Dr Perpetua Neo
Because Enough Is Enough

The mental health impact of a toxic relationship on your performance, work and leadership

[This DrP article was first published on Next Evolution Performance]

No matter how smart or capable you are, you may somehow have found yourself in a relationship with a toxic person. Narcissist, psychopath, machiavellian, sociopath. Or a Molotov cocktail of some of the four dark personality types.

In fact, the enlightening book Women Who Love Psychopaths by Sandra Brown found that dark personality types like to prey on smart, educated women. It is a common thing.

Full disclosure. I was one myself in my 20s. Back in the day, I’d asked myself. . how did someone with multiple degrees, including one from Cambridge, fall prey. I’d blamed myself. . before I found that book. And that got me to realise it wasn’t (just) me, and I had to get out.

But the thing about being in a relationship like that is you learn how to cope. Your standards fall, your boundaries erode. It is like taking painkillers everyday; human beings are great at adapting but crap at evolving because of the great unknown about the future. And the toxic person has battered you down mentally to a shadow of yourself.

So let’s take stock of the damage that does to your career first. As you see the damage add up, and the gravity, I hope that will teach you that you have the right to live your own precious life with dignity and peace. . and real love.

(Note: I write this as ‘women’ for ease of reading, and men can also be the victims in toxic relationships; toxic relationships can be both heterosexual and homosexual.)

You walk on eggshells.

This is your dirty little secret. You are ashamed if people find out you have been abused.

No scars? Oh, then it can’t be real. Scars? Maybe you did something that provoked them.

Plus, the initial part of the relationship was so intense, so amazing. So you think that you must have done something to make that go away. You work harder and harder, watching all the hypothetical things you did and didn’t do, checking your behaviour. . just so the great times can come back again. And sometimes, you get glimpses of it. So you take responsibility and blame yourself all the time.

But what you don’t know is that the initial honeymoon is called love-bombing, and then the glimpses are called intermittent reinforcement to keep you on your toes.

Living that way is exhausting. It incinerates energy.

At work, you are likely checking the things you said or didn’t say, the things you did or didn’t do. That habitual pattern may lead you to re-read your emails 20 times. You wonder about your leadership and performance, because you have such a low opinion of yourself.. and quite often, that is also something your abuser tells you about, how useless and bad you are. They play in your head, like a broken record.
This way, how do you even focus on your work properly? How do you have confidence in what you are saying? How do you not miss out on the important details? You have to work four times as hard. And you are already running on reserve battery mode.

Of course you can cope with these, but. . should you?

Your health suffers.

So you may not believe in this thing called mental health, because as a high-performing woman, it is often mind over matter. You will keep on pushing through. You will give 200%.

And let’s talk about your physical health then. It isn’t just your poor sleep, because they often like to disrupt your sleep by kicking up a ruckus (which they will blame you for) before your big days at work.

Your brain may be racing away with catastrophic thoughts about when they will flip again, and what you might do to trigger them. Translation: Anxiety.

You might be one of the many women who have panic attacks. It isn’t just feeling so anxious, it is the literal feeling that an alien has possessed your body. Your heart slams against your chest, your head is woozy, your palms are sweaty, and you believe you are about to faint. All whilst the thoughts in your head go “Someone will laugh at me”, “I am going to die”, “I cannot escape”.

That echoes your relationship, no?

Anxiety and panic attacks lead to poorer physical health outcomes, from cardiovascular issues to dementia. And these take years to build up to detectable levels, so if you’re thinking that’s an issue for 60-Year Old You to handle (especially if you have an ADHD brain like mine, and have problems seeing your future self), it’s not.

You feel like crap about yourself.

A curious thing I’ve noticed about people in toxic relationships is their face changes. It somehow has a dull parlour, and the eyes are sad. You look older than your years, and even though you can’t see it through layers of makeup or because you avoid the mirror, the camera somehow captures it. And what’s worse is how the face becomes strangely asymmetrical. (Don’t worry, it’s reversible.).

Whilst we know logically that we all grow older, accelerating the ageing process is not good for how we see ourselves. Especially if we care about our looks. And unlike what he’s told you, it’s perfectly alright to care about how you look.

You may also dress worse, because they have subtly or directly threatened you when you dress up. You may also deliberately make yourself uglier and stupider in order to stay safe or invisible.
But when you know you are a shadow of yourself— and that is something that’s been happening against your will— you will be miserable.

You wonder where that educated, capable, powerful woman evaporated to. You feel your words carry less gravitas. You put less faith in your ideas. It shows in the hesitation and wobbliness in your voice. And the uncertainty in which you write your emails.

And because you have been gaslit (translation: when your abuser keeps screwing with your reality, you stop trusting yourself), you may repeat yourself too often, sounding like a nag. You may become oversensitive to any perceived criticism, and that can destroy your performance and work relationships you’ve worked so hard to build.

Or, you may find yourself overgiving. Working way too hard. Taking on others’ workloads and responsibilities when not needed. Because you are unconsciously trying to repair what goes on at home, or you are just too used to giving way too much. That is the highway to burnout hell.

Your life is a house of freaky mirrors.

The thing about being in a toxic relationship is that it echoes other parts of your life, maybe now or perhaps in the past. A bully, a terrible friend, an abusive family member, a bad boss.

And that can cause you to blame yourself and to live in fear, that no matter where you go, these will always repeat themselves.

You worry it’s Game Over for your future.

Because your head is so well-trained to live in Apocalypse, you naturally see the future that way.

So not only do you suffer from deeper Imposter Syndrome— because how does a useless bad worthless shitty person get her post— you also wonder what people would say if they found out. All the more do you paddle faster and harder to keep the illusion.

And the bigger the gulf between your life as it seems, and your life as it is becomes, the more painful it is. It is a compound interest that stacks up against you everyday.

You consider the worst case scenarios, what will happen. Maybe they’ve threatened to take your money away. To tell your boss. To expose and shame you. Or maybe you think that might happen anyway.

So you knuckle under. Everyday you go to work depleted, everyday you leave work even more depleted.. as you walk back into abuse hell.

What to do.

Of course it is not all bad.

Of course there are good times, and some neutral times. Of course they don’t 100% fit the profile of a narcissist or a psychopath.

And of course they don’t need to be Jack the Ripper before you decide that you could live better.

The thing is, until liberation, you have no idea just what you’ve been tolerating. And how good it is to be free. You have to feel it to know it.

And the thing is, you’re not the only woman who’s gone through this, nor will you be the only one to get to the other side.

People want to support you; whatever naysayers in your circle that emerge, it is your opportunity to cull them. There is a safety plan you can create to leave for good; the average woman leaves 7 times, during which she may be killed.

And as a high-performing woman, you have resources on your side, which is one big less thing to worry about.

There are ways to take care of the trauma that fits into your busy life. And there are ways to address all the other non-relationship burdens you have been carrying.

There is more than just hope for you.

Do not let your toxic partner destroy your career, or your life.

If you’d like to get out safely from a toxic relationship for good and have peace of mind to heal and build your new life, book your free Chemistry Call here to chat about a signature 8-week program that’s tailored to your lifestyle, values and personality.