In part one of this How To Deal With Toxic People Guide, I went over who and what a toxic person is, and how to recognize them.
In this second part, I’ll be giving you some tips and tricks on how to deal with emotionally toxic people.
Step One: Think About Yourself
As unthinkable as it may seem, you too have a part to play in sustaining a friendship with a toxic person.
While it doesn’t mean that you’re taking responsibility for the situation, you need to have a good, long think about what it was – a character trait, an issue – that attracted an emotionally toxic person to you.
Several possibilities include:
- Needing to please people
- Lack of confidence
- Not being able to assert yourself
- Emotional instability
…and hundreds of other things.
For me personally, when I stopped and thought about it, I realized that I was a people pleaser. I had just started a new job, and I wanted to be seen to be helpful and a go-getter – and that’s when my toxic ‘friend’ took advantage, seeing herself as my mentor. She had been waiting to feel more powerful and knowledgeable, and I had stepped right into her trap.
And you need to do the same type of thinking about yourself – this is not you taking responsibility or blaming you for someone’s mistreatment of you – it is literally diving into what it was about you that a toxic person could have taken advantage of, and learning from it so you can recognize it the next time, and be stronger.
A good technique of doing this is to focus on one specific time a toxic person made you unhappy. Think about why you felt and thought the way you did at this time. Now think about another time, and repeat the exercise. If you can see a pattern, then you’ve hit what it is that a toxic person is attracted to.
Step Two: Think About Your Reactions
Now that you’ve (hopefully) discovered what it was that drew a toxic person to you, it’s time to think about how you might have kept the relationship going.
Often, when we’re faced with an emotionally toxic person, we don’t want to ‘feed’ them. Yet, sometimes, when frustrations and tensions are mounting, we just can’t help ourselves and we either explode or avoid. For me, I just couldn’t believe someone would be so ridiculous or over-dramatic, so I tried both exploding and avoiding.
With most other people, overreacting or under-reacting to them would cause them to calm down or back off, depending on the circumstances. But, emotionally toxic people aren’t your usual people, and they will often see your over/under reaction as giving/denying attention – and this will only make them continue.
It’s a tough one, but you then need to think about how to handle your emotions, and try to handle your toxic person differently than usual. A good tool for this is the ‘if/then’ – and it helps massively if you prepare your thinking beforehand so you’re not caught out when you need to use it.
Think about it like this: ‘IF this toxic person does this, THEN I’m going to say/do that’. For example, ‘IF this toxic person says something nasty about my other friend, THEN I’m going to say that’s an inappropriate remark.’ Just a word of advice – this is much harder than it looks, so practicing really makes perfect. Even better – write down a list of potential situations you’ll need to IF/THEN react to, and use them. Standing up for yourself and deflecting toxic behavior is incredibly important for you.
Step Three: Learn To Listen To Your Instincts
A key factor which sees people staying in toxic relationships is that they have a lack of self-trust or self-judgement.
If you usually find yourself rationalizing the toxic behavior on display (‘she didn’t really mean that, she only said it because…’/ ‘he’s doing that because I did this or that’) then you need to stop and think about why you’re allowing yourself to excuse and rationalize this toxic behavior.
Believe me, I’ve been there – and this one takes a little bit of practice, but it’s very important and completely worth it.
Train yourself to catch yourself doing it – and then stop doing it all together. Hold those thoughts.
Step Four: Think About Why You’re In This Relationship
Sometimes we tell ourselves that it’s ‘better the devil you know’, and this is what keeps up in these toxic relationships – of all sorts – with people.
For me, I had just started a new job and moved to a new city, and didn’t have any friends near me at work or in general. I found myself sticking around with this toxic person because she was so confident and knew so many people, and because I had noone else – at the beginning, at least.
So you need to think about your reasons for answering this person’s calls/hanging out with them/allowing them to act towards you as they do, and make you feel this way. Could it be you’re scared of being alone, or single? You don’t have as many friends as you would like, or other options?
And then, think about what’s stopping you from leaving – is it the time you’ve invested in this person, or the shared memories? The effort (or, hopefully not, but) the money?
Whatever the reason for you sticking around and not leaving (because yes, these are two separate things completely), think about where you could be without this toxic relationship.
Allow yourself to dream about a future without this person in your life – and maybe that could give you the motivation to leave them.
Step Five: Plan Your Exit Strategy
Here’s where we move from thinking to acting.
First things first – ask yourself – is this toxic person someone who I need to be around? If it isn’t, then you’re free to leave and never see them again. But, if they’re someone you can’t avoid coming into contact with, you need to set out boundaries and procedures (just like in step two).
I admit, this is where my situation got pretty complicated. Because my toxic person was a work colleague, I couldn’t avoid her. So I thought long and hard about what I could do to avoid her. If she turned up at my house, that was one thing – I didn’t answer the door (and one time, even called the police). But at work, when she turned up at my desk, I didn’t know what to do.
So I talked to my boss (and later, her boss too), and explained that this person was having a negative effect on me and distracting me, and that if possible, I’d like to work with another member of her team. My boss listened, and although I still had to work with this toxic girl, we put steps into place, such as:
- Avoiding holding meetings with only me and her, which she always quickly derailed and turned into hysterical crying fits and counseling sessions,
- Telling her I was busy, or on my way to another meeting, if she dropped by my desk,
- Having my boss keep an eye on this girl, if she saw her trying to intimidate or force me into doing something, and my boss stepping in to remove me
- Eating lunch and having breaks with other people
And it took some time, but then – it worked! Because I couldn’t completely remove myself instantly, I had to train myself instead to be firm with this girl – even when she sat at my desk loudly crying for two hours because I wasn’t giving her the attention she was craving. I just carried on with my work, emailing her boss to come and get her.
You also need to think about and set a strategy for losing contact. A good way to do this is using step two’s IF/THEN, or, as above, getting someone else to join you in coming up with ideas.
Step Six: Wait For The Push-Back…And Get Through It
Just as you’ve been investing in your toxic relationship, it;s likely that the toxic person sees it that way too.
Whatever they are getting out of this arrangement (feeling they’re in control, knowledgeable etc) – they’re not going to be put down easily. And, as with my example above, you can likely expect some push-back once you put your boundaries into place.
After I started doing so, my toxic person started spreading rumors about me, to our social circle and at work. The rumors were so overblown and unrealistic, that very few people believed them. And, if they did, I cut them out too.
The strangest thing was, my toxic person still tried to be near me – even after she kept trying to destroy my reputation, and knew that I knew she had done so.
But I doubled down, and stuck to my boundaries – and you should too. Eventually, she left me alone.
But here’s the final, most important step to prevent your next toxic relationship from ever happening –
Step Seven: Learn From This Experience
Use this whole experience as a learning one, and learn to avoid and eliminate toxic people before you fall into their trap, and have to repeat the cycle all over again. Do not normalize their behavior, and if you feel someone is not good for you, or makes you feel bad – don’t be around them. Find a way to distance yourself, and carry on with your life.
Or, as I like to call it – cull the bad relationships, cultivate the good. But more on that another time.
Good luck with getting rid of your toxic person – and here’s to a toxic-free future!
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Also published on Medium.