How to Deal with Toxic People

Call me naive, but I tend to assume the best about people.

I see the good in most, usually without a lot of effort. Although I come from the “people are inherently good” camp, I’ve had my share of experience with toxic people.

What do I mean by that? A toxic person is someone who is consistently negative, who makes you feel bad about yourself or the world. They are often self-absorbed and expect the world to revolve around their needs.

Most of all, a toxic person will try to manipulate you, often by criticizing, controlling and otherwise creating drama. Sound familiar? We’ve all had these people in our lives. You’ll know you’ve encountered one because of how you feel after being around them; drained, defeated, angry, guilty, sad.

While every situation is different, I’ve come away with a few guidelines that might help you in your next toxic encounter.

Recognize that you are not the problem.

The toxic person specializes in making you feel at fault. You probably sense that this isn’t true, but they are so convincing that you find yourself thinking, “Am I crazy?” No, you are not, but that is what they are hoping you’ll determine.

The toxic person often paints herself as a victim, and everyone else is out to get her. Don’t buy into this lie. If you find yourself dealing with someone like this, look further. Does it seem like this person is a victim in all of her relationships? Does she have a history of estrangements? If so, chances are the problem isn’t you, it’s her.

Pause when agitated.

I’ve borrowed this tidbit from 12 Step programs, but it cannot be overstated. When someone, or something, pisses you off, do not react. Take a nice, long pause before even thinking of responding.

Biologically, this pause will enable your amygdala to slow down rather than going into fight or flight mode. Practically speaking, it will keep you from saying or writing something you’ll regret but can’t take back.

Bear in mind your intention.

Must you be nice in order to complete a project at work with this impossible person? Or do you need to have an ongoing relationship of civility because he is a family member? Are there children involved who might depend on your ability to maintain a relationship with this person?

These questions will help get at the intention beyond the external interaction. Sometimes highlighting the intention will make it easier to look past the person’s behavior and simply plow forward. Other times, revealing your intention may actually make things feel harder.

For instance, dealing with a toxic ex whom you have to co-parent children is complicated. But keeping in mind that the intention is to raise healthy children together will help you to keep your own behavior in check, even if you can’t control his.

On that note, recognize the futility of trying to change the person. You can only control your own behavior.

Trying to change this person isn’t going to work, but you can work on yourself.

While it can be tempting to illuminate the error of her ways to your friend, she most likely won’t be able to take that in. A toxic person is inherently narcissistic, and therefore unable to accept responsibility for his/her own actions. No amount of understanding, patience, or insight will change this.

Find an outlet.

We all need space to vent our frustrations and express our feelings. It could be in the form of therapy, art, writing, or movement. Find what works best for you and try to integrate it into life on a regular basis, but especially when you find yourself in the midst of toxicity.

Sometimes I find it helps to direct this toward the toxic person. For example, you might write (but not send) a letter airing all your feelings. If you don’t actually intend on hitting the send button you’ll feel more free to say everything you’re thinking rather than editing yourself.

Disengage, with love.

And the love part here may be more for yourself than for the other person. Either way, recognize that sometimes in order to be at your healthiest you’ll have to distance yourself from certain people: even people you love and want to have in your life. This might mean less communication, or even a complete break of the relationship. Much will depend on the aforementioned intention, and thus can be complicated.

Find your own boundaries and do your very best to respect them, because doing so will enable you to feel empowered and centered even in the midst of poisonous people. Unfortunately, toxic people are a reality of life for most of us, but remembering that you can control your own reactions can make these landmine relationships more bearable.

Jamie Katoff

Jamie Katoff

Jamie L. Katoff is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (MFC 48014) with a private practice in San Francisco. She specializes in working with individuals and couples dealing with relationship issues, life transitions, and loss.

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