Tag Archives: toxic relationships

On Burning Bridges

The hardest thing in life to learn is which bridge to cross and which to burn. 
– David Russell –

During the Roman Empire, it was common practice for military commanders who were concerned about their armies retreating during intense battle to burn the bridges they crossed in order to block any form of escape. It was fight or die. Alternatively, the army of a country being invaded would find themselves retreating and would burn their own bridges in order to prevent the invading army from following them. Today, this ancient military manoeuvre is used as a life metaphor. We are told not to burn our bridges … to keep everything intact as much as possible so that we can go back if we need to.

To ‘burn a bridge’ is a bold and risky move. A bridge is a structure that allows for passage over terrain that is formidable or impossible to navigate. It takes time and skill to build bridges. We build bridges in relationships, careers, cultures and communities. To ‘burn a bridge’ means to destroy what has been built and to make a return extremely difficult. In other words, to burn a bridge is to destroy connection and access that may have taken years to build. No wonder the idea of burning bridges comes with warnings and hazard signs. And no wonder liminality, this concept of letting go and finding yourself with minimal connection to the past, is so terrifying.

So should we live our lives in such a way that we are preoccupied with keeping our bridges intact? Should we avoid ruffling feathers at all costs in case our bridge is threatened? And is there a time in life when burning bridges is not just a necessary ending but the only way forward? Maybe some bridges have become the highway to hell?

Thirty years in church pastoral ministry taught me that I needed to be ‘nice’ at all costs and that my energy needed to be spent ensuring that bridges remain intact. As a ‘pastor’ it was not just my job but my expected duty to defuse any and all situations that had bridge burning potential. This required an immense amount of energy as I tried to ensure that everyone ‘played nice’. Over time I also paid little heed to whether my bridge burning prevention scheme lined up with the values I held …

The voice of conscience, however, is not silenced easily. Slowly the murmur of this inner compass began to rise above the din of my people-pleasing, bridge-maintenance addiction. The need to stay true to people and things I valued and held precious became greater than my fear of being disliked … and the bridges started burning.

Hindsight is a most wondrous gift. I look back now not with the overwhelming anxiety and grief that gripped my life in those days when so many bridges were being razed to the ground. Years of what I considered bridges of friendships and belonging lay in ashes. Disappointment took the place of grief and anger. Yet over the last year, something else has risen from the ashes … gratitude. Profound and deep gratitude. Burning bridges saved my life. If people had cared or enquired I would never have pushed off the shores and set sail to the winds of liminality … I would never have learnt to deconstruct dominant religious ideas that paid homage to fear and superstition instead of faith … I would never have discovered this rebirth of life. I am grateful now … but it took me a few years to get there!

I don’t recommend random bridge burning exercises. They are not a pleasant experience. Really, it’s a death experience. What once was, no longer is. The gates have shut. There is no going back. And maybe, dear reader, that is where you are right now – in this silent and lonely space of watching bridges burn and experiencing every emotion that this ending brings with it. I do not in any way want to undermine your grief – because it is real and needs to be fully felt and observed. I can perhaps offer you some hope in reflecting on my story a few years on. I have found that life creeps from the ashes. I also have discovered new bridges that line up with what I hold dear. Bridges of connection that hold me for who I am and not for what people would like me to be. I have stumbled upon bridges of grace that I would never have discovered in my tiny, cloistered existence.

There is a season for everything in life. A season to burn bridges and a season to build them. Sometimes we can confuse the idea of burning bridges and a refusal to forgive. Forgiveness, the letting go of a perceived ‘debt’ that we think someone may owe us, does not mean we have to keep a bridge of connection intact. We can forgive and also recognise that some places are simply not safe anymore. They have become detrimental to our well-being. We can forgive and allow a bridge to burn. We need to give ourselves permission to live in peace and safety.

Whatever season you may be in, dear reader – may the bridges you build and cross be undergirded by hope and love. May you also find the courage to burn the bridges you need to, in order to live life to the full.

Stop telling me not to burn bridges. Some bridges are meant to be burned; some roads are never meant to be travelled again. 
Steve Maraboli –

Lessons from the Fockers: The Circle of Trust

“This is the reason I created the circle of trust – so we can discuss these things.” – Jack Byrnes

What are your favourite movies? You know, those movies that you’ve watched a hundred times but if someone suggested a night that includes red wine and that movie, you would cancel the meeting with royalty to be there! One of mine is Meet the Fockers. There are many reasons why I like this film – the uncanny resemblance of the different family dynamics is uncomfortably familiar and similar to those of my partner’s and my own life. My mother could have embodied Barbara Streisand 🙂 For us, it wasn’t even a comedy – it was the story of our lives.

Jack Byrnes’ (Robert De Niro) insistence of establishing an exclusive “Circle of Trust” that is built on a very fickle set of rules, bullying tactics, and paranoia is a most interesting study in human relations. He obviously does not believe that Gregory Focker is a suitable groom for his “first-born” and threatens him with the removal from the “circle of trust” – “and once you are out, you are out – there is no return.” Ouch! Poor Focker.

Now I do not want to condone Jack’s bullying, manipulative power tactics – BUT Jack has a lesson for all of us. We all have a “circle of trust” or “club membership to our life story” – people who through history and relationship have an elevated position in our lives. We listen to their voices, even when they are long gone, and we take their advice far more seriously because they have impacted our lives in some way or another. Often this is a very positive exchange. We can all think of people who have contributed to our identity in meaningful ways. People who have added to the hopes and dreams we have held. People whose values and ethics have aligned with our own, creating a sense of belonging. Take the time to remember them.

And then there are the others …!! The people who have an elevated access to our lives because of friendship, work association, faith community or family relationship, and who routinely through their words and actions undermine us and compound a problem-laden story-line in our lives. People who break the “circle of trust” not just once or twice but who are consistent in that form of negative behaviour. Perhaps, like me, you tend to put up with this much longer than you should?

I don’t assume to know your story, but one of the reasons I have tolerated this in my life is that I was operating under the false idea that to be a “good Christian” you have to allow people to treat you like shit and then forgive them. Now there’s a lot to say about the journey of forgiveness – perhaps for another blog post. But often in religious circles, we are told we are “loved” and that we “matter” – and we drink the cool aid. So then when abuse happens, we cannot believe that we have been treated that badly. It creates a sense of unreality, confusion and we simply do not trust our perception of the situation – so we stick around. It’s called cognitive dissonance – we are holding two contradicting beliefs. On the one hand, we are told that we are loved, yet on the other, we are treated terribly by those who profess that love. When you go to confront it, you are met with passive aggressive smiles and denial that again throws you into confusion and anxiety. Don’t be surprised that this form of gas-lighting is often rampant by the power brokers of organisations or family units. We may feel powerless caught in such a circle – like Greg Focker.

We may need a neutral or impartial person to come alongside us and help us recognise what is actually going on. When your trust has been badly violated over a long period of time it helps to talk about it, recognise it and build a preferred story-line where the perpetrators are, in Jack Byrne’s words “removed from the circle.” Trust is one of the most precious components in relationships. It is an unrealistic expectation to think that no one we are in relationship with will break our trust, or for that matter, that we won’t break the trust of someone else. However, there is a massive difference between breaking trust, owning it, and providing the hurting party with an unreserved apology, and a pattern of abusive behaviour that consistently breaks our trust and spirals us into anxiety.

We also have to identify and own our complicity in often enabling a toxic circle of trust. Most of us would have played a part of controlling such a circle at some stage or another, often with good intentions. It starts in kindergarten. We form circles with people who think like us, look like us and believe like us. Like Jack, we have prided ourselves on being the guardians of such a circle and have contributed to a plethora of dogmas and policies to hold it all in place. When people don’t measure up they are ousted and become part of the throng of exiles who simply could not fit in. I stand guilty as charged.

So, dear friend, we can take many lessons from Jack Byrne and his circle of trust. Let’s take a good look at whether we are playing a role in a toxic circle that is harming people’s lives. And let’s also consider that healthy circles of trust play a crucial role in relationships. We actually have a choice about whose ‘voice’ we will elevate in our lives. You have that choice.

So, dear friend, take a leaf from the life of Jack Byrnes and choose the Fockers in your circle carefully. Live your rich and multi-faceted life with gusto! xx

 

 

 

Acid Rain? Clean Up Your Life

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”
– Wendell Berry –

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Just a few weeks ago my partner and I paused on our hike and admired the beautiful Black Forest near Triberg in Germany. We had reached a high point in the trek and could see the dark, majestic trees covering miles of rolling hills. With a clear blue sky above and the warmth of a late summer, it was as mystical and magical as all the story books lead us to believe. However, this was not always the case. All of Germany’s forests, especially the Black Forest, were in serious decline in the 1980’s … and they are not out of the woods yet (never miss an opportunity for a well-placed pun!) … the reason? Acid Rain.

Acid rain is the wet and dry deposits that come from the atmosphere and contain more than the normal amount of nitric and sulphuric acids. They cause the rain to become acidic in nature, mainly because of environmental pollutants from cars and industrial processes. Decaying vegetation, wildfires and biological processes also generate acid rain forming gases, but human activity leading to chemical gas emissions such as sulphur and nitrogen, are the primary contributors.

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The result of acid rain? Acid rain accumulates in water and changes the pH level that certain plants and fish need to survive and breed. A reduction in biodiversity is one of the many effects. It destroys forests as they become vulnerable to disease, extreme weather, and insects. Soil composition is altered and destroyed, sensitive micro-organisms are killed. This has a direct impact on other vegetation which becomes stunted and dies. Also, architecture, especially buildings made of limestone, corrode and are destroyed. In short: Acid Rain is a disaster. You can read more about this environmental disaster on the Conserve Energy Future web site.

Recovery has been slow. Government solutions have been varied and there is a focus on seeking alternative energy sources. Eco-systems are slowly being restored. The severity of this disaster still eludes so many – especially if we do not recognise that Mother Nature, although patient, kind and long-suffering, is definitely not indestructible. Everyone has to play a part. Acid rain ultimately affects all of us.

So we carry an environmental responsibility in our wider world, but what about our personal lives? Noticed any effects of acid rain lately? Deposits of toxic pollutants that are killing you? Perhaps it is a relationship that has become dysfunctional, but you have put up with it for so long you no longer notice how it has stripped your soul? Maybe it is a barrage of poisonous words that have been levelled at you with sniper precision when you were least expecting or prepared? Or maybe it is the refusal to look at your own shadow, acknowledging the pain or wound that is hurting not just you, but the environment you exist in? Perhaps it is your relentless schedule, your inability to say “No”, or your addiction to pleasing others? Maybe it’s time to seek an alternative way of life?

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Friends, the sad phenomenon of acid rain is a reality that, whether we know it or not, like it or not, affects our world. We are all consumers. We are all responsible to live in a way that leaves no heavy footprints. In an “I-Need-This-Stuff” world this is no small feat. We are also responsible for the energy we use in our own lives and relationships. This becomes very confronting when there is toxicity in our close relationships. Acknowledgement is the first step. A healthier space is not created overnight because often it has to do with an embedded way of relating or thinking. It takes courage, recognition and a refusal to be resigned to an environment that is killing us.

Acid Rain in your life? Time for action. Take the first step. Be Brave!

“Toxic relationships are dangerous to your health; they will literally kill you. Stress shortens your lifespan. Even a broken heart can kill you. There is an undeniable mind-body connection … Don’t carve a roadmap of pain into the sweet wrinkles on your face. Don’t lay in the quiet with your heart pounding like a trapped, frightened creature. For your own precious and beautiful life, and for those around you — seek help or get out before it is too late. This is your wake-up call!”
– Bryan McGill –