A “new normal” can simply be a period of adjustment, of accepting what has changed and adapting to a new environment. This type of acclimatization may be uncomfortable, but it is ultimately relatively harmless and potentially even provides opportunity for growth.
But that’s not always the case.
Like many people, I used to question the decision-making abilities of those who chose to stay in toxic or abusive environments. Don’t they see how poorly they’re being treated? Don’t they expect better for themselves? I just couldn’t understand.
Until I was in a toxic environment myself.
My first known experience with a poisonous atmosphere was when a new administration took over my school. The changes started almost immediately. The email newsletter, where exemplary teachers were highlighted on a weekly basis, was suspended. Meetings began to take on an accusatory tone and trust levels began to decline. By winter break, we all began to feel as though we were walking on eggshells and trying not to wake the sleeping dragon. The image that always comes to mind when I reflect upon that era is a meeting my team had with the principal. A meeting where he sat high behind his desk, yelling at us while we were seated on the floor.
We adapted. We learned when to keep our mouths shut (which was always, as long as we were within the bounds of the school). We learned not to question, because the answers were always in the form of punishment, meted out with what seemed to be a vicious delight. We even joked about the circumstances, trauma funneled into hilarity in an attempt to survive.
And the scary part? It began to feel acceptable. After all, we were ensconced in that environment for 10+ hours a day.
The toxic and abusive environment had become our new normal.
And it was only once we were out that we could see it for what it was. Once we were all back in functional work environments, we could see how crazy of a world we had occupied.
It may have become our normal.
But it was far from okay.
It is rare for abuse to go from “off” to “high heat” within the first meeting (because then nobody would ever stay, would they?). Rather, the heat is slowly increased so that the intensification hardly registers and the very-much-not-okay no longer seems unusual or to be of any consequence. That’s definitely how the covert abuse developed in my marriage.
There are a few strategies to identify this dark side of the “new normal” and to recognize abuse as it begins to escalate:
- Be careful if you’re in a fragile state. You may find that you’re attracting people that see you as easy to manipulate or dominate.
- Listen to your gut. You may not “know” what is wrong, but you’ll have a sense that something is off.
- Be aware of if you’re creating justifications for situations or behavior. If you’re always making excuses, it’s a sign that something isn’t quite right.
- Be cognizant of “boundary sliding.” If you always said, “I never put up with…” and now you are, that’s telling you something.
- Ask for feedback. Describe the situation to a trusted friend or volunteer on a helpline and get their feedback. It’s easier to see clearly when you’re not on the inside.
- If you have suspicions, begin to document the behaviors. Once you have it in writing, it’s easier to see any patterns and it’s harder to make excuses.
Abusive relationships rarely improve. Promises of “This will be the last time” and “I’m going to be better” seldom come to fruition. And while you’re waiting for it to get better, the heat may just reach the boiling point.
Jump out while you can.