Toxic people

I recently became a fan of the Captain Awkward blog (advice column written by a screen writer) when several of my friends linked to her incredibly insightful answer on how to handle the “creeps” in social circles.  On August 30th, she addressed the letter of a daughter with a very toxic relationship with her mother.  This got me thinking about toxic relationships.

No relationship is perfect and fully functional because no human being his perfect and fully functional.  But when a relationship becomes dysfunctional to the extreme (emotional abuse just like Captain Awkward pointed out in her response), it has become a toxic relationship.  And sometimes, some people are just toxic people.

Thirteen-ish years ago I worked with a good-looking kid who was about a year younger than me.  We hit it right off as friends and on our first day of ever working together he opened up to me about a girl in his life.  (People seem to naturally open to me…even strangers at the gas station.  Perhaps that’s why I pursued social work).  He told me about how he wanted to become romantically involved with this girl but she wanted to be “just friends.”  Seemed pretty normal to me because that happens a lot, even if I did think she was weird because he was incredibly sweet and, like I said above, good-looking.  Then he started talking about all the things he does for her.  Pays her car payment, her car insurance, paid to get her car registered, and basically bailed her out of every sticky financial situation she seemed to constantly get herself in.  She would also play emotional, manipulative games with him where she would lead him to believe she was interested in more and then reject him.  I couldn’t believe he was willing to do all those things and put up with all those things from her, especially for a non-girlfriend.  I uttered the words, “she sounds toxic.”  I then pointed out all that he gives in the relationship and all that she takes.  I don’t really remember what happened to this girl after that.  I began to hang out with him socially as a part of a group of our work friends and he never mentioned her again.  I don’t know if he cut her off or if he just never mentioned her to me again because he knew how I felt.

I’ve had friends who are utterly exhausting to know.  Everything is a crisis, everything is drama and they want to suck you into their drama.  While I’m still “friends” with a few of them (meaning I keep in touch with them on Facebook), I’ve had to put emotional distance in our relationship for my own sanity.  I think we all know people who leave us feeling depleted.

I read this really great article, written by Evelyn Lim, in thinking about toxic relationships and I wanted to highlight some of my favorite parts.

“Toxic relationships are those which have become extreme. You experience a sense of dread, misery, illness and nervous energy, whenever you have to handle people with toxic energy. They can be people in the office, friends or even family members.”

Oh, I can so relate.  Who hasn’t experienced that sense of dread when you know you have to go to work and deal with someone who is toxic (like a constant complainer, pessimist, or who won’t share the workload)?  Note:  this does not describe anyone I work with currently.

“Toxic people are prophets of doom. They have a poor outlook on life. Toxic people shift all the blame to everyone else but themselves. They refuse to take personal responsibility. Toxic people feel as if everyone owes them a living. They make their lives sound as if they are on spikes all the time.  Toxic people have a knack of blowing up stories into catastrophic proportions. At first, we are drawn to their stories and feel bad for them. And then, we began to feel physically, mentally and emotionally ill ourselves from hearing the same thing over and over again.”

When I read this I was struck to the core because it has perfectly described every toxic person I’ve ever known.

Here are a few of Lim’s tips for dealing with a Toxic Person:
(If you want to read this article more in depth, click on the link I posted above).

1. Avoid investing yourself emotionally into the content of their stories. 

2. Learn to say no to unreasonable demands. 

3. Refrain from wanting to take charge of their lives or make decisions for them.

4. Avoid taking what they say to heart. Difficult and negative people have toxic things to say about everything and to everyone. So don’t take what they say personally, unless the scathing remark is intentionally directed at you. In which case, you may want to see if their remark is worth doing something about. (Risa here – like deciding to avoid that person for the rest of your life at all costs).

5. Learn to take charge of your own emotional well-being. 

6. Keep a focused attention on the blessings that you enjoy.

7. Consider a change in perspective. 

8. Learn to steer the conversations in a more positive direction. 

9. Avoid lengthy discussions.

10. Walk away, if you need to.

11. Maintain a sense of humor.

12. Plan for the meeting. If you know that you are going to meet someone negative or difficult, be prepared for what he or she may say. Have an idea about what you can do and how you can respond. Here is your chance to develop better relationship and communication skills. If you are able to cope with a toxic person, you can handle anyone!  (Risa here – and if you feel like you can’t cope with a toxic person because you feel emotionally and physically threatened, it’s also okay to walk away).

13. And most importantly, learn what the toxic relationships are really trying to tell you.  


All of her tips are great and I think they are helpful if you’re invested in keeping that emotionally toxic person in your life.  It’s also nice to give yourself permission to limit your contact with that person.  You have the absolute right to protect your heart and your mind from those who try to tear you down, say cruel things to you, or try to control you.  Setting boundaries is important for having and maintaining healthy relationships.

My maternal grandmother was very involved in my life growing up.  I know she loved me and she loved my family, but she expressed that love with constant criticisms that seemed to focus on my mother (her only daughter) and her offspring.  I was 15 years old and only 130 pounds (at 5’6″, I’d say that’s a pretty healthy and thin weight) when she called me fat.  I stopped talking to her and refused to go over to her house for a while.  Eventually, because I changed my behavior by not reacting to hers, she came up to me at a family party to apologize and reaffirm her love for me.  That wasn’t the last time she said something I felt was mean, but I learned to let it go and not take it personally because it came from a place of love.

However, if ever an emotionally toxic person says something mean or cruel that definitely does not come from a place of love, it is okay to disengage, walk away, and not react.

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7 thoughts on “Toxic people

  1. Great post with valuable information. I've found that challenging bullies by naming their behavior for what it is (calling a spade a spade) has been useful for me. But just walking away is good too!!!

  2. I agree Amanda. But there are some bullies who, when you hold up a mirror of their behavior, deny that a mirror is even there. Giving yourself permission to say it's okay to not let them bully you anymore by walking away can be an emotionally healthy thing. Some people are in such deep denial about how their behavior effects others that it's just not worth my emotional time or energy to sweat them anymore. Especially when they lie to your face, act like they have no culpability in the problems between you, and continue to act like a victim.

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