“Toxic” people can be a lot to handle.
Interacting with them is stressful, upsetting, perplexing, and puts us in real binds.
In the face of such torment the conventional wisdom around “toxic” people says we need to cut them out of our lives unceremoniously and without delay.
“They’re just too far gone, you see. There’s nothing you can do! You deserve a life without their toxicity.”
Sounds simple enough, right?
While this might be easy to do if the “toxic” person is someone we never really have to see or interact with again, following through with this kind advice isn’t as straightforward if that “toxic” person is someone we can’t really just run from, like our father, sister, boss, or landlord. We don’t always have complete control over who gets to be in our lives and who doesn’t. And not for nothing, but in our heart of hearts we might actually want to save and sustain some of these “toxic” relationships if we could.
So what are we to do?
This is where the conventional wisdom falls short, because as suitable and necessary a choice as cutting “toxic” people out of our lives might sometimes be, it’s not the only choice we have.
Thankfully there are a few other things we can do to improve our most difficult relationships -- steps that are a little more measured in their approach.
1. Take some space.
A lot of what we experience as toxicity is the relentless way “toxic” behaviors trigger us. Before we can recover from the previous jolt, we’re seized by another one.
That’s why taking an intermediate step back from the relationship (before ending it outright) can be really beneficial. You’ll feel safe and secure enough to actually process what’s going on.
Because “toxic” dynamics can be so complex, they often require careful consideration to resolve. Retreating to a comfortable distance may be the only way you’ll realistically have the peace of mind to do this kind of reflection.
2. Feel your feelings.
Whenever you’re having an intense experience it’s always important to allow yourself to feel how you really feel about it.
You’re hurt. You’re exasperated. You’re confused.
Admit it, acknowledge it, honor it. Make some space for that feeling in your heart. Validate it, and inhabit it. Let it take you over for a time, so you can feel it all the way through.
Then it will release you.
Some of our impulse to reject “toxic” people -- and quick! -- comes from the panicked sense that we’ll never be able to free ourselves from the deluge of unpleasant emotions they stir up. But... we’ve just freed ourselves from them all on our own.
3. Speak up.
All too often we stay silent about our suffering. Maybe that’s because we think “toxic” people never listen to us, or don’t care about how we feel.
Even if that’s demonstrably true, still speak up about what’s bothering you. Doing so gets those charged emotions up and out of your heart, which in and of itself feels good. It’s a declaration of who you are and what’s important to you. When our interactions with “toxic” people so often seem to suggest our worthlessness, we’re proving that theory wrong on the spot by the way we’re embodying our value.
Speaking up for yourself also lets the “toxic” person directly experience the toll their behavior is taking on you. Even if they have a history of dismissing or belittling you, this sort of feedback is invaluable -- and you never know when it might break through. If and when you do have to cut the cord at least you’ll be able to say you gave them every chance you could.
4. Validate yourself.
Do you continually go to the “toxic” person in your life to affirm some part of your worthiness that they’ve proven time and time again they don’t care to offer you? If you do, that’s okay. We’re conditioned to depend on other people for our sense of ourselves. But we can also learn to validate ourselves all on our own -- to the point that we can remain in relationships with “toxic” people and not experience their typical responses as dismissal or rejection.
5. Set firm boundaries.
Boundaries always give another person a choice. When you set a boundary you’re saying, “If you continue to treat me this way, some sort of consequence will follow.” It’s then up to them to respect that boundary (or not) -- and the responsibility for what comes next is theirs.
When we’re in the midst of a difficult situation we need to ask ourselves if we’ve ever truly set a boundary with the other person. Sometimes we feel overrun simply because we’ve never drawn a line in the sand -- and followed through with enforcing it.
It may take some repetition for “toxic” people to learn to respect your boundaries, especially if you’ve never consistently set them before. Don’t be afraid to plainly remind them of the standards you’ve set as you go along, and to enforce the consequences at your discretion.
6. Clarify what you mean by “toxic”.
“Toxic” is such a buzzword. A catch-all for any number of other qualities and behaviors. Its precise meaning -- if one ever existed -- has been lost.
If there’s to be any hope of improving our most difficult relationships we’re going to have to get more specific about the dynamics we’re talking about.
Because there are plenty of other ways to describe a “toxic” person:
They don’t take responsibility for their actions.
They’re quick to escalate conflict.
They dismiss or belittle our feelings.
They need a lot of coddling.
(Just to name a few.)
When you describe a “toxic” person’s behavior more precisely -- and therefore more accurately -- you might find that they’re not so intimidating after all. You’ll see them less as a monster and more as a flawed human being. And the despair you feel that the situation is hopeless might turn into a renewed sense of confidence that you know how to handle it just fine -- or that you could learn how to now that you have a specific area to work on.
7. Ask yourself what you admire about them.
We need to talk about something now that might be a difficult pill to swallow.
So brace yourself.
And hang on tight.
Sometimes the things we judge other people for are the qualities and behaviors we wish we could express more readily but we don’t think we’re allowed to. This means the contempt we feel for “toxic” people could actually be an underlying resentment.
To figure out what this hidden desire might be we can ask ourselves what qualities we like about the “toxic” people in our lives.
What are they doing that we want to be able to?
“Man, I really wish I could care that little about other people’s feelings!”
“If only I were that oblivious of my emotional baggage!"
“They’re realllllllly good at always getting their way. Wouldn’t that be nice!”
When we can admit to ourselves that our judgments are really our own desires, a spell we’ve been under is broken -- and we might not need to skewer the “toxic” person anymore for simply being who they are.
We also then have an opportunity to adjust our own behavior towards the end of the spectrum that the “toxic” person occupies -- a course correction that might be perfectly healthy for us if it brings us more into balance with ourselves.
8. Own your contribution.
“Toxic” people can be so threatening to us because we never feel like we have a firm grip on the relationship. They’re a human tornado and we’re just along for the ride.
But all relationships -- even really difficult ones -- are two-way streets.
We’re always making choices about them.
We always have a part to play.
We start to take our power back in even our most hopeless relationships when we get very clear about which parts of them we actually have control over, and take responsibility for doing something about them.
We don’t do this to let “toxic” people off the hook. We do it because when we see an opportunity to help ourselves feel better about the situations and circumstances we face, we don’t let anything get in the way of finding that relief.
9. Get clear about what you think their “toxicity” prevents you from having, being, or feeling.
Sometimes we judge other people when we think their behavior prevents us from getting an important need met. We experience who they are as lacking in some critical way where our health and happiness is concerned, and we punish them for this disservice. If we can pinpoint what this need is though, then we can look for other ways to get it met -- and free the “toxic” person from this obligation in the process.
10. Ask for help.
As is the case with any predicament we face, when we reach the limit of our own experience, ability, and understanding, that’s a really good time to ask for help. There’s no shame in doing so -- “toxic” dynamics can be really complex, and we all need a little support from time to time. Admitting to yourself and to other people that you really, really don’t know what to do about a “toxic” situation can be the best first step you can take toward finding the resolution you’re looking for.