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Experts on how a toxic environment at home impacts mental health and self-worth

Updated on: 04 October,2021 09:48 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Anindita Paul |

A toxic family environment can take a severe toll on mental health and self-worth, as Sami Sheen recently shared in a social media post

Experts on how a toxic environment at home impacts mental health and self-worth

Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen with their daughter in 2012. Pic courtesy/Getty Images

As far as celebrity relationships and divorces go, few have been as publicly tumultuous as that of actors Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards. While Richards has openly spoken about the toxic nature of her relationship with Sheen, more recently, their daughter Sami opened up about the toll that living in a toxic household was taking on her mental well-being. In a Tik-Tok video, the 17-year-old spoke of feeling depressed and trapped. “Toxic familial relationships are essentially of two types — those that affect you directly, where the individual in question is being confrontational, passive-aggressive, or otherwise negative towards you or is being physically, emotionally or financially abusive. Then there are those where the individual, without intending to, is indirectly toxic towards you due to their own mental health issues. In either case, their presence takes a toll your mental health,” explains Dr Nahid Dave, a psychiatrist at Thought Matters.  

Trishla RaneTrishla Rane

She adds that in such circumstances, most people resort to a self-defeating pattern of thinking, where they believe that they deserve the toxic behaviour or are helpless against it. And so, many people refrain from getting the help they need. “Often, people will procrastinate to get help by setting future goals for themselves — they believe that moving out or getting a job will eventually improve the situation. In dependent relationships, the situation becomes especially complicated as they cannot escape the toxic physical environment,” she says.  

Sami SheenSami Sheen

Why it hurts 

The most damaging impact of toxic relationships is the toll they take on your self-worth. It is very important to recognise that the situation is happening to you, and that it does not define you, says Dr Dave: “If you feel extremely hopeless and helpless, to the extent that your productivity and future plans are affected, it may be time to seek help. While depression is a common outcome, it may not manifest in typical ways such as crying or being non-productive. The ability to trust others can also be compromised, especially if you’ve been let down by someone who is close to you.”

Dr S MundadaDr S Mundada

Trishla Rane, 32, a media professional, shares that the abrupt change in the behaviour of her paternal grandmother and uncles after the demise of her father took her by surprise.  “My father had always thought of them as being our guardians should anything happen to him. However, from refusing to participate in his last rites to actively antagonising us over property matters, they completely betrayed the trust we had placed in them,” she adds. This turn of events left her deeply shocked and depressed and, despite seeking therapy, she says that her ability to trust others has been shaken ever since. “If your own family can betray you, there isn’t very much you can expect from the wider world,” she laments.

Dr Nahid DaveDr Nahid Dave

Drawing the line 

If you are in a dependent relationship with the toxic individual or, as was often seen during the lockdown, your relationship with a family member has become toxic, Dr Sagar Mundada, a psychiatrist at Health Spring, proposes the following steps: 

. Find an ally: Seek a family member who is empathetic to you and explain what you are experiencing. They can be your support system. 

.Set clear boundaries: Define what is acceptable and what is not. Be assertive to ensure that your boundaries are not undermined. 

.Engage in dialogue: Refrain from engaging in arguments or issuing ultimatums. Take time to cool down, if necessary, before explaining to the person responsible what part of their behaviour is bothering you. Suggest ways to resolve it.  

.Schedule me-time: Temporarily escaping the toxicity can give you the resilience to cope with it. Make some time every day to pursue activities that you truly enjoy.

If you do not feel heard at home, Dr Dave advises seeking support in online forums or among your friends. “If nothing else works, curtail your involvement with the toxic individuals — you can limit interactions to certain parts of your everyday life, or only to festivals, depending on your comfort levels. If any form of contact with them causes anger or anxiety, reconsider the scope of your association. Understand that if living with toxic family members is making you toxic, your coping mechanisms aren’t healthy,” cautions Dr Dave. 

Learning to let go 

Ritu Gorai with daughter Sara

My mother and brother have always been extremely negative, controlling and critical of me and my life choices. Over the years, the situation worsened to the point that I began to believe that no matter how hard I tried, it would never be enough. Engaging with them was always a source of anxiety and I wanted to be my best self for the sake of my young daughter. Although, as a single mother, I missed having a support system, I couldn’t lean on people who were affecting my mental wellbeing. I made the decision to move physically away from them and have now cut them off entirely. Instead, I have a close circle of friends who I lean on. But I take pride in my independence, which has also rubbed off on my daughter, Sara.  

Ritu Gorai, 39, entrepreneur

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