Bullied, Exploitative, & Toxic Relationships

Since you are interested in this page, you or someone you know might be having trouble coping with the behavior of dominant, aggressive, exploitative, toxic, or narcissistic persons.

Are you drained by your efforts for others? Does it seem like you can’t get the formula right to please others? Nothing you do relieves the pressure from them? Is even addressing your needs kind of alien to you? I have experience with the confusion, helpless feelings, fatigue, frustration, and anxiety about managing such situations.

Being Bullied:

According to Lutgen-Sandvik (2013) bullying is: “persistent aggressive interactions” that worsen over time, with the target unable to defend themselves or “stop abuse”. However, the ‘persistent’ part may or may not be necessary. Bullying is considered moderate to high-intensity on a hypothetical “Destructive Communication” scale or continuum. For example, mild would be occasional rudeness, while extremely severe would contain physical harm, grave psychological harm, etc. (Namie, 2003, per Lutgen-Sandvik).

Toxic and Exploitative Relationships:

Per M. Glynn (lovefraud.com), the marks of an emotionally exploitative (toxic) relationship, also known as narcissistic abuse, include almost completely self-serving goals of the exploiter, a social mask to hide their dominant and self-serving agenda, and a superficial relationship in which there is a one-way ‘gratification street’. Your partner, friend, family member, or coworker, if exploitative, may appear and act highly desirable at first, or in most situations. However, later or when you get past the first stage of excitement / pleasantness, they show signs of poor ability to understand and connect emotionally (low empathy) and low ability to experience guilt or shame (insufficient conscience).

‘Aren’t Guilt and Shame bad and not even people who have acted badly should feel them?’

They are not ‘bad’ feelings in their purest form. This misconception is why exploiters have such an easy time, usually. These feeling responses are bad when inappropriately exaggerated or misplaced. To be clear, guilt and shame are not things we are meant to wallow in or have forced on us. We are capable of  emotional and feeling responses for various survival-related and attachment purposes. Like other emotions, they are there to help us correct unhelpful situations and conditions. Here, accurate guilt helps us know we did badly and need to improve a particular thing. Shame lets us know that we have behaved badly on a habitual or chronic basis and need to change our ‘self’.

Most emotions can sometimes be mistargeted, minimized, or excessive. In my experience, those who are exploited carry too much guilt and shame and tend to disproportionately take it on themselves. Exploiters carry too little shame and guilt, and chronically throw it everywhere (except at themselves) to see if it will stick to someone else.

Regarding the people who are vulnerable to being bullied or exploited, some personality systems might talk about Sensitive, Self-Sacrificing, or Devoted people (Oldham & Morris, 1995). While every personality style has strengths, each has weaknesses–especially paired with certain other styles, whether at work, at home, or in social groups. Highly dominant and self-oriented people are the types most likely to run roughshod over those who can’t stand up to them. You might be reading this page if you feel like the pavement rather than the one taking a stroll…

Some questions related to being a bullying target or in an emotionally abusive (toxic) relationship:

  • Have you developed a fear or unexplained, subtle anxiety about the person? Sometimes this comes out as anger, but usually fear and anxiety are under it. Has your fear or anxiety about the person(s) generalized to other situations, tasks, people, etc.?
  • Do you worry about losing your self-worth, social standing, job, or material life because of them?
  • Are you concerned about your ‘bottled up’ anger, anxiety, despair, or resentment?
  • Are you experiencing sadness, apathy, hopelessness, or despair regarding the other person’s behavior?
  • Have you endured serious emotional or practical consequences because of this person?
  • Do you blame yourself for the situation or consider yourself suddenly and strangely ‘weak’?
  • Is your view of other people shaken up–“How can someone just do hurtful things; I must just figure out or try harder to help them“?
  • Does this person seem determined to make you the one who is at fault or ‘crazy’? Your view is rarely or never respected or heard?
  • Have you just discovered a major, negative ‘reveal’ about this person?

Related to self-blame, being taken advantage of, or people-pleasing (these apply to toxic relationships, too):

  • Is being there for others, or keeping them happy, basically your ‘job’?
  • Are you taken for granted?
  • Does it seem that trying harder to avoid or satisfy others only makes the situation worse?
  • Are you questioning your usual beliefs about being nice, moral, people-pleasing, and hardworking?
  • Have you lost track of your goals and dreams in life?
  • Do your strengths (being agreeable, sensitive, rule-following, and self-sacrificing) sometimes backfire?

I can provide support to make standing up for yourself and your needs realistic and doable

While it is wrong to ‘blame’ you or others for being placed in or getting into an emotionally abusive, bullying, or toxic relationship situation at home or at work, it is still possible to see what we can do on your side of the equation to make this bearable or make it stop. We may not be able to ‘make’ others change, but you can work on internal detoxifying or what I consider psychological immunization.

‘Why immunize me instead of figuring out how to satisfy (or defeat) this kind of partner, friend, coworker?’

Until their lives become completely unmanageable and their resulting personal injuries simply pile too high, exploitative persons will not stop. Like a virus, they just do what they do. Indeed, they do have anxieties that drive their behavior, but the anxieties of exploitative people are NOT the same as those of most people. That’s why you cannot just ‘understand your way out’, try to play their game, or ‘please them better’ to improve things.

In addition to immunizing you against this behavior, we can also develop external strategies and actions you can take. We will discuss things to practice and do about the situation, including developing new visions of hope and specific plans. The new visions are probably different than your usual ones, so finding and understanding them can be hard to do by yourself.

To get started on this, call or contact through my online portal for an initial 15-minute telephone consultation or an initial therapy session. You can also request an appointment.

Bullying: contact Chris Michae, PhD to move on and stand tall

Please note: If you have stated on a workers’ compensation claim that workplace bullying (or similar) has caused a workplace psychological injury, I cannot treat you privately in my Claremont, CA office. If this comes up, I can guide you to the workers’ compensation process.

For more on my therapy style, see here and here. For a page about telehealth / online therapy go here.