These Mental Traps Could Keep You Stuck In Toxic Relationships
People in toxic one-on-one relationships often tell me that this isn’t their first—it mirrors their family-of-origin. Statements like, “My partner is the male version of my mother,” or, “I am dating a version of my father,” often emerge, because of repetition compulsion, where the mind tries to heal from trauma by entering similar situations.
While some clients have long escaped their toxic families-of-origin, others find it harder. It doesn’t matter your age or how accomplished you are—some families are incredibly powerful in terms of their wealth and resources, and ability to mobilize the larger family to keep you under their thumb. I see these especially amplified in my adult clients from high net worth families. The common denominator is that you're left exhausted, confused, and discombobulated.
Why, you ask? Because a toxic family needs different people to play different roles. One of which is, the scapegoat. This scapegoat is blamed for everything, and their triumphs and history are erased away. And if need be, a toxic family keeps the scapegoat the same, preventing them from leaving, rather than cultivating a new one.
Leaving such a toxic family isn’t just a matter of willpower (actually, nothing is merely due to willpower), but rather recognizing and healing from the longstanding damage inflicted and compounded, being clear with yourself, and having a wise strategy.
And while you can understand plenty of things logically, it is until they sink in emotionally that you get it—and part of that starts with being emotionally familiar with the cognitive traps that keep you mired.
Cognitive traps 101
They aren’t "all bad"
In your head, you will reference all the good times and the okay times. Maybe you were still walking on eggshells and they were passive-aggressive, but at least you weren’t broken. That’s how low your standards have sunk.
The truth is, the good times come from many origins that are a bitter pill to swallow. Sometimes, they love-bomb you so you're so bombarded by the "niceness" that you don’t have space or time to think. And interspersed within those experiences, they're grooming you by telling you things about yourself you really shouldn’t believe, or surreptitiously eroding your boundaries in microdoses (that for you to raise would make you sound incredibly petty).
Sometimes the good times are merely performative, so they have some episodes to reference about how good they are to you. At others, they are throwing you a bone so you can enjoy alongside them. Then they may have stints in your life when they've been incredibly supportive and kind to you, because they want to gain off your reflected glory, or because you are providing them comfort and support. And because you’ve tasted good times before, you firmly believe they aren’t all bad.
They don’t mean to hurt me, they're just ignorant
This is especially true if they tell you they’re going through a difficult time, such as a health issue, even though these individuals aren’t strangers to making up stories. They may blame substances or a recent tragedy and tell you that you must be supportive as they try to get better.
These are sweetened with multiple texts like, “I’m sorry,” “I love you,” and “You know I care deeply for you." And the thing about the trauma bond is that it lives for affirmations like that, never mind if your logical self fully knows that talk is cheap. Also, because you do your best to be a decent human being, you unfortunately commit the logical fallacy of extending that assumption to everyone, giving them more chances than they deserve.
I am so tired, I should just knuckle under
Often, the entire family is mobilized—they descend upon your house unannounced, send thousands of group chat messages to either bait you or covertly inform you that you've been excluded, and then sometimes even your friends have been completely hoodwinked. You see, the smear campaign has been going on for long enough that by the time you find out about the lies you have to defend yourself against, perceptions have been drilled in way too deeply.
You are tired and confused. And then when you are triggered, you sometimes find yourself immobilized. Because freezing is one of the states that your nervous system defaults to, beside fight, flight and fawn.
When immobilized, we feel like we can't do anything, we're tired, and we hate ourselves for that. In fact, that self-hatred at being triggered is what makes everything worse and increases your tired and sense of helplessness.
They're doing it for my own good
The words they use seem so logical about why they do what they do, even if it harms you, which they then wrap up with the words, "I care for you." In your head, you reference all the times you tripped and fell in your life.
Even if we all have our bad moments and episodes, you are someone who is over-responsible, and you believe that is why someone needs to give you tough love. Or they have repeated (over and over again) your less glorious moments. They tell you that you don’t know better. Otherwise, they always steal your credit and your thunder, so all the more you believe that you are useless, and that someone has to step in.
Just one more time
When the trauma bond comes online, no matter how clear and resolute you were yesterday, a trigger swoops in and bam—the traumatized part of you takes over, your fear center hijacks you, and your body acts as though then is now, down to the sounds, sights, and smells.
Because trauma isn’t just what happened to you, it’s how it plays out over and over again in your body; And apply the principle of compound interest to acknowledge the burden you’ve been carrying.
The traumatized part of you wants to believe that with just one more chance they’ll be better. You reference the good old days, the miracles you’ve read about, and the ideas like "good things come to people who wait." The deal is, the longer you’ve been enmeshed in this, the harder it feels to get out.
I need to say my piece
Yes, you will be angry at the sheer injustice and indecency. And standing up for yourself with decent people might mean enforcing boundaries. But toxic people thrive on eroding boundaries over and over again, and holding them accountable is what keeps you trapped.
When we deal with one toxic person, it's just one relationship that is complicated enough; But in a family of six people, there are 15 relationships to deal with, with people who want to hurt you no less. That is enough to cripple someone. And everything you tell them to keep them accountable, in fact, gives them more ammunition into what hurts you, so they know how to get better at hurting you.
I have to be a loyal member of the family
What this means is—according to how they’ve trained you—no betrayal, no dirty linen to be washed, and know your place. Sometimes when you do so, they also reward you with crumbs of kindness or decency, in what’s known as intermittent reinforcement.
Other rewards like inheritances, resources, and privileges may be dangled; Otherwise the fear of being cut off from your family-of-origin can be enough to scare you. In other words, you enable them and they disable you.
I have to stay small
Psychologist Gay Hendricks Ph.D. writes that we often bump up against "Upper Limit Problems" which stop us from thriving, and one of them is our fear of outshining others. In the case of toxic families, this is amplified.
Not only do they credit hog and steal your thunder, they also erase your triumphs. They might also attribute your success to them, or compete with you. So you have been programmed to get the message: you have to stay small.
Unfortunately, this is a vicious spiral. Because the smaller you become, the more your world shrinks. You lose your opportunities, friends, loved ones—and your nerve. And when that happens, the more you believe your toxic family that you have to stay small because that’s the only safe option out; They're all you've got.
How to get out of the trap
Know your triggers
You will be triggered, because you are human; Anyone made from flesh-and-blood—no matter how mentally strong they are—will be triggered in such an instance. So the sooner you accept that, the less you fight with yourself when triggered.
Figure out what sorts of interactions (especially instances of neglect, exclusion or abandonment) hurt you the most, and plan for them. During these episodes, commit to the most basic of self-care. Get yourself moving, stay hydrated and eat relatively nutritious food, because you will fight against that. And the trick isn’t to see this in an all-or-nothing light; It’s to measure progress.
Notably, is your trigger intensity decreasing? Are you triggered less often? Are you triggered for shorter periods of time? Are you able to recover faster?
Write a note to yourself for those trigger times
On The Big Bang Theory, protagonist Sheldon Cooper makes a video for his future self because he’s convinced he’s fast descending into madness. It starts with the line, “Dear Crazy Future Sheldon, you were driven mad by an earworm. Your mind, once your most trusted asset, is now a sack of parrots and monkeys.” He goes on to detail instructions like who he can trust and where he can find what.
In the same vein, write a letter starting with "Dear Future Triggered Self," and make sure you read it when needed. Things you can write include: Here’s what you believe right now; Here’s what you’re going through right now; Here’s what you need to know about how we think during clearer times; Here’s what you have to believe; Here’s how you must take care of yourself.
Write a list of all the bad things they have done
The abused person goes through a curious case of positivity bias, where we discard and explain away negative interactions, and inflate the positive times. This runs completely counter to how the human brain actually demonstrates negativity bias—we inflate all the bad things.
Pick your battles: Lose the battle, win the war
Contrary to how we're taught to leap into action straight away, or stand up for ourselves all the time, sometimes that can lead to more messes to clean up—especially if from a place of fear, trauma, or anxiety. Forgoing one battle doesn’t make you weak. In fact, these battles aimed at you from every direction are precisely designed as a guerrilla attack to break you and deplete your energy, and not biting the bait means that you conserve energy and respond from a wise place.
Don’t think that just because you can recover from every triggered episode, you should. I always use this analogy: Imagine if someone drives past your house and throws manure at your doorstep everyday—just because you can hire someone to clean it up doesn’t mean you should even allow the behavior in the first place.
The Taoist precept of WuWei—when not doing something is doing something—can guide you here. Otherwise go with the old saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys." So you lose the battle, but win the war.
Move far away—physically, mentally, and emotionally
Maybe you don’t need to be in the same house or city, distance keeps you safe and sane. Or maybe you don’t need to respond to them 24/7, or even see their shenanigans on your phone—so muting can definitely reclaim significant mental energy.
If possible, block. But I am aware that isn’t always an option. In this case, keep your game face on—you will have to practice being your own PR spokesperson and interact factually from that stance. And remember, no matter what, expect bad behavior from them, and dismiss good or okay behaviors as traps or flukes.
Remember your (growing) strength, remember your gains
Along the way you will witness your own progress, and you have to acknowledge it to fuel further progress. Thank yourself for showing up for you; You could have chosen the path of least resistance, which is to knuckle under.
As you grow, you will remember your strengths, all your gifts, and the hard work that you somehow learned to mute along the way. Celebrate them, and make your new momentum one of growing stronger and thriving.
Practice being your future self
Between now and freeing yourself from the smoke and mirrors circus that is your family, you have to practice being your future self. People don’t suddenly become happy and great at money when they win the lottery, same as you don’t automatically become a more contented person when you lose the excess weight you’ve been meaning to shed.
We have to learn to bridge the gap between our current and future selves, which means figuring out the mindsets we need to gain or lose, the environments we need to design, the habits we need to commit to.
Sometimes this is learning to talk to yourself kindly, the way you’d talk to a loved one. At other times, it’s learning to un-isolate yourself if your toxic family has caused you to hang out less with people you love. This way, you train the pathways in your brain and body to get ready for your bright future.
It can take a long time to leave toxic families. You will doubt yourself, and hence you have to keep reminding yourself of your truth. And sometimes you will need your heart shattered by enough patterns of their cruelty before your resolve hardens and you decide to walk away.
No matter what, know that it is possible to escape, and that the real freedom is in winning the mental game. Keep the faith, step-by-step, breath-by-breath.
Along the way, you will see so many gains to your health and vitality, and to the things you can do with yourself and the people you love. You will shine.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.