Getting over a toxic relationship is like breaking an addiction. Something in the interaction had or has you hooked, and that something is connected to a place deep within you that is unhealed and in need of your kind attention. But sometimes we don’t have a time stamp on a thing. Whatever the wound is, it’s as fresh as if it just happened, and we’re drawn to scenarios that will play out that pain in different ways again and again, thinking this time, we’ll get our happy ending.

You’ll never heal that way. If the people who were meant to love, nurture and protect you when you arrived in this world were unable to do that, you may have internalized the experience and organized it in such a way that you grew up doubting whether you were worthy of love. Children don’t think to question their parents. It doesn’t occur to a child that maybe they’ve shown up in mom’s or dad’s world at a time when they are ill-equipped to express love. People can only be where they are, and they can only have the tools they have. But we don’t think of our parents as fallible human beings until we get older. When we’re little, they’re god-like, all-knowing, all-powerful figures. So if they say we’re bad or unwanted or ungrateful, if they say we have a mean-streak, or we’re overly sensitive, or lazy, or that we’ll never amount to anything, if they say we’re fat and unlikeable, man do we have healing to do.

Those are extreme examples, of course. Sometimes the messages are subtle. Maybe mom or dad was elusive, always working, vaguely absent, highly critical, or never around. Maybe it wasn’t anything they said, maybe it was just a lack of interest or engagement. All I’m saying is that our early experiences shape the way we feel about ourselves, other people, and the world at large. And if you emerged from your childhood with serious doubts about your value as a human being on planet earth, you’re very likely to act out that doubt in your adult life. Thus, many intelligent, beautiful people find themselves in relationships they never could have foreseen, accepting treatment they don’t want, and feeling powerless to walk away, act on their own behalf, or stand up for themselves.

Maybe you know people like this. You think, “What the f&ck is she doing?! She’s so smart and kind and funny and gorgeous. Why is she dating that awful guy?” Or, “What is up with his taste in women? Why does he keep picking these critical, cold, controlling women?” And let me be really clear. These aren’t gender-specific qualities. There are controlling men and women. There are elusive people of both genders. A lot of human beings struggle with what it means to be in relationship, and not just romantically. What it means to show up for other people, or to be kind, patient, caring, considerate. And most of these people struggle with this stuff because of their own early experiences. We tend to repeat what we know, until we know better.

So how to recover from toxic relationships, whether with an ex, your boss, an old friend who’s never really acted like one, or a family member? First, you have to figure out whether you want to have this person in your life. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of choice, and in those cases you’re looking at boundaries. How do I have this person in my life, and still honor myself? This comes up with family members. It’s not easy or desirable to write a person off. Sometimes you must, in order to love yourself well. You can’t change other people. You either accept them as they are and figure out how to interact in a way that’s okay for you, or you remove yourself from the relationship. If a person relentlessly tears you down, you’ll have to end that. Because your first priority must always be to care for your tender heart. The alternative is to make yourself hard and cold, and what kind of life is that?

If it’s an ex and you’ve been participating in a relationship that crushes you, you have to walk away. How do you do that when you feel hooked? It takes enormous effort, support, and vigilance. Therapy is a very good plan. Because you really want to identify what drew you in in the first place. What within you decided to stay the first time you saw evidence that things were not good. I’m talking about emotional or verbal abuse, and of course, there’s also physical abuse in some cases. What within you felt or feels you deserve that? Take the onus and attention off the other person and the way you related to him or her, and put it back on yourself. Because you’re with you for the long haul. The story to examine is always the story of your participation.

If you have something within you that is unhealed, then your job is to look at it. That’s why you’re in pain. Love is not abusive. Love does not tear you down and make you feel like sh&t. Love doesn’t tell you how flawed you are, and how you never measure up. So if you’ve walked away from something where those dynamics were in play, it isn’t love that you’re missing. It’s the pull of that interaction, and your deep desire to get the outcome that’s going to make you feel good. But no one else can solve that or fix that for you, and certainly not someone who can’t love you. You really have to turn your attention to loving yourself, so that you aren’t continually attracted to situations that are going to deplete you and dishonor you.

Find a great therapist. Find a great yoga teacher. Hang out with your best buds. Hike. Read beautiful books. Listen to music that uplifts you. Cry. If you have anger, go hit a bag or take a kick-boxing class. Journal. But don’t tell yourself the single life sucks and this crappy treatment is better than being alone, because it isn’t. And don’t tell yourself you’re getting old and you’d better latch on to the nearest person because this is your last chance, because it isn’t. Or that this treatment you’re enduring is just the way of things. Life can be long and miserable if you participate in the destruction of your own beautiful light. Or it can be short but full of fire and beauty and love. Always run toward what’s true for you. Take the time to do the work to heal so you can enjoy your life. You don’t have forever, after all. Sending you love. Stay strong, people.

—Ally Hamilton