Dear Amy: I come from a very judgmental family, and I'm wondering how to break the awful habits I learned.

Growing up, we'd often be driving home from family events and my parents would bad-mouth the relatives we had just seen. This affected me, even if their criticism was sometimes justified.

As adults, my boyfriend and I have not been spared. The day after get-togethers, my mom will often tell me things I said or did "wrong." They have no reservations about picking apart every little thing my boyfriend does.

Not only is it annoying, but I find myself doing the same thing to other people, and I hate it! It's not a good way to live. It also makes me wonder what others are saying about me behind my back.

Do you have any advice on how to break the cycle? And how can I politely shut them down the next time they do it?

Amy says: You know the admonition, "Judge not, lest you be judged ..." and now you are experiencing the reality of this wisdom. Harsh judgment and malicious gossip are insidious and destructive to relationships.

The way to break a lifetime habit is by mindfully addressing it, one incident at a time. You can do this by giving yourself a visual/sensory reminder (put a rubber band on your wrist and give yourself a little "ping" every time you find yourself engaged in judgmental thinking). Every time you resist, you should recognize your tiny triumph and mentally give yourself credit: "Today, I resisted my habit of harshly judging and gossiping. I'm getting better at this."

If your folks pick apart you and your boyfriend after every encounter, the rational conclusion would be, "My parents don't enjoy our company. Therefore, we won't expose them to the source of their displeasure so often."

You may be able to retrain those around you, over time, by hitting "pause" every time the dynamic shifts toward judgmental. You say, "Well, this conversation seems to have taken a turn, so I'm going to hop off. I'll talk to you later."

A vicious cycle

Dear Amy: I am worried about my friend, "Stacy," who is 22 and is seeing a 31-year-old drug user.

Stacy has had a track record with abusive relationships, most of which she finds online. It is so hard to stand on the sidelines and watch her do this to herself time and time again.

Our friends give her advice and she takes it in the moment, recognizing the severity of the situation, yet she always returns to the guy.

What should we do? I'm nervous that this option could land her in a very dangerous situation.

Amy says: It can be heartbreaking to watch someone you care about repeatedly disappear into abusive or dangerous situations.

"Stacy" will need to understand and recognize that she is worthy of a healthy relationship. She is lucky to have you and other friends who care about her and are concerned about her welfare.

Keep at it. People in abusive relationships often lose their supportive friendships because, frankly, it can be too frustrating and depleting to witness the toxic cycle.

Continue to be honest with her regarding your own feelings: "It is so hard to watch you go through this. I want you to know that I am always here for you, even when I don't really know how to help."

Stacy would benefit from professional counseling in order to recognize and change the patterns in her own behavior.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline (thehotline.org) has helpful advice on how to talk to loved ones about abusive situations. In short: Listen, be supportive, be nonjudgmental, recognize that you cannot rescue them, and keep the connection open.

Send questions to Amy Dickinson at askamy@amydickinson.com.