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Nedra Glover Tawwab on when it is okay to end close relationships

Following her new book 'Drama Free', Nedra Glover Tawwab talks about setting boundaries, the dangers of therapy-speak in everyday life, and more

Therapist and author Nedra Glover Tawwab.
Therapist and author Nedra Glover Tawwab. (Courtesy Nedra Glover Tawwab)

Nedra Glover Tawwab is an Instagram sensation. With her 1.8 million followers, she frequently shares mental health practices, tools to navigate relationships, and her reflections on both subjects. A relationship therapist even before becoming popular online—she has more than 15 years of experience in the field—Glover Tawwab is a qualified Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) based North Carolina in the US.

The runaway success of her 2021 book Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself, only cemented her popularity and influence; and earlier this year, she came out with her second book, Drama Free: A Guide to Managing Unhealthy Family Relationships.

In an online interview with Lounge, Tawwab talks about the importance of boundaries, which she primarily advocates for in both her books, the dangers of therapy-speak in everyday life, and effecting cultural shifts in relationships, slowly and over generations.

(This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Both your books emphasise boundary-setting. In Set Boundaries, Find Peace, you open with the possibilities of pushback to boundaries that one has set, like ghosting on the one hand (by people who’d completely disregard the relationship and ghost you instead) and limit-testing on the other (by people who keep pushing your boundary if you don’t stand firm). In Drama Free, you also go on to say that it’s okay to cut-off from relationships that aren’t working well for you. With such extreme possibilities, it can be scary to set boundaries and one may feel scared that they could keep losing people and end up alone. How do you advise people who feel this way?

Well, we have to find community, and sometimes that is outside of our family of origin. It can be with our friends or with other community members; or it could be with some of those family members whom we haven’t yet built relationships with, but we have to be able to find support around many of the things we are not able to talk about in those families. There are tons of people who have not had an ideal situation, but in some way, seeking comfort from others can be very helpful.

Also read: Why children need therapy too

Can you talk about the emotional toll of cutting off, especially with say, primary caregivers, whether it's your biological parent or otherwise, despite or along with the relief of coming out of a toxic or abusive relationship? What is your advice on that?

That's when we have to accept that we can experience more than one feeling at one time. Although there is relief, there can still be grief because you're not in a relationship that you would want if the relationship were healthy. So, there is some grieving of what you would have hoped to be possible for that relationship. And also, there's relief for no longer having the dysfunction in your life. So, there is this complex emotion around ending unhealthy relationships.

How do you help people navigate such complexities?

(I guide them) to feel it all, and to not feel like they have to make a different decision to feel some relief. You have to remember why you no longer wanted that relationship. Maybe there was continued abuse in the relationship, and so to go back to it…means you're back in its dysfunctional cycle. It's also very important to also consider whether if you were to go back to the relationship, anything will be different: Will there be any repair? Or did you leave because that was the last resort? In many cases, especially when people are ending relationships with their parents or a significant family member, it’s done after they’ve tried many other things. So, if you feel like there is no hope in the relationship, going back may not have the relief that you think you’d get.

The front cover of Glover Tawwab's latest book.
The front cover of Glover Tawwab's latest book.

You have a great following worldwide, but in cultures that are more community- and family-oriented, like India, how do you think boundary-setting will translate? Do you work with Indians or people of Indian-origin in the US?

Yes, in Indian or non-American cultures, I think there are some small steps that could be really helpful. Each generation can make small cultural shifts. But again…there is going to be some pushback in any culture: ‘Why are we doing it this way?’ or ‘Why are we changing this about how we celebrate the holiday’, for example. And after a while of that adjustment period, it becomes the new way that the holiday is celebrated. It's usually one brave family member who says, ‘Hey, this is how we're going to do things differently.’ It may not be a huge shift, but over time, things can change.

Also read: Do you need to be single to really know yourself and grow?

Specifically, when I work with people with an Indian background, one of the things that we bump up against is looking at culture, what’s possible while focusing on their specific household, and then going out to what everyone else will think about any shift they’d like to make. I remember working with a woman who was divorced once; and despite having a lot of problems in her current relationship, she did not want to get divorced a second time, because in her culture being divorced once was already too much. Working through some of these issues with her husband were really challenging because he had expectations and, while they culturally were relevant, were not things she wanted to necessarily adhere to anymore. So, we talked about a lot of small steps and compromises that could be made that would, not necessarily make both people happy, but make them both feel like they're being respected in the relationship.

Given your experience on social media, could you talk about the dangers of therapy-speak seeping into everyday conversation? What’s the way forward?

We have moved towards having more information (on mental health and relationships) and while that is wonderful, it can also be a bad thing when we misapply it. Take, for example, the word narcissism. It is a very heavy term to be used in just a very social sort of way, and not in an appropriately applied and diagnoseable way.

Sometimes having information is helpful, particularly if you are in a relationship with someone and you're trying to understand their behaviour, or if you're having certain behaviours. It's important to take that information, though, to a mental health professional, and get a second opinion.

What's more helpful, is to maybe just talk about someone’s behaviours without identifying a label for them. Something like, “This person doesn't admit when they're wrong”, versus “This person is a narcissist”.

I would also question whether it’s a helpful practice or a potentially harmful one, to see a person with an issue and then attribute them with a disorder. Are we trying to bring this person towards change or push them away? Sometimes, heavy labels push people away from getting any mental health treatment, because they've already been stigmatised.

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