“Someone told you you were a piece of gold and you blushed, thinking it was a compliment. You are the entire gold mine. Raise your value.”
– Jaiya John
It had been three years since my experience with Sunshine. I dated a few womxn* in between. There was a brief period where I almost ended up in a situationship** with Athena***, but I created boundaries to avoid that because I knew that we would not fare well as romantic partners. There were moments where that line could have been crossed, but I never allowed it. Yet nothing could prepare me for what would happen next.
2018 involved womxn who were enormous catalysts for me. The year was filled with true darkness, pure joy and light, amazing but soulless sex, deep connections, lust addiction, sadness, forgiveness, frustration, healing, harassment, and most importantly, my spiritual and emotional awakening. I laid in bed so often, unable to go to work or be social… I just didn’t want to do anything or see anyone.
Then something happened. I had had enough, I was fed up. Fed up with hurting, fed up with staying in friendships with womxn who I knew from the beginning weren’t a fit for me. I was fed up of not feeding myself true love. I began acupuncture, went vegan, started this column, continued talk therapy (same therapist), began meditating regularly, and for the first time ever in my life I genuinely didn’t want to be in a relationship with anyone but myself. I sought to become the partner I wanted to be with, to learn my true value, and to only accept relationships (platonic or otherwise) into my life that mirrored my intentions.
I promised in my first column there would be a solution to the topics I write about. I used to talk about walking away from people who fed my trauma and toxic cycle, but that’s all I did – talk. Now, I have actively implemented this into my life. I’ll be frank, my journey has been lonely as hell — still is, but it’s also been so, so enriching.
I wanted to get perspective on toxic cycles from both a mental health professional and a spiritual healer. At this point in my life, my focus is on emotional and spiritual healing. Although, I am very spiritual (not religious) I’m also pragmatic and I felt these two perspectives would provide well-rounded solutions that were different, while remaining complementary. I was pleased to interview Dr. Renair Amin (She, Her/They, Them), who is a Doctor of Ministry and a reiki healer, as well as Meka Nicole, LPC (She, Her, Hers) a psychotherapist and sex educator.
How can we identify red flags?
Renair Amin, DMin: The interesting thing about red flags is that there are common ones, such as controlling and abusive behavior, disrespectful communications, and domestic violence. However, there are some red flags that are specific to an individual’s experience. For example, someone who may have been cheated on repeatedly in the past may look for certain signs, whereas someone else may look for different signs.
Meka Nicole, LPC: Red flags are very much subjective and based on what the individual is looking for in a relationship. I always tell my clients to identify what they want in relationship and be specific; i.e., a person who is financially stable, someone who is substance abuse free, or a person who is not a liar. So red flags for those would be: 1) A person whose bills are not paid on time, is constantly borrowing money, does not work consistently, or has poor credit. 2) A person who may be smokes weed or drinks “every now and again” (later after developing a serious relationship the individual discovers they are a substance abuser). 3) A person who lies about even the smallest things.
Why do you think people ignore red flags when they first meet someone they are attracted to?
RA: I won’t say people ignore them. Maybe, they diminish the severity of them. They convince themselves that they do not want to ‘make them pay for past relationship trauma’ or maybe this is just something that will change. It is easier to diminish it then to completely ignore it, because, at the base, there will be an inkling that it is something that should be paid attention.
MN: I feel people ignore red flags because they feel that they aren’t worth more, or they have fallen in love with the individual and feel they can change them; or, they allow sexual attraction/chemistry to blur their vision of the person’s actual self.
Once we see red flags, people often get the urge to see if they can change/save a person. Is this even possible?
RA: No, it’s not. A person’s core nature will resurrect if the shift is not warranted. When people change for other people unwantedly, it is easy for the old way of being to lurk at the surface. Let me be clear, I am not saying people can’t change. What I am saying is that the change has to be a desired one, or the old behavior will resurface. Too often after a relationship ends, people will say – with resentment – I gave up “such and such” for you. The resentment came because it wasn’t something they wanted to do; it was something they thought they had to do.
MN: No, we don’t have the power to change anyone. But we can allow our actions to remain consistent, and possibly the other person will meet us on our level.
When we first meet someone, what can we learn about potential red flags from observing their relationships with others (family, friends, colleagues, etc.)?
RA: It depends on what you are seeking to learn. The reason it depends is because the history of the relationship comes into play. I have heard people say that if someone has a bad relationship with their (fill in the blank), then that means they will have a bad relationship with you. I am a firm believer that everyone does not have the same experience. Some interactions are based on history and other elements that may not be prevalent in other interactions. There are also some character traits that cannot be realized until you are well deep into your observation, such as habitual lying, emotional or physical abuse, [or] narcissism. So, although you may not be able to learn how it will apply to you as it may not be occurring in your dynamic, you can learn the propensity of the other person.
MN: Definitely, but you have to pay attention and not get caught up in trying to get the family, friends, etc. to like you. This is your chance to “interview” and learn more about the person you are dating. Don’t forget you have to like that person too, not just the other way around. I think we forget that sometimes, so we get caught up in trying to be on our best behaviour all while ignoring or missing red flags.
How do you recommend a person break the habit of dating people who are harmful to them?
RA: Well, that will begin as self-work. Why are they dating people that they know will harm them? What is lacking within themselves that keeps attracting toxic personalities? Furthermore, what is it within them that won’t let them walk away from the onset of a toxic exchange, especially if they can identify that it is harmful.
MN: Develop confidence in self and what they really want in a relationship, as well as out of life. The goal is to understand what you want in a relationship and what you want in your life, and then start aligning yourself with people who want the same thing and are consistent in their pursuit of those goals.
As people are on a journey to break a toxic habit, temptation often occurs. Do you have any strategies for people to resist temptation and not fall back into toxic relationship habits?
RA: First, it is important to identify what about the person creates the temptation. Is the sex good? Does their apology behavior seem to trump the treatment? Secondly, what is causing you to romanticize the experience? Sometimes, having the real talk with yourself becomes vital. Granted, the sex might be good, but if afterwards, you [are] going to feel used and possibly ghosted, is the outcome worth the pleasure? If the answer is yes, then you have to prepare yourself for the reality.
MN: Remember your worth, that you deserve the best, and don’t lose who you are as an individual. No one is perfect, but it’s ok to not accept every single thing about a person. If the person doesn’t match what you are looking for or want, then be ok with letting it go for [the] better. Also seek counseling to deal with any insecurities and past relationship trauma (personal, family, etc.) so that you aren’t taking those insecurities in your next relationship. If you aren’t healthy alone, you will not be healthy in a relationship.
Some people realize mental health treatment is important to break habits that may hurt them, but are scared to make that first step. Do you have any suggestions for them?
RA: My suggestion is to ask one’s self, “Is the pain worth it?” There is a negative stigma on mental health assistance. However, some voids started long before the concept of dating or eros love was even a thought. It is in those voids that toxicity will find a home. The only way to assess what those are is to sit down and talk with someone that can help you to properly unpack it.
MN: Take the first step slowly, start with online therapy if that is easier…or even chat therapy like Talk Space. It makes it easier for you to get started and comfortable with talking with a therapist about your concerns.
Some people cannot afford to have acupuncture, talk therapy and/or other paid mental health treatments. Do you have recommendations for those folks on how to take care of their mental health?
RA: One way may be to find cheaper alternatives, such as Groupon for holistic healing packages; coaching specialists; free group therapy and/or support groups. Also, one has to be careful what you take in during times of healing, which may mean readjusting your social media feed, reading books that build your self-esteem or speaks to what you are working to overcome, and making sure your “pit crew” (support circle) is one of purpose and not additional drama. These are helpful ways to work on healing that do not break your wallet, as well as feed your soul.
MN: First (if the individual is working), please check with your human resources department to see if you have EAP services. The EAP (Employee Assistance Program) usually offers up to 8 free sessions of therapy per incident (not per year), so if the individual finishes one round of EAP sessions but later has a different issue, they can utilize those free sessions again. If not employed or no EAP, then the individual can seek therapy by searching for no to low-cost therapy services in their area. There are plenty of places that offer free therapy or very low-cost therapy to the community in order for interns to develop their clinical skills. Most cities also have local behavioral health departments (very similar to a Health Department) that offer free or very low-cost services. Additionally, there are therapists that offer sessions based on income.
Once they open up about their previous romantic partnerships, when is it fair to judge? What can a person analyze or take away from a person's previous relationships, partners, breakups, etc.?
RA: It is never fair to judge, as we all have things that another may not find showcases us in the best light. I like the term “evaluate” opposed to “judge.” With the information that they have given you, you can now evaluate where that puts them in your mind frame, as well as can you handle the new information given. Again, there are other factors that come to play in relationships, such as age, maturity, lived experience, etc. The main thought I personally look for is: “Does this individual take responsibility for the things that have occurred in their life, or is it everyone else’s fault?” If it is the latter, then I am sure that whatever our experience is/will be, then more than likely in the retelling of the story, would be my fault as well. That is a red flag to me right off the bat because that is not one based off of any other factors than the perspective or reflection of the storyteller.
MN: I wouldn’t say, judge, per se, but definitely look at what happened in their last relationship and see if you see those same things creeping into their current relationship with you. Take those as red flags, too. It’s more like keeping a mental Rolodex to see if the person has grown from their past experiences, remained the same, or are bringing that past baggage with them. Those things are the things the person needs to make a decision about where the relationship is going.
How can we know when someone is making themselves truly emotionally available to us? What are some tell-tale signs that they are not, even if they say they are?
RA: That is a hard question because you cannot really know when someone is truly emotionally available. You can definitely tell when they aren’t because they will come across as distant, they will seldom have or make time for you, they will brush aside your concerns, etc. We run in a different world today, so it is often hard to be 100 percent emotionally available. Our minds are pulled in different places at different times of the day. There may even be a moment where they are off into their own oblivion and not be emotionally available at that time. This does not mean though, that they are not truly emotionally available – so the best thing is to have a conversation and listen to their words, AND watch their actions. At the end of the day, you would have [to] decide if what they are offering is sustaining you and what you can handle, especially if that is all that they can give you in the moment.
MN: Vulnerability comes when the couple have reached a level of intimacy beyond the bedroom. It takes safety and trust. Emotional vulnerability is earned and not automatic. Tell-tale signs [of lack of emotional availability] would include surface conversation, intimacy that only occur in the bedroom, group dates (on a regular basis, which can be a sign the individual is afraid to get close), avoidance when things start to become serious, and/or refusal to take things to the next level emotionally.
How do we come to understand that chasing toxic patterns is a form of self-harm? How do we hold ourselves accountable?
RA: That can only be understood if the person understands what toxicity and self-harm means to them as an individual. Without that understanding, you will give things a different definition, such as “oh that is just how they are” or “what is wrong with me?” That is why it is important to have a self-reflective journey and periods of healing after life transitions and shifts, especially in matters of the heart. This will allow you to ascertain the things that you have learned, the things you want to leave behind, the things you want to take with you, and the things you never, ever, ever (did I say ‘never ever?’) want to experience again. This will help you recognize when you are putting yourself in harm’s way, or toxicity’s path in the future – and more quickly.
MN: [We can] start reflecting on our actions in relationships, instead of just focusing on the actions of our partners. We all make mistakes. I always tell my clients: “You are the only person that comes with you to the next relationship.”
How can we tell when someone is pursuing us to fulfill their needs in a toxic way? (i.e. the narcissist/empath dynamic****)
RA: This is difficult. Narcissism is a trait that can be masked really well, especially if it is embedded inside of ambition and confidence. Often, empaths don’t even see it until something major happens or after they are out of it. Also, narcissism is a term that it thrown around very loosely, thus branding narcissism on one level, whereas the person’s toxicity may be multi-level (i.e., abuser, cheater, gaslighter, manipulator, etc.). At the end of the day, most of us have that gut moment where something doesn’t feel right, but we redefine the gesture or brush it off, thus opening the door for it to keep reappearing. The only thing I can say here is pay attention to that gut moment – that is your intuition saying something is not right. Then pay attention every time you get the same reaction with that person. You will see a thread.
MN: I think that is usually very hard to tell. But I can say that everyone must be fully self-aware and confident in who they are as an individual and know their self-worth, this way they recognize when they are being used and manipulated. Another thing... people must have good examples of a healthy relationship (family, friends, personal, etc.) so that they know what they deserve.
For any further questions or to enquire about the services of both womxn:
*Womxn: A definition of women that explicitly includes not only cis women, but also trans women and femme/feminine-identifying genderqueer and non-binary folks. (Source: feministoasis.com/inclusive-language-womxn-cis-nonbinary/)
**Situationship (my definition): two people who may be sexually and/or emotionally involved with each other and behave like they are in a monogamous relationship, but neither parties are in an actual romantic relationship with each other.
Example: One or both parties displaying jealous, possessive behavior or imposing certain requirements/expectations for one another that usually occur in monogamous relationships. This is usually accompanied with a refusal to bestow official titles (e.g., “girlfriend”, “boyfriend”, “partner”, etc.) and/or the avoidance of acknowledging of the relationship altogether.
***Name changed to protect identity.
****For further information on the narcissist/empath dynamic, here’s an article to break it down. https://www.businessinsider.com/why-empaths-and-narcissists-are-attracted-to-each-other-2018-1
Profile Photo Credit: The Divulge Project