Is Your Toxic Ex Really That Toxic?

When you see or talk to your ex, do you have a strong emotional reaction? Are you constantly reminded of the ways they hurt you?

Do thoughts of your "toxic ex" fill you with rage? Are you sick and tired of being hurt and angry and wondering when you'll start to move forward?

Let's take a look at the narrative you're shaping around your ex, your attitude toward them, and how it impacts your life. After all, the stories we tell ourselves are powerful. They shape our beliefs and feelings. We believe the stories we tell ourselves. But those stories may actually be fiction. And we might need to do some editing.

We are all complex

We are complex beings with many facets to our identity. Think of all the aspects of your identity and the roles you play in your life. Name personality characteristics about yourself (funny, patient, kind, loud, sarcastic, hard-working, persistent, nurturing), things you love to do, and hobbies you engage in (travel, cooking, photography, crafts, sports, woodworking, etc.).

Other facets of your identity include your religious beliefs, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and the values you hold. No one is one-dimensional. We are not the sum of limited parts of ourselves or a moment in time. Words matter, and labels matter.

Beware of labels

Let's say, for example, that you take a Saturday morning or an evening to relax. Then you start to think, "I am lazy." The result: You feel guilty for relaxing and believe you should be doing something productive. But is "lazy" a true and accurate assessment of your character as a whole? What evidence can you conjure to counter the statement that you are lazy?

When we apply labels, we are saying something is true 100% of the time. This is a distorted way of thinking. Remember that time in 2013 when Reese Witherspoon was arrested for disorderly conduct? Probably not. Or if you do, that is not the entire lens through which you see Reese Witherspoon. She is not the sum of one evening of her life. You are not the sum of one moment or decision in your relationship, and neither is your ex.

We feel what we think

How is your emotional state impacted when you see or hear from your ex? If your narrative about them focuses on the pain of your marital relationship and divorce, you likely feel a host of negative emotions. After all, we feel what we think.

Another example: Let's say you're driving in traffic and someone cuts you off. You could think, "What a jerk!" (or more colorful language). You are likely to feel angry and maybe become aggressive at that driver. But if, when that person cuts you off, you think to yourself, "Whoa, they're an unsafe driver," you are more likely to feel cautious and put some distance between yourself and that car.

Let's take it one step further. Let's say you're driving in traffic, someone cuts you off, and you think, "Maybe they're late to a meeting." In this case, you are likely to feel empathetic and not dwell on the incident at all. The event didn't change in these scenarios, but how you thought about it did. The meaning you derived from the event dictated your emotional response.

The same goes for circumstances with your ex and your emotional state. Your thoughts impact your feelings, which in turn can affect your behaviors. If you share children with your ex, your thoughts may even impact the quality of your co-parenting relationship. And the quality of your co-parenting relationship is the most important factor in your children's adjustment to divorce.

Feel better by thinking differently

We can't change our circumstances, but we can change our thoughts. You may not be able to change what happened in your relationship, but you can change your thoughts and the narrative you've created about the other person – and therefore, your emotional state.

Complete the same identity exercise again, this time thinking about your ex or your co-parent. You can complete this exercise by downloading this worksheet.

Even thinking about this person as a co-parent rather than an ex can have a positive impact. By thinking of them as your co-parent, you're more likely to feel a sense of teamwork. Together, you are managing the project of raising children. But by thinking of them only as an ex, you drag yourself down with memories of hurt and pain from a past relationship.

If you don't have children, consider referring to them by their name instead of as your ex. And even if you do have children, referring to them by their name can help you see them as an individual rather than a hurtful label from your past.

Think about the aspects of their identity, values, and personality that are positive or neutral. Yes, this may remind you of some reasons why you fell in love with them in the first place. But it can also help you appreciate who they are as a person rather than focusing solely on the actions they've taken that hurt you.

Your narrative defines your next chapter

The next time you interact with your ex and an emotional swell rises, remember that your narrative impacts how you feel, and it sets the tone for the next chapter in your life.

Instead of thinking, "They are a liar! They are a jerk! They are a cheater!", challenge yourself to think, "They are a parent/friend/caring person," using the items you listed in the identity exercise.

It's okay to acknowledge you are feeling hurt, betrayed, abandoned, angry, or scared. But if you only stick to labels, you will stay in that distressed state instead of moving out of your grief.

Transform your narrative. Change the way you think about, see, and talk to your ex. It will help you start to heal from this event ... or at least lead to more pleasant interactions and less emotional distress.

Contributing Writer
Emily is a former psychotherapist turned high-performance coach. She combines over a decade of expertise and experience in behavior change with education and certification in sports psychology and mental performance mastery. Add some neuroscience and viola - Emily uses science as your superpower for change.