Coping with Toxic People

Published by Sally Palmer on

Coping With Toxic People

(Surviving the Holiday Season)

**There were way too many songs for this post, so I ended up compiling a playlist. Feel free to listen to all, some or none of the songs. I’ll warn you, some might make you “feel things.”**

We all have people in our lives who don’t make us feel very good, and for whatever reason, we continue to let them in. Some of them are family members and we just “get through” holiday meals by drinking too much, leaving early or making excuses to not go in the first place. Others are friends that we’ve known “forever,” and couldn’t possibly excise from our lives. A lot of people also hold on to the hope that their toxic friend or family member will change someday. Whatever the reason or relationship, choosing to remain in a toxic relationship causes a lot of damage.

People can change, I won’t deny that, but holding your breath and waiting for someone to change is not productive at all. Your body immediately goes into fight-or-flight mode when you spend time with a negative person; it’s a protection mechanism. Before you know it, you are internalizing their noxious emotion and then releasing it (unknowingly) onto others. For this reason, it’s not fair to yourself or others to “get through it.” Sometimes you find yourself in a toxic situation without any warning, so knowing how to escape is incredibly important. 

Before we tackle how to get out of a soul-sucking situation, how do you know if someone is toxic? It’s not like this person walks around with a sign on their back saying “I’m in a perpetual funk and I will suck you into my black abyss,” right? Everyone also has a bad day every once in a while, so the biggest difference between a life funk and toxicity is duration, intensity and consistency. If some or all of these traits are true 75-90% of the time, then you are probably engaging in a relationship with someone who does not deserve your company. That being said, here are some warning signs or behaviors to notice.

***Some toxic people only have one of these traits, whereas others might encompass every single item on this list.***

Just the thought of spending time with them is exhausting.

They emanate an immense amount of negativity and try to suck you in like a black hole.

Hold Grudges
Letting go is not an option; they will hold something against someone forever.

Everything is incredibly dramatic and the same drama might repeat itself (you are always asking for forgiveness).

It’s always about them and they are generally the victim.

Mean & Judgmental
They don’t have anything good to say about other people.

No Empathy
Instead of validating your emotions, they say things like, “Well, that’s life,” or “You’ll figure it out.”

Lying Liars
Telling the truth is difficult and you never know if you can trust what they say.

Always Right
They are never wrong about anything, EVER, and they are convinced that they always have the answer to everything.

Guilt & Shame
They tend to make you feel bad about your life or choices.

Before we go any further and brainstorm ways to navigate negativity, I’d like to infuse you with some empathy. If someone is constantly spewing their darkness all over the world, it must be pretty horrible to be that person. Now, this doesn’t mean that you “buck up” and just endure the toxicity. In fact, it’s much more likely that you’ll soak in some of the person’s negativity if you spend more time with them. I just think that it’s important to try to see the world from the other person’s perspective before making any decisions. For example, why do they believe that the world is always out to get them? Where does their neediness come from? Why are they unable to admit that they are wrong? Why can’t they let go of their past?

My guess is that they experienced a pretty toxic childhood and are stuck in an infinity loop of paying it forward. They might feel like they don’t have an easy life (but they’re doing just fine, thank you), so nobody deserves happiness or empathy. You might hear them say things like: “Oh, you think YOU’VE had a bad day? Listen to this,” or “They got what they deserved.” As I mentioned above, turning the conversation to themselves and their problems or judging others harshly is a tell-tale sign that you’re chatting with a toxic individual. 

Relatives and friends can suck the life out of you, kind of like the Dementors from Harry Potter.

Relatives and friends can be really damaged inside and might live with a constant, negative internal dialogue. Their deepest, darkest thoughts about themselves are not generally voiced, but you can tell how they perceive the world when you listen to what isn’t being said and watch their body language. If they are incredibly defensive and quick to judge others, they probably have little self esteem or confidence. Chances are good that they’ll never admit this (because it’s a sign of weakness), so they use a lot of posturing and will attack others before they can be attacked themselves. This way, they are controlling the dialogue, and are emotionally “safe.” In my experience, I see this happen a lot with older men, but women can also be incredibly toxic – particularly when they’ve internalized a corrosive patriarchal ideology.

Alright, now that we know what a toxic person “looks like,” and where they might be coming from, what the hell do we do about it? 

Give them empathy

Think through a game plan

Don’t rely on them to change

Be Honest

Minimize contact

Keep conversations simple

Be Authentic

Cut them out of your life

The first solution, empathy, relies upon the principle of “kill them with kindness.” I find that you can definitely overdo the empathy, allowing it to cross into pity rather seamlessly. In a way, I sometimes feel pity for the person who is so dark and damaged that they can’t see any light whatsoever. Therefore, I will sometimes choose to be “the bigger person,” and let them do their thing and comment on how hard it must be. The teacher in me hopes that by using empathy with others, I’m also teaching them the appropriate way to respond to other people’s stress and trauma (repetition, repetition, repetition).

Thinking through a game plan is incredibly important when you’re going to a big get-together. Generally speaking, your whole family isn’t going to be toxic; rather, just a choice few will force you into a frenzied panic whenever you think about engaging in small talk or, god forbid, politics. In this case, I find that it’s best for me to work through various scenarios before I even get into my car. Most therapists would probably disagree with me and say that I’m letting my anxiety control me, or that I’m creating problems before they even exist, but I disagree. 

For example, my oldest child recently came out as gender fluid, changed their name, their pronouns and their preferred bathroom at school. I am incredibly proud of my child for innumerable reasons, but their change has created a shift in my extended family dynamic. I had no idea how any of my family members would respond to the new change and I had a heavy load of anxiety weighing down on me. I figured that I’d just slowly talk to people on a “need-to-know” basis and go from there. Well, my grandma died in September and before I knew it, I was driving to a rural town in Minnesota with my family, not knowing what to expect. Before I got there (it was a five hour drive), I created a narrative in my head. There were going to be so many family members we hadn’t seen in a really long time, so I had a chance to introduce my kids to everyone on an individual basis. I still can’t believe how easy it was. I mean, I didn’t really go into pronouns or gender identity, but I let each family member know that they could ask any questions if they felt the need. With each interaction, I would say something like, “K and M, you remember Aunt so-and-so, right? Aunt so-and-so, this is K and M.” In hindsight, I think that I just needed to put on my teacher identity and emotionally distance myself from the situation a bit. I won’t lie and say that everything was rainbows and unicorns; I definitely have family members who aren’t very open-minded in their world views. Overall, though, it went better than expected and I believe it’s because I had a ready-made narrative in my metaphorical back pocket.

This segues well into my next point, which is that you shouldn’t expect someone to change. Most people don’t like change and harbor a lot of fear and doubt about the world, so when confronted with something they don’t understand, they will often react inappropriately. In other words, if you know that Uncle Jimmy is super conservative and you’ve recently “come out,” expect him to be like the Uncle Jimmy you’ve always known. He could surprise you, but avoid setting yourself up for failure by expecting him to completely change his world view in an instant. If you meet people where they are and expect them to act like themselves, both parties will leave the interaction on a more positive note.

In order to be your most resourced self at a family gathering, make sure that you are practicing self care and self love every day. If you show up to an event after fighting the flu, not sleeping well or working an overnight, you are much more apt to have hyper-reactive emotions. This doesn’t mean that you should hold in your tears or your authentic emotions, but that you should try to have the best version of yourself show up. Granted, you can’t predict a sleepless night (which might be because of your anxiety about the event) or a sick child, and sometimes you just have to roll with it. In this case, be extra gentle with yourself by minimizing contact with caustic relatives, keeping conversations simple or brief and honestly stating your current situation (I’m exhausted; I am getting over the flu; etc). It’s not realistic to think that you can completely avoid toxicity in all its myriad forms, but if you find yourself constantly dreading particular conversations with specific people, you have the power to cut them out of your life. You can avoid their phone calls, mute their text messages, unfriend them on Facebook, or whatever feels right for you. 

When confronted with negative people, relatives in particular, remain honest and authentic with yourself and your family. It’s so easy to morph back into the terrified eight-year-old, shoving sugar or booze into your mouth to cope. If you’ve made changes in your life and you’ve changed for the better, own it! Don’t be afraid to give your honest opinion and perspective in an uncomfortable moment or heated debate. If you feel like the conversation is going downhill, or if you feel fire-hot negativity start to take over, take a step back. You do not need to keep yourself in a conversation that makes you uncomfortable. This would be a good time to run to the bathroom and take some deep belly breaths, or get some fresh air, allowing you some room to process the experience. When you return to the conversation, you will be calmer, more relaxed and a more resourced version of yourself. Remember that you are an adult, your feelings are valid, and even if some of the people in the room don’t understand you, you have other people in your community who love you unconditionally. You’ve got this.