“Wait, what if I’m the red flag in my relationships?”

Written by Amy Beecham

Are you the drama in your relationship? Here’s why that may not be such a terrible thing.

Thanks to the rise of therapy-speak and hours of endless TikTok scrolling, most of us can spot manipulative behaviour patterns from a mile away. If we’re being constantly undermined at work, disregarded in our friendships or guilt-tripped in our relationships, we know the signs: the red, orange and even beige flags that spell out ‘be careful’. And we call it out.

But what happens when we apply that knowledge to our own actions and turn the examination towards ourselves? What happens when it dawns on us that, at times, we can be the glaring red flags too?

Because all of us, whether we’d admit it or not, have disrespected someone’s boundaries, refused to apologise or lied to the face of someone we care about. We’ve most likely been jealous, competitive, stubborn, calculated or self-righteous while trying to get what we want. We might have hurt people, isolated them or made them question their worth or validity.

It can be absolutely brutal to recognise our own red flags, but it’s also essential to maintaining our relationships. We might have people in our lives that will tell us when we’re taking things too far or call us out for being brattish or egotistical, but self-realisation is equally important.

The truth is, we all have red flags, and highlighting them isn’t about scolding ourselves for being complex human beings. It’s about identifying the things we want to work on and taking positive action. But that doesn’t make it easy.

“It can be really hard to be open to getting things wrong,” Jordan Vyas-Lee, a psychotherapist, tells Stylist. “So much about our life is based on competition and being right, even from when we’re at school, so it’s a big shift to make to being vulnerable and honest about your shortcomings.”

As Dr Vyas-Lee explains, it’s pretty normal to exhibit multiple low-level red flags. There are multiple degrees of bad behaviour: major red flags that are non-negotiable and cause the most harm and lesser red flags that might be more forgivable. Intention plays a huge part in this too. After all, knowingly talking down to someone in order to rock their confidence is very, very different to letting a few choice words slip out in an argument.

“Ultimately, everyone gets things wrong and everyone is looking out for themselves as a survival instinct,” he says, although many of our red flags can be traced back to our childhood experiences, where we may have created damaging responses to feelings of neglect, insecurity or isolation.

In my case, I am still haunted by a friendship breakup in my teens when I showed some of the ugliest parts of myself, driven by fear and what I thought was the moral high ground. I can still remember so clearly what I did, what I said and how the combination of those things caused a 10-year friendship to evaporate. But mostly, I remember how terrible it felt to have been the one to light the match. While there are always two sides, nearly a decade later I still struggle to reconcile myself with the fact that I was the ‘bad’ one.

I have to wonder if it’s an inherently gendered experience too, that as a woman I’m more socially conditioned to feel regret, remorse and feel eaten up by past bad behaviours.

Dr Vyas-Lee agrees that women are socialised into the caregiver role, making them more likely to act introspectively when it comes to how their behaviour impacts others. And while he recognises that pop science and psychology have helped raise awareness around toxic behaviour, he does stress the danger of becoming too dependent on over-simplified explanations, particularly when clinical conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder are bandied around.

“From the internet, you only get a basic understanding of surface-level symptoms,” he shares. “Generating self-efficacy with someone is really important, but it’s important to allow nuance and subjectivity too.” In other words, we should be wary of diagnosing ourselves – or anyone, for that matter – from a 15-second video alone.

“If you’re really concerned about how you’ve been responding to challenges in your life, professional help and therapy is always the most effective tool at your disposal, but talking to the people around you will often help too.” 

The bottom line is: we all make mistakes. We all hurt people and are hurt. We all have regrets. But the difference between a true red flag and a less bold, amber one? Acceptance and willingness to change. And that’s always a great place to start.

Images: Getty

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