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July 20, 2020

The Difference Between Genuine Support & Toxic Manipulation (& Why we have it So Wrong).

**Editor’s note: This article represents one opinion on therapy/mental health. Please use it to help inform your perspective or contribute to a constructive discussion if you wish, but Elephant Journal is not designed to, and should not be construed to, provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment.

“He did not see me for who I was and constantly questioned me, which made me feel uncomfortable.”

I am referring to my therapist. 

Over three years of therapy, he manipulated me and gradually changed my personality. But I had hired him for precisely that. 

Unfortunately, this also happens in relationships where nobody signed up for therapy. When one partner tries to heal the other, it is the perfect setup for disaster. Before I say what I have to say, I want to make this clear: 

I have made that mistake—tried to save people when they haven’t asked for it. 

I learned my lesson, but probably still went too far.  

Learning from my past mistakes, I refrained from making suggestions toward people around me and just walked away instead. 

Everyone is free to do whatever makes them happy, but at the same time, I don’t have to entertain toxic behavior and ruin my sanity. (That is what I continually tell myself, and it has saved me from many problems.)  

In my community, I see coaches, therapists, and other professionals offering their services. Unfortunately, some of us don’t have the financial means to pay for that. My therapist once told me that a considerable part of cases he was treating could have been solved without him, but people do not have a network of friends who are helpful in those situations. 

It got me thinking, why is that the case?

He explained that in the past, family members would address problematic behaviors as they saw them arise, and friendships were another form of checks and balances that everyone could trust. Today’s world is fast-paced, and we all have our own struggles. 

To stay focused, we established a culture of looking the other way when we see people struggling

Behind the “noble” goal of not interfering with anyone’s freedom, we watch our friends go down rabbit-holes of addiction, toxic relationships, and conspiracy theories. We simply don’t have the time to take care of all that and walk away if it becomes too much. 

This behavior has left a vacuum that gets filled by therapists, coaches, and healers. And if the vulnerable ones cannot afford any of that, it sets the stage for abusive predators to take advantage.

Society then reacted to that by coming up with the idea of fake acceptance and toxic support

We watch our friend, who feels lonely, hooking up with someone who will hurt them. We don’t point out the escalating drug abuse of a companion going through a hard time, and we do not address hasty decisions that come from a place of fear, addiction, or lack of self-awareness. 

We “hold space” by being as affirmative and supportive as possible, but there is a downside to that.

During my yoga teacher training, people were encouraged to leave their boring corporate jobs or unhappy marriages to become a yoga teacher. Those people giving that advice will never have to deal with the consequences if things don’t work out. Telling our friend that it’s fine to have a good time when we clearly see them fading into substance abuse or toxic relationships is not supportive.  

But what is the other option?

Calling friends out on their problematic behavior could be saving them hours of therapy years down the road. Giving someone advice might be uncomfortable in the moment, but it’s more helpful in the long run. 

And I know it can be exhausting because they might see our concerns as an infringement of their freedom—they are right. 

Nobody asked us to offer therapy to our friends and loved ones. 

At no point should we make it look like we have all the answers or solutions to their problems. 

That would be untrue and pretty arrogant to say. Everyone has to have their own experiences.

On the other hand, as my therapist pointed out, some situations don’t require a professional psychologist to see what is going wrong. 

My mom can tell me not to get punch-drunk every weekend—no need to pay someone 200 bucks an hour for that. 

A good old friend could remind me of old, toxic relationship patterns before I suffer for months and need psychological help. 

Out of a twisted interpretation of freedom, we tend to be quite indifferent toward people around us for two reasons: 

>> We don’t want to be called manipulative. 

>> We have our own problems. 

We created a culture of looking the other way when people f*ck up their life. That’s why therapists are making more money than ever, and it also explains why we hear so much about gaslighting, manipulation, and abuse. 

Being a savior (or trying to be one) is a personality disorder itself. I can speak for myself and have to admit to having that tendency. Honestly, I want to be loved and love someone; I would do anything for that, which has caused me many problems in my life. 

At the same time, I struggle with people who come across as similar to me but have different goals. I am talking about the kind of guy who offers drugs to my struggling friend. I think of the flirty yoga teacher who is pretending to empower his student. I recently investigated the case of a famous DJ who presented himself as a feminist, helping victims of abuse. 

Those people have different motivations; they are driven by narcissistic patterns and the urge to sleep with as many women as possible. 

They don’t care about the women they interact with; they see them as trophies and “proof” of their masculinity and power. Talking with those kinds of guys and listening to their “locker room talk” gives me an idea of their intentions, but once there are women around, they pretend to be a warrior for love and freedom. 

Many women get hurt by these guys, and I understand that this leads to the perception that all men trying to “save” women are doing that in order to control them. That is not the case; millions of men out there are sincere about their feelings. Some of them are quite angry at their loved ones’ prior partners for causing trauma that lasts for a lifetime. 

Bringing up concerns to a friend or loved one is a gesture of caring for them. But it is not a fun thing to do. 

Ignoring the problems would be much easier (especially if all you want is to sleep with someone). 

If we are struggling in a relationship, there is probably an ex-partner trying to take advantage of it. 

They will agree with everything we say and accept every type of toxic behavior because they are short-term driven. A fun night is all they care about. 

It’s crucial and healthy for us to differentiate between someone trying to help us and someone trying to take advantage of us. 

In a healthy relationship that supports both partners, we can call each other out—nobody is better than the other. As long as people are on the same level of power, it can be the most healing experience, but things will get messy if there is a power disparity. 

When an adult man is dating a teenager, there is a high chance of manipulative patterns. If your lover is your boss simultaneously, it is almost guaranteed that the power disparity will lead to abusive situations. 

If one partner depends financially on the other, it will be hard to have an open conversation about personal problems. It only works if we respect each other and understand that helping each other is not a one-way street. 

Being afraid of being called manipulative is crippling friendships and relationships. It takes away from what makes us human: the ability to reflect on life and share perspectives with each other. 

If we learn to help friends by speaking our truth, many therapists would be able to focus on cases that can’t be solved easily.

Once we are willing to sit down with a friend or loved one and listen to their concerns about our behavior, we can evolve. 

As long as we equally respect each other and avoid any feelings of superiority, we can support each other. (And save the money that we would have to spend on therapy.) 

We need to establish safe spaces to help each other; nobody can afford all the therapy that would be required otherwise. 

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