Most of us can probably think of a friend, coworker, partner, or family member who is a challenge to be around. Maybe they put us down, always have something negative to say, use manipulative tactics to get what they want, or are generally unpleasant.
While the occasional bad mood or disagreement doesn’t mean someone is toxic, a pattern of toxic behavior in a relationship can be more problematic. So how do we know when we’re in a toxic relationship or dealing with a toxic person and what can we do about it?
“No one is born toxic,” said Laura DeInnocentiis, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Personalities develop over time in response to collective experiences. Chances are if someone you know is toxic, they have been significantly and consistently hurt in the past and are relying on survival mechanisms that may no longer serve them. As a therapist, this knowledge allows me to approach the most difficult people with empathy.”
“Empathy, however, does not mean condoning inappropriate, unhealthy behavior. Setting clear, firm boundaries means that you value self-care. If someone does not treat you with the respect you deserve, you have the right to protect yourself. This could mean walking away, distancing yourself, or ending the relationship altogether. Relationships with toxic people are complicated, but you are not trapped. Understanding that you have choices promotes freedom and empowerment.”
Again, there is a difference between someone who is having a bad day, someone we don’t get along with, and someone who is causing us true harm. However, if we rely on someone or have a close relationship with someone who may be toxic, it can be difficult for us to even realize that we are in a truly hurtful situation.
Domestic violence (also referred to as intimate partner violence or IPV, dating abuse, or relationship abuse) is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship. Identifying abuse is the first step and help is available. If someone in your life is trying to restrict your movements or communication, this is domestic abuse and requires immediate action. Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak on the phone, you can log onto thehotline.org or text “LOVEIS” to 22522.
Recent research found that exposure to stimuli that cause strong negative emotions—the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with toxic people—caused subjects’ brains to have a massive stress response. And that is something we certainly don’t need (if you’re looking to build a proactive stress management practice and set yourself up for stress-reduction success, check out this guide).
“One of the most powerful lessons we can learn about how we relate to toxic people is to see how WE give away our power,” said Michael Shawe, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “The usual conversation is how bad THEY are, but that ignores the fact that we invited them in and we can learn to keep them out. There are obvious caveats to this for abuse, but in general, we have the power to cultivate our relationships and one of the first steps in changing our relationship to toxicity is acknowledging how we participate in the drama in the first place.”
"When dealing with a toxic person, it is important to set firm boundaries with them,” said Dahlia Mayerson, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “A boundary could look like less communication, minimal interaction, or ending the relationship. When setting a boundary with the person, it can also be helpful to focus on how the person makes you feel because toxic people often cannot see the impact of their words or actions. Using phrases like, ‘I feel uncomfortable when…’ or, ‘It makes me sad when…’ can help to express why you need to set the boundary."
In one survey, 84% of women and 75% of men said they'd had a toxic friend at some point, and yet 83% of survey takers said they'd held onto a friendship longer than was healthy simply because it was hard to end it. And with families, it can be even more difficult.
“When it comes to deciding how much (or at all) a person can keep a toxic parent in their life, I encourage people to take honest stock of how this relationship is impacting their life,” said Meg Gitlin, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Maybe first we do a series of experiments to see how effective boundaries and diminished expectations can be. If that proves futile, it’s important, but certainly not easy to practice acceptance—you may not be able to have a close relationship with your parent. I remind my clients that there are many people who have wonderful lives and develop relationships with ‘surrogate’ mothers or other close support people.”
It can be extremely difficult to cut ties in a toxic relationship. How do we know if and when the time is right? Meg said it might be time when:
If you assess the situation and cutting someone out of your life isn’t right for you, there are other options. Setting boundaries doesn’t mean you have to cut people out completely.
"Setting boundaries with toxic people can help especially if you want to maintain a relationship but change the dynamic in a relationship that is negatively impacting you,” said Jennifer Mann, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “When setting a boundary with someone where there are none in place, this will most likely cause a reaction from the other person. It is natural for people in relationships to expect things to stay as they are. However, it is important to note that it's not always healthy to continue down the same path. When setting a boundary with a toxic person, evaluate what you want out of the relationship and use this desire to help craft a boundary that aims to achieve this goal."
And keep in mind that simply labeling someone as toxic isn’t always right or helpful.
"There are toxic relationship dynamics rather than toxic people,” said Desirée Patrice, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “The toxic label is a sweeping character judgement distracting from the specific problems within the relationship. This is an opportunity to clarify your personal values and preferences.”
“Branding a person as toxic (i.e. bad) creates a split where the person is either your enemy or an object of pity. ‘Enemy’ may lead to a premature severance. If there is pity, it’s harder to set boundaries out of guilt. And watch out for the term ‘cutoff.’ All relationships change. You may require change, and that is different than doing harm."
Basically, if a relationship makes you feel bad more often than it makes you feel good, there is the possibility that there is toxicity there. Whether it’s a boss who makes you dread coming to work, a partner who has you walking on eggshells, a family member who makes gatherings a chore, or a friend who seems to take pleasure in tearing you down, it can be difficult to figure out how to navigate the relationship, start a conversation, or make an exit.
If you’re struggling to deal with problematic people around you, support is available. You deserve to have fulfilling relationships with supportive people, and we’re here for you every step of the way.
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Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.