Toxic people can wreak havoc in your life. Learning how to deal with toxic people requires that you develop your self-esteem and learn how to identify and address bad behavior from others. (Estimated reading time: 6-7 minutes )
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.”— Stephen King
One of the most vivid memories I have as a little girl was watching my dad’s reactions while we walked down busy streets in big cities like London, New York or Hong Kong during our travels. I could see that it was a visual treat for an avid people-watcher like him who took in all the sights with delight.
We’d encounter disheveled homeless people sitting on the sidewalk, mumbling gibberish, anxious office workers walking hurriedly to their destination, couples sitting on benches, embroiled in a squabble, or a punk rocker sporting a pink Mohawk (it was the 80s!), whizzing past everyone on his skateboard.
My dad would smile in amusement and then look at me and my brother and emphatically say, “Kids, this world is like a zoo. You get all kinds of creatures. Always keep an eye out for the sneaky ones.”
I didn’t fully get what his words meant until I grew a little older and I met some of the sneaky kinds myself.
Like most people, I preferred giving others the benefit of the doubt because it’s so much easier to get along than it is to question and be suspicious of people’s motives. Most of us were raised to adhere to social niceties that indoctrinate us to compromise so that we don’t ruffle any feathers. If you’re a woman, you probably received a heavier dose of this precept!
I agree that our repertoire of people skills should include the ability to co-operate, negotiate and smooth out differences. Having this skill set is a necessity as we can’t always choose the people that we deal with on a daily basis, such as co-workers, bosses and family members.
But at what point do we draw the line and say “That’s it! I won’t accept being treated in this way!”? I believe this occurs when the relationship begins disrupting our internal balance and eats away at our peace of mind.
Toxic is a word that’s traditionally used to describe poisonous substances such as a snake’s venom, which can wreck our system. In the case of a toxic person, their venom could take the form of words, actions or their general presence, which they use to belittle or criticize you, or even sabotage your success.
A toxic person’s tactics and behavior patterns can run the gamut from outright cheating to covert manipulation. No matter what their choice of poison is, their lack of sensitivity and blatant disregard for the feelings and wellbeing of others is their defining trait.
You can identify a toxic person by how they make you feel while in their presence. Your intuition will inundate you with red alerts, and second, your body will experience uncomfortable sensations.
Having had a few toxic encounters in my life, I can attest to this. I’ve struggled to be cordial with a certain family member for most of my teenage and adult life. Even though we shared some good times together, I’ve always had a nagging feeling that she didn’t have my best interest at heart, no matter how close we became.
As I became schooled in the subject of human behavior and I gained more experience in reading people, it became increasingly apparent to me that my hunch about her was in fact correct. It was further confirmed by trusted sources that she was doing and saying things to hurt my future.
Upon reaching my threshold, I decided to create strong boundaries with her. Was I hurt? Absolutely. I was disappointed because I knew that there was potential for a great friendship between us, which I tried hard to cultivate.
But relationships are a two-way street and the effort to maintain the connection was costing too much of my energy and time, which I felt could be put to better use in my life.
Predicaments like the one I faced demand a solid self-esteem to support you in standing up for yourself, and wisdom to realize that you shouldn’t have to tolerate any kind of misbehavior from anyone.
I know that this is easier said than done but if you want to deal with toxic people, you’ll need to set some ground rules in your relationships. Here are some ideas on how you can do that:
1. Understand the psychology of the toxic individual you’re dealing with: There are all kinds of toxic people out there, who use a variety of maneuvers on their path of destruction. There’s also a continuum when it comes to the level of toxicity that this group displays. You have the crazy serial-sociopathic-killer on one end, and on the other, you have the jealous friend who constantly talks behind your back. Their ability to change for the better depends on how corrupted they are at their core.
While science has shown that some of the extremely toxic individuals (the murderers and killers) might have damaged or were born without the part of their brain that induces feeling of empathy, most toxic individuals behave in the way they do because they harbor deep insecurities stemming from unaddressed inner child issues and pain that haven’t been healed.
These people are hurting and damaged inside, and they either have no clue or lack the willingness to bring balance to their inner turmoil. Keeping this in mind helps me feel a little compassion for them.
2. Decide how you’re going to move forward: Once you get a sense of the kind of creature you’re dealing with, you’ll need to decide how you can move forward with them in a way that’s most healthy for you. Of course, the level of thought and effort that you put into it will depend on how important the relationship is to you and how much you value it. For instance, you’d probably put in more effort in a family relationship than you would with an acquaintance.
You could start out by having an honest conversation with them about how you feel. If they respond favorably, don’t be too quick to let them off the hook. Continue to observe their behavior and hold them accountable for their actions. If they don’t improve, you’ll have to resort to building boundaries or cutting them out of your life.
3. Find friends who are good for you: The good news is that not everyone we meet in the world has toxic behavior patterns. There are plenty of kind and thoughtful people out there with whom we can build authentic and genuine connections with. Seek out friends and partners who are good for your soul, i.e. they support and encourage you in your endeavors.
You can find these individuals anywhere but I would look for them in certain types of groups and organizations that generally attract people who have high self-awareness, a strong value system and conscience, such as volunteer groups, animal shelters, self-enrichment courses/workshops and spiritual or religious oriented organizations.
4. Develop trust in yourself and in your judgment: It takes a brave and insightful person to unravel the schemes of a toxic individual. Without a solid inner foundation of self-belief and trust in our own judgment, we don’t stand a chance in effectively shielding ourselves from being taken advantage of. Trusting yourself comes from feeling good about who you are and the willingness to protect yourself at all costs.
Removing toxic people from your life is akin to removing weeds from the garden of your life. Engaging in this practice will give you more space for planting seeds of love that could potentially blossom in nurturing and loving relationships and friendships that can last for a lifetime.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Do you have to deal with toxic people in your life? How do you manage your interactions with them?
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I agree about trying to remove the toxic people in our lives… but what do you do when it is your own family members, worse off your own mother and sister? I dont want to cut them off- they are family after all and I do love them- but the toxicity is really affecting me and my own family. What should I do?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sabrina, I understand how you feel. I suggest trying out some of the tips I’ve written about in this post. If not, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss more.