I’ve been seeing a lot of attention on how to recognize and minimize contact with toxic people, and while this is helpful so that you can take appropriate steps to insulate yourself, it is also helpful to know how to deal with, or even help (when possible) a toxic person rather than abandoning them completely. While it is important to not feed into their toxic methods, there are ways to try and deal with toxic friends and family members that do not involve completely pulling away from them. There are times, however, where this may be the only choice. While this article will focus on non-abandonment methods, in the last section I will address when it may be time to jump ship.
How to insulate yourself
First, you need to be honest with yourself. Do you want to be friends with this person if they improve? Are you willing to put the effort into establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries? If the answer is no, that’s ok. You are under absolutely no obligation whatsoever to be a part of this person’s improvement. And as a matter of fact, it is important for you to be able to recognize when somebody both wants to change and is actively trying to change.
Some tips on insulating yourself:
- Don’t feed the bear! – Do NOT feed the toxic behaviors by participating with them! All of the items above regarding insulating yourself are helpful to the toxic person, though they may not admit it
- Know your limits – Even if you are a mental health professional, you cannot be a friend’s (or other loved ones) therapist. Do not take on that role as you risk becoming far too entangled in the intricacies that a therapeutic relationship should be addressing (not to mention professional ethics!). The techniques outlined below are not therapy, they are self-care for you and potentially helpful for the toxic person’s growth should they take that on.
- Set clear boundaries – Try to use the same language when you remind them of these boundaries. This consistency helps keep things simple and clear, and less susceptible to the manipulative twisting that comes with toxic methods.
- Some examples of boundaries would be:
- When you start gossiping or being negative in general, I’ll let you know, but then you have to stop or I’ll need to head on out.
- If you insist on lying about something, I will not participate. I’ll challenge the lie, but if you don’t own it, I’ll need to head on out (notice the consequence here is “I’ll need to head on out.”).
- Talking about a tough situation is fine, but if you begin blaming people, or start feeling sorry for yourself, I’ll need to head on out.
- Some examples of boundaries would be:
- Enforce those boundaries – If you have set a boundary that you will leave should somebody continue to badmouth someone else, then get up and leave if they continue. Period. You’ll need to stand your ground should they later launch a guilt trip towards you. You can be polite, but firm. Express that you care about them and will therefore not feed the toxic vibes that could tarnish your friendship. Sometimes the tone may be more firm than polite . . . but there’s no reason for you to be mean or something you’re not. Assertiveness is always fine.
- Limit your time with toxic people – If you find that your friend or family member is in a much healthier frame of mind when you go to the park, then spend more time at the park. If you realize that they are especially difficult when they drink alcohol, then do not drink with them.
- Maintain your own sense of self – Be nice, but assertive. Don’t let them drag you into negativity. So, when you enforce a boundary, you can still be matter-of-fact about it, even polite, but be consistent and assertive.
- Don’t explain yourself – Do not try to reason with them when they are unable to hear it. When you establish boundaries and expectations, do so in a clear and concise manner so that you do not have to clarify. If they try to get you to explain yourself, assertively mention that you have talked about this before and nothing has changed. If you are leaving because of enforcing a boundary, do not take the bait to engage with them as you leave. It may be difficult but just leave.
- Be supportive, but not of the toxicity – Sure, it’s ok to support somebody you care about when they are going through a difficult time. But when the toxic person moves into the unhealthy place of complaining and sitting on the pity pot, it’s time to head out as this will go nowhere but down, and fast. Again, when they are hurting, you don’t have to abandon them, but you do need to recognize the difference between healthy catharsis and bellyaching.
- Compassion – Remember, the toxic person is not actually having fun, and they do not really feel powerful (unless they are a narcissist, but that’s another story). The toxic methods were created as coping mechanisms in response to a great deal of pain. Sometimes the methods are coming from a genetic depression or anxiety (or narcissism, etc). Compassion is NOT pity, and it does NOT mean tolerating the toxic behavior. This is important
- Self-compassion – Regardless of the origin of the toxic behaviors, they are not your fault and you are not expected to take on more than you are willing, or more than you can tolerate.
How to know when it’s time to move on
Trust your gut. It will be pretty clear when you cannot invest any more energy with a toxic person. When it comes to family or people that will remain in your peer group, then we go back to how to insulate yourself, but try to steer clear of the person when you can.
Other signs that are telling you that it’s time to let go:
- As above, when your gut says it’s time – Your intuition (gut) is a message directly from your unconscious mind. In matters like this, it is not prone to error, so listen to it.
- They cannot see the problem – Maybe you’ve told them clearly, but they keep pushing back. When you’ve done this a few times without any acknowledgment of there being a problem, it may be time to let go.
- They aren’t trying to change – Perhaps they do see the problem, but they just double down and blame their past rather than making efforts to change. Change behaviors would include therapy, medication, exercise, lifestyle change, meditation, etc.
- YOU are becoming toxic – Maybe you are noticing it yourself, or perhaps you are hearing it from friends and family. Maybe both. But this kind of behavior can be “contagious.”
- You are losing sleep – Don’t give anybody this power. If they are keeping you up at night worrying about the next time you will see them, it may be time to let go.
- You keep getting let down when you see them – You make plans because they seem “up” and want to do something that they enjoy (and so do you). But even then, the negativity just drips off of them.
- They regularly ruin your day – You show up to work in a great mood and are ready to get moving…until the toxic wet blanket gets tossed on you. They walk away from your cube after complaining and blaming and you feel drained.
- You feel obligated by guilt to be around them – When toxic people consistently try to manipulate you using guilt, and you actually start to think you should be there to receive this, it may be time to move on.
- They become overtly abusive – This may be physically, emotionally/verbally. Do not tolerate this.
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Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan is a Gottman-trained Couples Counselor, and in 1998 received training by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.