Updated: Dec 18, 2019
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Unfortunately most of us have experienced toxic behaviour at some point in our lives. It’s hard to decide whether or not to shut them out entirely, and even harder to work out how. Here are some thoughts on how you might best go about it without worsening the situation.
It might be a bullying work colleague, who seems to enjoy putting others down, belittling them and sewing seeds of doubt. It might be a family member or friend, who is unable to maintain a healthy relationship with those around them. It might even be someone who you’d normally trust, like an educator or mentor, whose toxic behaviour seems so unlikely that you feel you are imagining it.
The reasons for their behaviour vary, but can often be tied to an underlying personality disorder, acquired during childhood. For example, a person might have been brought up in an environment void of affection, where productivity and academic success are valued above all. Or it might also stem from disinterest and belittling behaviour on the part of a parent-figure. This can result in abrasive or narcissistic behaviour that impedes their relationships with others. This is especially common in stressful environments, where personality disorders can surface even more obvious than at other times, for example, as a project deadline approaches.
Whatever the origin of their behaviour might be, if you find yourself on its receiving end, you need to find a way to cope, or ideally, get away, to prevent them from harming you in the long-run. Regardless of any desire, you might have to heal that person, if they are hurting you, you don’t want to run victim to their insecurities yourself.
In some cases, you may find it impossible to let go of this person altogether. It might be impractical, for example, if you are working for the same company. In such cases, the standard advice is to seek the company of non-toxic people, request that you work separately from the individual or find activities that remove you from their presence. If you really can’t avoid them, set boundaries with them about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. For example, you could say: “I am willing to help you if you are kinder about my own work,” or “I will only do that if you are more polite to me.” If it is a family member whose behaviour is a concern, a mental health professional might be the best source of help.
Ideally, let it go, let it go...
But whenever possible, the most effective solution is avoidance. This can be difficult too, especially when that person has played a large role in your life up until this moment. Deciding to let a person go from your life can be distressing and uncertain, especially if you still have good memories of them or even love them. But sometimes, if their behaviour is harming you more than it does you good, it is crucial to free yourself from them. We can perhaps learn from the estranged ice princess in Disney’s ‘Frozen’ when she sings:
Let it go, let it go,
Can’t hold back no more.
Let it go, let it go,
Turn around and slam the door.
I don’t care what they’re going to say…”
It might be a cheesy Disney song, but its lyrics give a powerful message as Princess Elsa, called names for simply being herself, decides to block out others’ negativity. In real life, this is never easy. But keeping toxic people at bay is the most effective means of self-care. Here are some tips on how to go about it.
Identifying toxic behaviour
This first step is more difficult than it sounds sometimes. So if you’ve managed this - great job! Recognising that a person is damaging you with their treatment is hard, especially when they are someone within your family. Toxic behaviour by those closest to you can feel normal when it is all you have ever known. It might only be much later on in your life that you realise how insidious that person has been. Nobody can deny how someone makes you feel and once you have acknowledged persistent bad feelings about a person, you can be assured you’re not imagining it. If you feel strongly enough that this person has a destructive presence it is probably time to move away from them.
Leaving this person may simply be a matter of avoiding the places they will be. But if you share other friends this can be complicated. Just try to be easy on yourself by talking to others and gently stepping away from them as much as possible. It can be hard if you have some good memories of them still that threaten to draw you back to them, but if the harm they do outweighs their appeal, it is essential for your wellbeing to stay away. Look for others who have a positive effect on your life and spend more time with them.
No need to explain
When the person you’re avoiding catches wind of the distance you want to create, they may try to bring you back to them or press you for an explanation while trying to convince you it is all in your imagination. You should not have to explain anything and doing so might lead to an unhappy conflict. By quietly stepping back, they will eventually let go and understand in their own time, something that should help in their own personal development.
Toxic people often behave badly towards others because of their own underlying suffering that they are unable to identify or heal. But this is no reason for you to absorb that toxicity yourself and cushion their negativity. The best you can do is remove yourself or find a way to set a strong boundary between you and that person. Once you have dealt with one toxic person you will grow more adept at recognising another and avoiding them in the future. This may be crucial to preventing any severe damage to yourself in the long run.
Big healing hugs to you,