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Breaking Free: The 4 Transformative Phases from Toxic to Healthy Relationships

In our journey to free ourselves from the tangle of our unacknowledged emotions and those we feel on behalf of others, many people typically go through four stages. It is important to understand that this developmental process is usually not linear. Depending on the dynamics in our relationships, our awareness, and the issue at hand, we are now in one phase, and then in another. Even apparent "steps backward" are not unusual; they signal that there are still aspects that require our attention and processing.

Couple holding hands

Phase one: Emotional Dependence

In this stage, we believe we are responsible for the feelings of others and feel obligated to take care of their happiness. We are often unaware of our true feelings or do not allow ourselves to perceive them. Instead, we often "use" the other person and the relationship to distract ourselves from our true unpleasant feelings, caused by the needs we have not allowed ourselves to fulfill. This can lead to a cycle of emotional dependence, in which our attention is constantly turned outward, neglecting our inner needs and feelings.

 Phase two: Rebellion
This stage resembles an arm wrestle in relationships, as a power struggle often occurs. However, these conflicts can help develop new, non-toxic power relationships. At this stage, we recognize the high cost of taking responsibility for the feelings of others and satisfying them to our detriment. We rebel against the other person and/or our habitual patterns of behavior. When someone shows us their pain, we often react with rebellion and irritation, saying things like "This is your problem, I am not responsible for your feelings." It is an important step in development to recognize one's feelings, needs, and demands and to know how to communicate them.

 Phase three: "First I"
In this stage, we realize how little we are in touch with our true selves and how little access we have to our true vitality. We turn inward, beginning to search and explore ourselves. On the outside, we often appear angry, irritated, and seemingly "selfish." Exploring our authentic needs and feelings is accompanied by fears, shame, and guilt. We experience critical reactions from our usual environment, feel disoriented, and focus intensely on our internal experiences. In this vulnerable transition phase, we experience a kind of narcissistic energy that helps us protect ourselves against internal and external resistance and build new boundaries, thus developing greater self-confidence.

 Phase four: Emotional Autarchy and Consensual Win-Win Situation
We reach a stage where we can stand firm in our philosophy of life and dignity. This allows us to develop the inner freedom to listen to the feelings and needs of others with empathy instead of fear, guilt, or shame. We become aware that we cannot meet our own needs at the expense of others. We develop our personal code of ethics and can flexibly adhere to it.

Questions for Reflection

To begin the process from toxic to healthy relationships, we invite you to reflect on the following:

Phase one:

  • How does "emotional dependence" manifest itself in you?

  • In what issues do you suspect a strong identification with a reference figure (usually mother or father)?

  • What dangers do you see in this? What possibilities are there for more satisfying communication?

Phase two:

  • How do you express your rebellion?

  • What is already working in your favor and what is not?

  • What possibilities for development do you see?

Phase three:

  • How do you react when you experience your vulnerability?

  • What thoughts and "voices" accompany you when you are in touch with your feelings and needs?

  • What qualities do they have? Are they harsh, edgy, relentless, or perhaps kind and appreciative?

Phase four:

  • Are there areas in your life where you have already emancipated yourself?

  • How does your "emotional autarky" manifest itself in these areas?


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