Out of all the connections you have in your life, the relationship with yourself is the most significant. That’s why it’s so important that this relationship is healthy. As is the case with any partnership or friendship, however, the relationship you have with yourself can also become toxic when negative patterns and behaviors start to arise.
You might feel like you have a firm sense of who you are and what you want in life, but have you ever considered that you might have some self-perceptions or habits that aren’t so favorable? Learning how to tell if you’re in a toxic relationship with yourself can be tricky, but experts say that they’re important to recognize so that you don’t start to damage your self-esteem or even your relationships with others. “When we don’t make ourselves a priority, we start to neglect who we are and our needs,” says licensed mental health counselor Stephanie Moir. “This can impact how others see us, treat us, and ultimately lead to a negative self-image.”
If you’re in a toxic relationship with yourself, you might be inclined to internalize blame or guilt for how you perceive or treat yourself, but licensed clinical social worker Leah Cohen explains that these habits aren’t necessarily your fault. “All of the ways you cope — including the toxic ones — are serving a purpose,” they tell Bustle. “Often these strategies that people see as toxic are survival strategies developed in response to trauma that were really good at protecting us at one point, but have stopped working or are less effective now.”
Here, experts reveal five signs that you’re in a toxic relationship with yourself and what you can do about it if they ring true.
1. You Are Extremely Critical Of Yourself Or Others
When you make a small mistake at work or say something embarrassing in a social setting, what’s your first reaction? Being able to laugh it off and move on can indicate that you have some healthy coping skills, but if you’re in a toxic relationship with yourself, Cohen says you’re more likely to be harsh about your behavior.
“When you cannot forgive yourself for imperfections or mistakes, you tend to become stuck in negativity,” Moir says, noting that you can get trapped in feelings of shame and guilt. Taking responsibility when you mess up is important, but dwelling on it and punishing yourself for it can easily become a toxic behavior.
2. You Justify Unhealthy Habits
It’s no secret that taking care of yourself and making decisions that keep you healthy is important, but when you’re in a toxic relationship with yourself, it’s easy to slip into habits and cycles that have the opposite effect. “A toxic relationship with yourself is one that centers on unhealed self-hatred at its core instead of ‘I’m good enough and more than worthy,’” says licensed clinical social worker Maria Inoa. She explains that this may lead to unhealthy behaviors, including substance abuse issues, eating disorders, and self-harm, to name a few. “Self-sabotage is another big one, as well as choosing friends and romantic partners that have their own toxic behaviors,” Inoa says.
When you’re in this kind of relationship with yourself, you might see these harmful or self-sabotaging behaviors as justifiable because you don’t feel that you “deserve” to be happy or healthy.
3. You Sacrifice Too Much Of Yourself
There’s no doubt that you’ve heard all about self-care and how important it is to integrate it into your daily life. Practicing this can include a regular workout routine, cleaning your house, or treating yourself to a face mask/bubble bath night, but if you have a toxic relationship with yourself, you might swing in the other direction.
Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., a psychologist and creator of Mental Drive, says that consistently sacrificing your needs in place of others while developing irritation, resentment, and physical exhaustion can indicate a toxic self-relationship. If you’re constantly trying to make others happy while neglecting your own mental health, you won’t be able to keep a healthy and stable foundation in your life. As the saying goes, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
4. You Have Low Self-Esteem
Have you ever gotten into a pattern of speaking down to yourself or believing that you’re a bad or unworthy person? If you’ve caught yourself experiencing feelings that you’re defective, worthless, or not deserving of love, Cohen says that you probably have very low-self esteem and self-confidence — which is a clear sign of a toxic self-relationship.
Self-loathing, as Klapow calls it, demonstrates that you have internalized hatred or shame causing you to view yourself in a negative light, and potentially even treat yourself that way. If you’re regularly looking in the mirror and insulting yourself in your head, viewing yourself as dumb or inadequate, or if you feel that you don’t deserve any kindness or compassion — especially from yourself — then you might subconsciously be a toxic partner to yourself.
5. You Look For External Validation
Getting a compliment from a stranger or hearing encouraging words from a loved one can make you feel seen and appreciated. A promotion or award at work can also boost your self-confidence. But if you find that you’re seeking this kind of affirmation from other people more often than not, you might need to reflect on why that is.
Being able to validate and affirm yourself is a healthy coping mechanism that can significantly improve your self-confidence and give you a much more positive self-perception. Klapow says that if you aren’t able to do this, but instead regularly rely on other people to make you feel good about yourself, “[You] are no longer authentic in your communications and interactions with others because you are focused on seeking validation or consumed by self-deprecating behaviors.” If this is the case for you, then there is some inner self-love work that needs to be done in order for you to get rid of those toxic thought patterns.
How To Deal With A Toxic Relationship With Yourself
Once you’ve recognized them in yourself, dealing with these signs of a toxic self-relationship will take time and effort. You’ll need to commit to healing and practicing things like positive self-talk, fostering healthy relationships and less of a need for validation within them, and boosting your internal self-esteem. Without this, Cohen says the toxic relationship you have with yourself can start to affect the other connections in your life. “That’s because they often perceive criticism regardless of whether they are being criticized,” they note.
To address these behaviors, Inoa also suggests letting the people who love you “in” and relying on them for support as you start on your healing journey. “[Having a toxic self-relationship] can push any good, healthy people away,” she tells Bustle. “People that truly care will try to help you and hang in there.” To figure out what tools and coping skills you might need to start improving your relationship with yourself, Cohen recommends trying therapy. Whatever route you take, they advise being gentle with yourself along the way. As Cohen says, “Practicing self-compassion and cultivating self-awareness can help you break out of the shame cycle ruling your relationship with yourself.”
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Stephanie Moir, licensed mental health counselor
Leah Cohen, licensed clinical social worker
Maria Inoa, licensed clinical social worker