7 Ways To Manage Toxic Relationships When You're Stuck At Home

Communication Pathologist and Neuroscientist By Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., BSc
Communication Pathologist and Neuroscientist
Caroline Leaf, Ph.D, BSc, is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology.
7 Ways To Manage Toxic Relationships When You're Stuck At Home

Relationships can be challenging at the best of times, but during a pandemic (especially when stay-at-home orders are in effect) those difficulties can escalate. Setting boundaries to protect yourself from emotional trauma becomes more complicated when you’re stuck inside with toxic roommates, partners, or family members. So, what do you do when it's not safe to go outdoors or stay inside?

If you are feeling uncomfortable at home, it's essential that you set firm boundaries. You have limited mental energy already, and you don't want to expend it getting stuck in difficult, draining, or stressful situations. That energy is necessary to keep your mind clear and to keep cognitive functioning at its highest level, giving you the ability to think wisely and manage challenging situations.

This kind of mind management is essential in these scenarios. My most recent research demonstrated that mind management was able to reduce anxiety, stress, depression, angst, edginess, hyper or hypo-vigilance, irritability, and so on, by up to 81% in any given situation. 

When you feel stressed or anxious at home, see these as signals trying to get your attention. Engage with them. Take the energy that is normally drained by toxic people or difficult situations, and use it to sharpen your resilience and quick intellectual thinking. Here are a few ways to do that:

1. Tune into your emotional and physical warning signals. 

These are indicators that boundaries need to be put in place. They are "triggers" that can launch you into action. One of the biggest indicators that you need boundaries in the home is when you find yourself feeling emotional warning signals like frustration, anger, and resentment. Pay attention to these signals; don't suppress them—face them. It can be hard to admit when a loved one is getting on our nerves or that we need space, but this happens in every relationship. 

Try this exercise:

  1. Draw three columns on a page. 
  2. In the first column, write down your emotional warning signals. 
  3. In the second column, write down what is causing your anxiety. 
  4. In the third column, write what you need to make this situation work for you, not what the other person wants or needs. This may mean going for a walk, having a heart-to-heart with that person, asking a loved one if you can stay with them or going into another room for a few hours. 
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2. Don't make assumptions. 

Even though we all make assumptions, they can be draining and toxic. They can make us incredibly anxious, and show up as negative energy in the brain. Our assumptions are reflected in our body language, which can affect our relationships—especially when we are stuck at home together. 

Try this exercise:

  1. Identify your needs and become aware of how your assumptions are affecting your words and body language. 
  2. Add a fourth column to the chart above, and add your assumptions there. 
  3. Turn the assumption into a question. Ask the person you're struggling with to find out what's actually going on, and clear the air. 

It is also important not to assume that people know what you need. When you make assumptions, you create a story and act on that, but what you think may not be true in totality. The person you're dealing with may not have known you needed help.

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3. Talk to your problematic person.

Talk to the person you're dealing with in a gentle but firm way—especially if you are usually passive. Make your request confidently and clearly. Don't apologize or ask the other person if what you're doing is OK. 

When setting boundaries, you want people to understand you mean business. That said, always make your delivery kind and compassionate. If you feel yourself getting worked up, move away from the situation until you are calm. Try some deep belly breathing if you are getting really upset.

4. Avoid bringing up major issues. 

When dealing with a big issue, timing is of the essence. Talking about major issues when a person isn't ready for it, you don't have the ability to get away physically, or a third neutral party is not present can be a bad idea. Think before you speak—a tricky and stressful pandemic may not be the best time to bring up those deep issues and start fights.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it may be better to save major issues for when you have the freedom to move about in the world and process what is going on in another space. The important thing is not to force an issue or be forced to deal with something. If an issue comes up, agree to set a time for later once you have more freedom to deal with it.

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5. Spend time alone.

Move to another room or go outside, if possible, to give yourself and the other person space. If they follow you or are emotionally or verbally abusive, try to go into a room with a door you can lock.

If you feel threatened, contact a friend or family member you trust or emergency services immediately.*

6. Set consequences. 

Let the other person know you will leave or lock the door if they do not stop or do not respect your boundaries. Be firm. We all need space—you don't have to feel guilt for needing "me time." 

If someone you live with does not respect social distancing guidelines, it's perfectly reasonable for you to set firm boundaries and let them know that they are not allowed to enter your space if they continue disrespecting your comfort levels. It is very important that you maintain your own health and safety. 

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7. Set boundaries for yourself.

Set self-boundaries, so that you are not constantly triggered at home, which makes your emotions spiral out of control. Be very careful about what you are ingesting or who you are around. You need to reserve your mental energy and preserve your mental health, so watch what conversations you are having, how much you are watching the news, how much you are talking about COVID-19, and so on. If what you are discussing with a friend or family member is upsetting you, ask to change the conversation. Don't be afraid to let people know how you feel.

*If you feel physically threatened in any way, domestic violence and emergency services are still operational. You should seek shelter with family, friends, or at an organization or home. In crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency services increase—they will be available to help you. The U.S. domestic abuse hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). The U.S. child abuse hotline is 1-800-422-4453. 

And do you want your passion for wellness to change the world? Become A Functional Nutrition Coach! Enroll today to join our upcoming live office hours.

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