy over the years and held us unaccountable to the real question.

    Freedom from deception may be the goal but no confession is without consequences. Our fears about the result of confessing are well grounded; the old identity the secret was protecting almost never survives the revelation. We begin the new life in isolation; perhaps indeed shunned by those we have wronged or even by those unable to understand our need to tell. Confession implicitly calls for carrying on the journey newly alone, unaccompanied by the familiar company we have kept until now.

    Deathbed confessions happen so frequently because in the light of our imminent demise and disappearance, preserving the old fearful identity that kept the secret is seen to be absurd, almost laughable, we are suddenly not the thing we have been defending all along. In the shadow of our disappearance we come to understand that the preservation of our name and our identity have taken enormous effort and willpower to sustain for a mere temporary and provisional sense of personhood. In leaving the stasis of secrecy we must commit to a new fidelity – and fluidity – a river flow of arrival – and not just on a temporary basis while the revelation is new, but shaped around a different life that calls for a deeper discipline.

    Confession, therefore is not passive; is not the simple ability to face up to past wrongs – an active dynamic is foundational to the original meaning. In the early Christian tradition Confession meant the avowal and declaration of one’s religion, to confess was to discover what one believed to be true by speaking it out loud before witnesses – often unsympathetic – to confess, was to enter an axis of vulnerability and visibility and sometimes to place oneself at the mercy of those who did not fully understand us in our struggle.

    Declaring a new dispensation by confession we see our trespasses against others in a new light, initiated by something we were hiding, not only from the world but from ourselves. Holding the secret was not only a defense against punishment but also a holding back from a next courageous step. To separate the confusion of punishment with revelation we first of all confess to ourselves, step onto solid ground in the privacy and spaciousness of our own hearts and minds and then translate it into the best speech we have to represent it in the world, and by doing so attempt to meld two previously irreconcilable worlds. To confess is to integrate the offending with the offended, inside and out.

    To confess is not only to acknowledge a truth we have held from ourselves all along, breathing quietly, alone and in secret what we could not initially give a voice, but a hopeful dedication to a larger power that might make us powerless to commit the self-same sin again.

    The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning
    of Everyday Words
    Revised Edition © 2021 David Whyte and Many Rivers Press

    Evening Light Through Sycamores
    Photo © David Whyte
    Littondale, Yorkshire
    July 21st 2014


    Confession is the unwanted but necessary threshold for maturation, not only for individuals but for societies and nations: we see this most tellingly in our need to face up to and into the deeply shadowed past around slavery and the exploitation or even elimination of native peoples. Confession is deeply personal no matter how collective the sin; hence the turbulent nature of our times as we each face the legacy, willingly or unwillingly that we are just beginning to fully realize we have inherited.

    By David Whyte (from Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (2020 Revised Edition)

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    is a heartache and difficult to achieve because strangely, the act of forgiveness not only refuses to eliminate the original wound, but actually draws us closer to its source. To approach forgiveness is to close in on the nature of the hurt itself, the only remedy being, as we approach its raw center, to reimagine our relation to it.

    It may be that the part of us that was struck and hurt can never forgive, and that forgiveness itself never arises from the part of us that was actually wounded. The wounded self may be the part of us incapable of forgetting, and perhaps, not meant to forget…

    Stranger still, it is that wounded, branded, un-forgetting part of us that eventually makes forgiveness an act of compassion rather than one of simple forgetting…

    Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life, a beautiful question and a way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves; an admittance that if forgiveness comes through understanding, and if understanding is just a matter of time and application then we might as well begin forgiving right at the beginning of any drama, rather than put ourselves through the full cycle of festering, incapacitation, reluctant healing and eventual blessing.

    …at the end of life, the wish to be forgiven is ultimately the chief desire of almost every human being. In refusing to wait; in extending forgiveness to others now, we begin the long journey of becoming the person who will be large enough, able enough and generous enough to receive, at our very end, that necessary absolution ourselves.

    From CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.
    2016 © David Whyte: and Many Rivers Press

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