What They Are and Why to Avoid Them by Marcia Purse
Long ago, before I was even diagnosed with depression (my first psychologist had said I was “highly neurotic”), I was a transcriptionist at an insurance company in Iowa. The woman who sat in front of me would sometimes become upset about something that happened and start to talk about quitting. This frightened me because she was the senior transcriptionist and I was a raw beginner who needed her help frequently.
I would try to calm her down but she would rant about everything that was wrong in our department, all of it true because it was not well run. I’d grow more and more unhappy listening to her until she went back to work leaving me feeling bad for some time.
Eventually, I noticed that after she unloaded her anger onto me, she was cheerful.
She had successfully transferred all the negativity to someone else and could continue her day in a better frame of mind. This was the first time I recognized toxicity in another person.
This woman wasn’t entirely toxic. She could be gracious and helpful, and in fact, when I had surgery on my arm a few years later, she was the only one of my co-workers to offer assistance with my household chores (she did ALL my accumulated laundry). And once I knew not to absorb her negativity, we had few problems working together. But I’d begun to learn a valuable lesson: there are toxic people in the world.
Who are the severely toxic people?
They are the ones who complain all the time. They are the ones who always blame you. They may always turn things around so things you felt they had done wrong are suddenly your fault. They overreact to bad events.
They drain your energy. It may be that they get you to spend a lot of time and emotional strength trying to cheer them up. They may bombard you with their negativity so that you have to spend energy trying to fend it off. Perhaps their constant pessimism infects you, or they always make you angry. They may be leeches who feed themselves by making you give them your positivity.
People with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, major depression or even depressive tendencies are particularly susceptible to toxic people. We are more easily triggered than others. When manic or hypomanic, we may be less sensitive to depressive triggers – or we may not. During mixed or depressive episodes, or when we’re more or less stable, we are more likely to have a somewhat weaker grip on emotional stability than most people, making it easier for a toxic person to affect our moods. That’s not to say that people who do not have mental illnesses can’t be affected by the toxicity of others. But we are more vulnerable.
Toxic People in Your Life
Do you know someone who always makes you feel depressed, angry or just plain tired? Think about this person. Is he or she a complainer, or someone who always expects things to go wrong, or someone who constantly finds fault with you? Does he or she always seem more cheerful after ranting to you? If any one or more of these is the case, you likely have a toxic person on your hands.
If you have an easy way to get this person entirely out of your life, you’ll be better off instantly. Of course, often it is not so easy, when the toxic person is a co-worker or family member or even a long-time friend. If it’s a co-worker, is there a good excuse like “I’m right under an air vent that’s chilling me” to get your desk moved? Perhaps you can say, “You really ought to talk to the supervisor/manager about this” and calmly return to doing your work.
With family members and friends, it may be more difficult. A seriously toxic friend may require that you gradually decrease the time you spend with this person over a period of months so it isn’t particularly noticeable. When the toxic person is a family member, it may be possible to get the person into therapy, which is often needed to solve the underlying issue behind the negativity. If not, you need to train yourself to “tune out” when the complaining, fault-finding and energy-draining behavior starts.
I had a supervisor who used to bring me a pile of two days’ worth of work and tell me she wanted it done by 2:00 p.m. I’d look it over, tell her it was impossible, and the fight was on. Sometimes we screamed at each other so loudly that people down at the other end of the floor would stand up to see what was going on. This happened again and again.
When I spoke to a social worker about it, she asked what I was doing to set the supervisor off, as opposed to what the supervisor was doing to set me off. Well, I was always telling her the truth – that there was no way I could get the work done that quickly. But after discussing the situation for some time, we had devised a plan.
The next time my supervisor brought me an impossible stack and said she wanted it done by 2:00 p.m., I said, “I’ll try.”
And that solved the problem. Never mind that the work wasn’t done by the deadline. The important thing was that I had not said “impossible.” My supervisor and I never fought over work again.
This supervisor actually wasn’t a toxic person, but in this case, the situation was poisonous. In cases like this, the solution may be at your fingertips.
Ultimately, the answer is that you can’t change the other person’s behavior, but you can change your own. If someone you know always triggers depression, anger or tiredness in you, examine how you react when the negativity starts and see if changing your reaction helps. If your reaction doesn’t contribute to the problem, or you can’t make such a change, find a way to lessen this person’s presence in your life. It will be good for your health.
EMOTIONAL DETACHMENT LESSONS
- Make Them Smaller
- Let Go
- Stock Phrases
- Set Boundaries
- Handling the Rough Stuff
- Take Care of Yourself First
- Practice, Practice, Practice
Make Them Smaller
The first step to detachment is to “shrink” the unhealthy person.
Make the person a smaller part of your life by making other parts of your life bigger. Start a new hobby, a job, learn something new, focus on other people, join a club, take a class, have more contact with friends – you get the idea. The only way to reduce someone’s power over your life is to fill your time with other people, places, and things to squeeze them out.
This equation in emotional mathematics means adding things to your life automatically reduces the space taken up by unhealthy people and relationships. Expand your horizons. Occupy your mind with new ideas. The unhealthy person will occupy a smaller portion of your mind, and therefore your life.
The unhealthy people in your life use guilt to keep you enslaved. When you begin to detach, you are upsetting the status quo, and they will use guilt to bludgeon you back into place.
Resisting this tactic is difficult but not impossible. Learn to recognize the guilt trip. Think about why they are doing this. You are trying to take care of yourself, and some people will go to great lengths to stop you. They want to maintain the status quo.
Accept that these unhealthy people will never grant their approval. This is a vital part of letting go. In fact, withholding approval is a most effective weapon to keep you enslaved. When you let go, and honestly don’t care if they approve of you, they will have a hard time hiding their surprise. Watch as they mentally scramble to think of another tactic to keep you entangled.
Realize that the other person’s problem is not yours. One of the hardest lessons to learn is that no matter how hard you try, you can never, ever, ever change how another person acts. The only thing you can change is your reaction to them. You can fight the guilt they inspire. You can take care of yourself.
The unhealthy people in your life often try to catch you off guard, or will try to ensnare you in a hopeless problem. The response to both tactics is to memorize some stock phrases. Some examples: “Hm. Interesting.” “Wow, that’s too bad.” Or my favorite: “Huh. What are you going to do about that?” The last one is very effective, since these people want you to fix their problems. This response turns the tables on them. You express interest without offering to fix the problem, and force them to offer solutions. Then you conclude with, “Well, that sounds like a good plan. Good luck with it!”
When I felt required to fix things for other people, I remember my therapist asking, “Has this person been declared incompetent? Has the state institutionalized them? No? Then they have the ability to act responsibly and fix this by themselves.”
This good point inspires another type of stock response: flattery. “You’re a smart person. I have confidence in your ability to solve this.” How can they argue with that? Are they going to insist that they’re not smart?
Part 2: Set Your Boundaries
It is critical to spend less time with the person you are detaching from. You can decline invitations. You can make excuses and stay away. You can claim illness. You can complain about your crowded work schedule, or how busy you are with the kids. Sure, you have been taught that it’s wrong to lie. Well, in this case, it’s good to lie. Taking care of yourself is more important than showing up every time. Besides, they lie to you all the time, don’t they?
Another effective tactic using this point is to complain at length about how busy you are. The person you’re detaching from doesn’t care about your problems. Often, they want to talk about their problems. If they keep hearing about your problems, they may stop calling.
Handling The Rough Stuff
The person you’re detaching from can be very abusive.
Often, the reward they seek is to see the hurt in your eyes and the feeling of power they receive from being the cause of that hurt.
Recognizing this fact will give you unexpected power. The verbal jab is blunted when you know it’s only meant to hurt you. And you can deny them the pleasure they seek. Don’t debate the point. They want to keep the topic going because they know it’s hurting you. Think of the verbal jab as a spitball thrown at you. If you laugh, or pretend you didn’t hear it, or do anything else instead of looking hurt, it’s the equivalent of ducking and letting the spitball sail by. Shrug off the comment as lightly as possible, and then bring up a topic of your own — one that you know is distasteful to your tormentor. Doing this will deny them their reward, and give negative reinforcement. Eventually, they will stop attacking you. Bullies like an easy target.
Some examples are in order here. I know a man with verbally abusive parents. He learned to respond — every time! — by talking about his brother, who was gay. He described his brother’s romantic exploits with enthusiasm, knowing his parents were very uncomfortable with the whole subject.
I know a woman whose uncle was verbally abusive and constantly made comments about her childhood molestation by another uncle. This woman learned to respond by staring at him, appearing distracted (and pretending she wasn’t listening), then pointing to a spot on her uncle’s face, neck or arms, and asking, “Does that look cancerous to you? Maybe you should get it checked.”
Her uncle knew she was saying that as a defense. But he still hated it. And he stopped bothering her.
Take Care Of Yourself
In every life, there are other parts that are good. You have a right and a duty to focus on the good parts. If you have a good husband and child, or sweet pets who adore you, but your mother is making your life a living hell, give yourself permission to focus your time and energy on the good things.
Remember the old phrase, “Listen to your gut?” Don’t do that. The unhealthy people in your life use guilt and manipulation to inspire a gut reaction from you. I remember my therapist telling me, “Of course they’re good at pushing your buttons! They installed them!” Instead, use your intellect to talk back to your gut feelings. You know that person is no good for you. You know your energies are better spent elsewhere. Take care of yourself. Do what’s right for you. Say to yourself over and over again, “Taking care of myself must be my first emotional priority.”
There’s a book that is very helpful for this step. It’s called Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns. Buy it and read it.
Practice, Practice, Practice
When you start this process, realize that you will slip up. You have spent all of your life in your relationship with this person, so give yourself a break. Don’t punish yourself if you don’t detach perfectly. Learn from every experience and try to do a little better next time. Be patient and persistent.
Detaching is a vital skill to practice on someone you are unable or unwilling to completely shut out of your life. You can even still love that person if you want to, even though you have detached. Your goal is to recognize the relationships that are not good for you, and make them a smaller part of your life. You can still care about unhealthy people, if you choose. But at the same time, you can prevent them from running (or ruining) your life.
More on Dealing with toxic people
Toxic people. If you are experiencing this in your life, let me share with you what I have learned. I think I can help you to feel better.
* Be comforted in the fact that you are not alone. Every person walking the earth knows at least one toxic person in their life. The toxic person is a family member, unhealthy spouse, friend, associate, workmate, boss, etc. Toxic people come in all shapes and forms as they know no boundaries.
* Realize that until you stop allowing a toxic person to hurt you and your life, they will continue to do so.
* The most important thing to remember is that you have the power to stop a toxic person. You do this by controlling your own actions and reactions. As you probably already know, you cannot control the actions of other people. But the good thing is you can control yourself and your life. You have the power to walk away from a toxic person and not allow them into your life anymore. Freedom is a wonderful and liberating experience.
* Realize that toxic people can drain your health, energy, well being and sanity. It helps to move away from toxic people and move towards people who are positive and uplifting. Positive people are a blessing. Rely on your instincts, they never lie. Train yourself to move away from what hurts you and move towards what feels good. This is one of the smartest life skills you can learn, and also one of the best gifts you can ever give to yourself.
* Toxic people are extremely negative, nasty, miserable, whiny, jealous, inconsiderate, financially irresponsible, selfish, and abusive. They can be just plain evil. Toxic people can also be those who are actively using alcohol or drugs and then hurt other people. The toxic individual exudes the dark side of human nature most of the time. They cause other people pain, craziness, and aggravation. They are not hard to recognize. Just take notice of how you feel when you are around one of these people. It will be easy to determine. You will immediately feel sick and experience physical symptoms like a headache or stomach pain. Or you will just feel like you are going crazy, but don’t worry that is the true mark of being with a toxic person. Remember this so that you will be better able to identify a toxic person. That is the first step towards eliminating one from your life.
* Know that when a person is toxic it is because of their own issues. Sometimes these issues can consist of mental illness. Accept that a toxic persons behavior has nothing to do with you. In life, each of us has to take responsibility for our own actions. Toxic people do not do this. They have a habit of turning things around so that you feel bad, you feel guilty, and you feel like you are at fault. Remember that when dealing with a toxic person, they are responsible for their own actions, but often do not. Realize this and you take back your power.
* The best thing you can do when dealing with a toxic person is to walk away and not allow them to hurt you anymore. If you cannot walk away, then mentally walk away. You can do that by being kind to yourself. Allow yourself to disengage, disassociate, and detach. It is something you do for yourself. It is a mental skill that takes some time to learn at first, but once it is mastered, it can help you to become stronger mentally and physically. Detachment is a necessary skill for preserving your own mental health. Detaching from people and situations that are not good for you is healthy and can help you to feel better. Begin detachment by repeating affirmations. Affirmations are powerful because over time, the mind believes what we program into it. The following are some good examples to help you, but feel free to make your own that speak to you personally.
I do not care about ***.
I will not allow *** to hurt me.
Detaching from*** will help me to be healthy on many levels.
I control my own life and decisions.
I am strong.
I feel good about the decision to detach.
Detachment is healthy and necessary.
* When dealing with toxic people remember that exercise and self-care are your best friends. Exercise relives both mental and physical tensions. It helps the body to produce healing chemicals that will repair your body and help you think more clearly. Exercise also encourages the release of endorphins, chemicals that relieve pain and help you to feel good both mentally and physically.
* Most importantly develop supportive relationships with other people, friends, coworkers, support group. There is strength in numbers. Talking things over with the people in your life who love and care for you, can help you to overcome the negativity of toxic people.