Toxic people are everywhere. They’re work colleagues. They’re family members. Sometimes they’re even boyfriends or husbands.
They’re people who are bad for you. People who make you doubt yourself. People who take over your life.
Dr. Rhoberta Shaler can help.
She’s a relationship consultant who helps her clients to recognize—and stop tolerating abuse from—relentlessly difficult, toxic people.
In this week’s YBTV interview, you’ll find out how to spot a toxic relationship, learn why it’s happening to you, and get the courage to boot these folks out of your life for good.
What You’ll Learn
It’s hard to see red flags when you’re wearing rose-colored glasses.”
Toxic relationships always start out great.
You think you’ve met this perfect person. They love-bomb you. They make you feel special, amazing, adored.
You let your defenses down, and that’s when they start to change.
Maybe it’s just little things at first. Mean comments. Tasteless remarks. You start to feel bad about yourself when you’re around them. Like you’re inadequate. Not enough.
So you work even harder to be what they want. You give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the problem IS you. Maybe you could try harder.
Years later, exhausted and drained…
You find yourself on a webpage like this one. Trying to figure out what went wrong. Trying to understand how you could have lost years of your life to someone who never appreciated you.
“A toxic relationship is a relationship where you always feel less than,” Dr. Shaler says. “You are always feeling caught off guard. You’re feeling that somebody has power over you. You feel cut off at the knees. You can’t do anything right. You’re always being blamed, and everything is your fault.”
These relationships are more common than we might think.
Dr. Shaler studies toxic people, whom she’s dubbed Hijackals®.
She created the term because she wanted a non-clinical term to describe the relentlessly difficult, toxic people that show up in our lives.
It doesn’t matter whether these people meet the clinical standards for narcissism or borderline personality or other psychological disorders. They all “drink from the same pool of traits,” she says.
Dr. Shaler defines Hijackals® as:
People who hijack relationships for their own purposes and then relentlessly scavenge them for power, status, and control.”
Ever met anyone like that?
You can probably come up with a handful of names right now.
They’re people who never really cared about you. They only pretended to care about you in order to get close to you. Once you let down your guard and trusted them, their true colors began to show.
Even the best judges of character can get pulled in by a Hijackal.
“They’re chameleons,” Dr. Shaler says, “so they will be whomever you want them to be, whomever they have to be in order to charm you, manipulate you, persuade you, seduce you.”
You want to believe in these people at first. You want to believe they’re as amazing as they seem.
“These people have the ability to draw you in and reduce your defenses. [They] make you honestly believe that you are a great judge of character…. And then things change.”
The love-bombing stops, and the criticism begins.
The Hijackal “must have control over you. They must dominate you. They must even go so far as to define your reality. A Hijackal will tell you what you think, feel, need, and want.”
Have you ever been in a relationship where the other person says, “I know what’s going through your head. I know what you really mean. If you say otherwise, you’re lying“? It’s impossible to convince them that you know your own mind better than they do.
That’s the sign of a Hijackal.
But it’s so hard to believe.
Not that long ago, this person thought you were wonderful. They treated you with respect and appreciation. Did you do something to push them away?
You want to believe that it’s a momentary lapse, they’re just stressed out at the moment, they’ll be back to normal in the morning.
When they change, you don’t want to say, ‘Oh my, I made a mistake.’ [Instead you] go, ‘Oh, let me help them. If only I’m more compassionate, more loving, more patient, more kind, less demanding, I will be able to nourish and nurture them, and they will then feel loved. And when they feel loved, they’ll love me back, and everything will be great.'”
Because it WAS great…
In the beginning.
“Know this about Hijackals,” Dr. Shaler says. “There are two kinds. One kind really likes to seek out the weak—the one that is the obvious target—and make them weaker. The other Hijackal likes to choose a really strong person as a challenge and see if they can bend them into codependency.”
So it doesn’t matter how amazing it was in the beginning. That was just to hook you in. The reality of the relationship is what’s happening now.
Why did the Hijackal choose you?
Perhaps because you want to believe the best of everybody. You’re willing to do whatever it takes to maintain social harmony. And you want so much to be loved and adored.
“They can see your insecurities,” Dr. Shaler says. “They can see how much you long to be loved. They can see how much you long to be approved of. Imagine how attractive that is to a Hijackal!”
She adds, “Their whole game is to tell you, ‘You’re not wonderful. You’re not loved. I hold that control in my hand,’ so they have complete power over you.”
Why does the Hijackal do this?
Because, underneath, they’re emotionally fragile. That fragility is hidden by a veneer of arrogance and confidence.
This isn’t the kind of emotional fragility that love, tenderness, and communication can heal. Sometimes therapy can help, but the person has to want to change.
“Remember what I said about having such a fragile ego and sense of self?” Dr. Shaler asks. “They have to believe they’re perfect. They don’t need help; there is nothing wrong with them. So therefore why would they change?”
The best you can hope for in a relationship with a Hijackal is either a tolerable situation with super-strong boundaries … or ending it.
You can’t fix it. You can’t change it. You have to do your own work within yourself. Learn to say no. Learn to have non-negotiable boundaries and stand up and say, ‘If this continues, I’m leaving.'”
And don’t make that an empty threat. Follow through.
“You can [cut ties with them], and you need to. You absolutely need to be willing to say, ‘I matter, my children matter, and this is unhealthy. I refuse to live with it and in it any longer.‘”
But it’s hard.
It’s hard to give up the dream that pulled you into the relationship in the first place.
“Within us is the desire to please, the desire to be liked, the desire to be loved, the desire to be cherished and validated. And so we keep hoping that that person is the one that will give it to us,” Dr. Shaler says.
Ultimately, her clients wake up when either the emotional and verbal abuse progresses to physical and/or sexual abuse, or they see the way the Hijackal is treating their children. “They will wake up for their children, where they will put up with it for themselves.”
If you’re in a relationship with a Hijackal, Dr. Shaler recommends taking action now.
“If there’s no physical or sexual violence, do your own work… Go get some help, some very specialized help, clarify, become empowered, get strategies and skills, try them out while you’re with the Hijackal, practice them, see if it makes any difference…. Making it more tolerable won’t fix it but can make it more tolerable.”
While you’re doing all that, make sure you have financial resources in case you need to leave the relationship. “Hijackals have a very nasty habit of wanting control of the finances in a relationship,” Dr. Shaler warns.
But if there is violence in the relationship, “you just have to go. That’s all there is to it.” Stop all contact and get a restraining order.
If you’re worried about how your actions will affect him, take a deep breath and put those concerns aside.
“They don’t care about you,” Dr. Shaler says. “Stop caring about them and care about yourself.”
It really is hard, because you’ve gotten into a pattern. You think more about the other person than you think about yourself. But you have to pull that back and start thinking about what YOU need. Don’t start thinking about what it’ll do to the other person; that’s their problem.”
Dr. Shaler offers a homestudy program on her website called Seeing the Cycles that can help you spot a Hijackal and figure out why you ended up in this situation.
Her website also contains links to her YouTube channel and books as well as two podcasts “Emotional Savvy: The Relationship Help Show” and “Save Your Sanity: Help for Handling Hijackals.”
“When you’re ready, come and work with me privately,” she urges. “I’d be really happy to help you, because I have walked it, I have lived it, I have outlived it, and I have the nasty video. I know every trick in the book for a Hijackal. And it helps you to be with someone who has lived it, experienced it and overcome it and can help you do the same.”
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Jump to Topics of Interest
3:00 What is a toxic relationship?
3:28 Are these relationships common?
3:57 What are Hijackals?
5:05 Why can’t we spot these people straightaway?
7:18 What do Hijackals get out of this?
9:04 Why do some people keep attracting Hijackals?
10:21 Are Hijackals the same as narcissists or sociopaths?
11:35 Can a Hijackal ever change?
12:59 What’s the smoking gun?
14:37 How can you survive a relationship with a Hijackal?
16:45 How to leave a Hijackal
19:09 Dr. Shaler’s podcasts, books and programs
About Dr. Rhoberta Shaler
Dr. Shaler is a relationship consultant, mediator, speaker and author who provides urgent and ongoing care for relationships in crisis. She helps her clients to recognize—and stop tolerating abuse from—relentlessly difficult, toxic people, which she calls Hijackals®. Her work has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, The Good Men Project, YourTango and eHarmony. Find out how you can work with Dr. Shaler.
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