What Is The Psychology Behind Cutting Someone Off? 13 Ways It Works

Cutting someone off is a common response to various situations, whether it’s ending a toxic relationship, distancing from a harmful friend, or disengaging from a stressful job. But what’s the psychology behind this act? Why do we sometimes choose to sever ties with people? In this article, we’ll explore the 13 ways cutting someone off works and the psychological mechanisms behind this decision.

1. Self-preservation

Cutting someone off can often be a form of self-defense. When you’re in a situation or relationship that consistently causes you stress or pain, your brain can push you towards a decision that’ll safeguard your well-being. It’s like when your hand instinctively pulls away from a hot stove to prevent burns.

This isn’t just about physical well-being; it’s equally about mental health. Over time, if you’re constantly on the receiving end of criticism, disrespect, or emotional turmoil, the mental strain can start to manifest in physical ways — sleeplessness, anxiety, or worse. So, by cutting someone off, you’re essentially protecting yourself from further harm, and allowing your mind and body to recover from constant fight or flight mode.

2. Boundary enforcement

We all have our limits, and boundary setting is crucial for healthy relationships. When someone repeatedly oversteps or ignores your boundaries, cutting them off is like drawing a line in the sand. It sends a clear message: your limits are non-negotiable. In psychological terms, it’s about asserting your agency and taking control of your environment.

By setting a boundary, you’re communicating your values, limits, and the behavior you’re willing to accept. Cutting someone off reinforces those boundaries in the strongest terms when they’re not respected, reaffirming to both yourself and the other person that your rules for engagement are serious and must be adhered to.

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4. Emotional freedom

Letting go of a relationship that’s been weighing you down can be incredibly liberating. It’s about reclaiming your emotional space and energy. Instead of being tied down by someone else’s needs or negativity, you’re choosing to prioritize your own feelings and well-being.

Psychologically, this can be a significant turning point because you’re taking active steps to improve your emotional landscape. The act itself can be empowering, serving as a catalyst for personal growth and increased self-esteem. Emotional freedom means no longer being influenced or controlled by the negative aspects of a relationship, which opens up space for more positive experiences and emotions.

5. Eliminating negativity

Think about the relief you feel when you clean up a cluttered space. Cutting someone off has a similar effect on your mental environment. It’s about removing the ‘clutter’ of negativity to create a more positive and healthy headspace. This act can have profound psychological benefits.

Constant negativity from another person can skew your thought patterns, leading to a more pessimistic outlook on life. When you eliminate that source of negativity, you give yourself the chance to reset your perspective and reduce the mental burden that’s been dragging you down. It’s a way to clear out the old, toxic mental habits and make room for more constructive and uplifting thoughts.

6. Reclaiming independence

When you cut someone off, it’s like you’re stepping back into the driver’s seat of your life. For so long, someone else’s behavior or needs may have dictated your actions, emotions, or even thoughts. This reclaiming of independence is a powerful psychological shift. It allows you to make decisions based on your own wants and needs, free from the influence or approval of the person you’ve distanced yourself from.

In essence, it’s a big move towards autonomy, and psychologically, autonomy is a fundamental human need. Fulfilling this need can lead to a greater sense of self and a feeling of empowerment. It’s about getting back to making choices that align with your personal goals and life path.

7. Emotional relief

Imagine the relief of taking off a backpack full of rocks that you’ve been carrying for miles. Cutting someone off can offer similar emotional relief. It’s the end of a constant battle, the cessation of ongoing stress or sadness linked to a particular relationship. This emotional unburdening can feel like a literal weight has been lifted.

Psychologically, this relief comes because you’re no longer in a hyper-vigilant state regarding the emotions or actions of the other person. Your emotional energy can start flowing towards more positive and fulfilling aspects of your life, and this can be incredibly healing. The stress reduction alone can have a significant impact on your mental health.

8. Fostering self-respect

There’s a strong link between how you allow others to treat you and your self-esteem. By cutting off a toxic person, you’re sending yourself the message that you deserve better, which is a huge self-respect booster. Psychologically, when you stand up for yourself, it reinforces your sense of worth.

Each time you reinforce that sense of worth, you’re building your self-respect muscle. Just like with physical exercise, the more you work this muscle, the stronger it gets. And as your self-respect grows, you become less likely to tolerate poor treatment from others, leading to a healthier self-image and stronger relationships in the future.

9. Reconnecting with values

Cutting someone off can be like hitting the reset button when it comes to your personal values. Over time, it’s easy to drift from the principles that are important to you, especially if you’re dealing with someone who constantly challenges or disrespects those principles.

Making the decision to cut ties is essentially a decision to stand by your values, to honor what you find most meaningful and important. This process can be deeply reaffirming. It’s a conscious move to get back in touch with your core self and to ensure that your actions reflect your beliefs. Psychologically, when your life aligns with your values, it can significantly boost your sense of authenticity and contentment.

10. Promoting growth

When you cut someone off, it’s not just about putting an end to something; it’s about opening up new opportunities for personal development. This can be a period where you learn a lot about yourself, such as how much you can handle, what you really want in relationships, and what your non-negotiables are.

Psychologically, growth is all about stepping out of your comfort zone and facing new challenges — and there are few things more challenging than reshaping your social landscape. This growth can lead to increased resilience, better coping strategies, and a deeper understanding of who you are as a person.

11. Creating space for positive relationships

Imagine your social circle is like a garden. By cutting off a relationship that’s no longer serving you, you’re weeding out the plants that might be taking up too much space or resources — the ones that might be stifling others. This creates room for healthier, more fulfilling relationships to flourish.

Human beings thrive on connections that are nurturing and supportive. By pruning the unhealthy connections, you can dedicate more time and energy to the relationships that really matter, fostering a network of social support that contributes to your overall well-being.

12. Protecting mental health

Deciding to cut someone off is often a crucial step in safeguarding your mental health. Ongoing negative interactions can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression. By removing the source of those negative interactions, you’re taking action to protect your mental space.

Think of it as creating a healthier environment for your mind, free from pollutants that can cause harm over time. The absence of constant negativity can significantly improve your mood and outlook. It’s about ensuring your mental environment is a place where you can think clearly, feel safe, and be at peace.

13. Boundary reinforcement

Cutting someone off is a definitive move in enforcing your personal boundaries. It sends a clear message that certain behaviors or treatments are unacceptable to you. These boundaries are essential for healthy self-esteem and self-worth. They function like personal rules of engagement, defining what you will and will not tolerate. When these are constantly violated, it chips away at your sense of self and can lead to a range of emotional difficulties.

By reaffirming your boundaries so decisively, you’re not only communicating to others how you expect to be treated, but you’re also reaffirming to yourself that you are worth that level of respect. This reinforcement is a key part of maintaining your identity and ensuring that you’re not lost or diminished by the overwhelming presence or demands of another.

14. Regaining control

Taking the step to cut someone off can be incredibly empowering. It’s a declaration that you are taking back the reins in your life. In situations where you may have felt powerless or under the thumb of someone else’s manipulative or harmful behavior, making the choice to sever ties is a reclamation of your agency.

It’s an acknowledgment that while you can’t control how others act, you can control who you allow into your life and to what extent. This act of regaining control can be transformative, offering a sense of liberation and personal power. It can be a pivotal moment in your life’s narrative where you go from being a supporting character in your own story to the protagonist once again.

Sinead Cafferty is a writer who has authored four collections of poetry: "Dust Settling" (2012); "The Space Between" (2014); "Under, Under, Over" (2016); and "What You Can't Have" (2020). She's currently working on her first novel, a dystopian romance set in the 22nd Century, that's due out in 2024.

Sinead has an MFA in creative writing from NYU and has had residencies with the Vermont Studio Center and the National Center for Writing.