In an ideal world, all of the people in your life would be helpful resources, willingly by your side to provide support, add joy, and keep you balanced. But let’s face it: We don’t live in an ideal world (if we did, I’d probably be out of a job!). Most of us will encounter at least one person in our day-to-day at some point in our lives who does the opposite. Someone who drains your energy, undermines you, puts you down. I’ve recently been asked to speak about the topic of “toxic people” by FOX5 here in New York, and while “toxic people” isn’t a clinical term… I think I sort of knew what they meant. Toxic people chip away at your mental health and overall wellbeing, and the longer they’re in your life, the more damaging their emotional footprint can be.
Here’s the good news: You don’t need to tolerate behavior you find unacceptable! In fact, it is not only your right but your responsibility to limit their role in your life or remove them from it entirely. If you’re labeling someone or something as “toxic”, it’s part of your duty of self-care to manage the situation carefully. Plus, keeping someone around whom you actually dislike because you’re “too nice” to be truthful with them or at least quit engaging with them isn’t doing them any favors, either: Letting the toxic dynamic continue without giving them feedback will only encourage them to pursue and maintain unhealthy relationships with others. Plus, it can be seen as a form passive aggression on your part if you consciously allow someone you actively dislike to continue becoming more vulnerable to you as they mistakenly persist in a misapprehension that you’re friends. So whether you’re dealing with a sorta-toxic coworker or a so-toxic-it’s-traumatic partner, a “frenemie” friend… or even a toxic family member, here’s a guide to help.
Step 1. IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM
This sounds like such a “duh!” step, but it’s one we tend to skip because it requires getting very real. First, you have to finally acknowledge the source of toxicity. This person can be a friend, a romantic partner, a relative, a colleague—no one’s off limits. And there’s a spectrum, which I like to break into three levels:
Level 0: The NON-toxic person.
This is someone whom you may be accidentally mis-labeling as toxic. They may just have different values, beliefs, communication styles, or expectations than you. This person may even be a little intrusive or annoying, but this person is actually NOT really a “toxic person”. You’re just regarding them as toxic because you haven’t figured out how to set limits or communicate your needs with them. (Examples: A friend who always brings you down by constantly complaining about everything, yet you’ve never said to the friend, “Hey would you mind if we focus on the positives today? I’m trying to keep on the bright side here!” Or a friend who “bothers” you by calling waaay too often, yet you just keep blithely answering all their calls and carrying on unbearably mundane phone conversations without ever mentioning that you’re actually not a lover of long phone chats– how are they to know if you’ve never told them?)
Level 1: Mildly Toxic.
Someone who is basically harmless, but who regularly uses energy-draining interpersonal antics: They may have a markedly dismissive attitude, regularly make snide remarks, pester you to do (generally harmless) things like meet for coffee even when you’ve made it clear you’d rather not, constantly try to “one-up” you, or place unreasonable demands on your time (or money). You’ve tried having heart-to-hearts to see if you can agree on a more respectful way of relating, but the person just becomes angry, refuses to take any ownership, or seems like they “get it” but then continues the same pattern without any actual willingness to continue working on it.
In my experience, all of us are likely to encounter at least one person like this in our lifetime. If you’re anxious about setting limits, try to think of this as a “training ground” opportunity, since learning to set basic limits is an important life skill. You don’t have to do it perfectly, and yes the person might get a little upset- but that’s their right, and learning to express yourself in an assertive-yet-courteous way will take you far in life.
Level 2: Toxic
This moving beyond the Level 1 behaviors by violating boundaries in a more intense way. Someone who threatens to end the relationship whenever they don’t get their way, text-bombs you with angry and disrespectful messages over relatively little things (think ten text messages in an hour), or who finds other ways of objectively sabotaging your well-being (such as pressuring you to drink more than you’d like, or belittling your goals and ambitions) would be traversing from Level 1 to Level 2. They may ironically flip things around on you as well, such as playing the victim and lamenting that you have “thrown their friendship away” when actually all you’ve done is decline to respond to their abusive text message telling you they were “done with you”.
Such a person may also call you names when they’re angry, or say nasty things about your appearance; or disrespect your time or property (such as being unavailable to return items they’ve borrowed, constantly canceling or delaying plans moments before or even during the time you were supposed to meet, acting entitled to stay at your apartment or visit with you whenever they’re in town or it’s convenient for them even if you’ve explained it’s not a good weekend; or pressuring you to spend money on entertainment you’ve explained you can’t really afford).
Level 3: REALLY Toxic.
Being physically abusive, stealing from you, verbally threatening you, or doing other things that are so intense they’re actually oftentimes against the law to do to another person. This category is actually the shortest and simplest to describe, since there’s really no “grey area” about these things– they’re clearly easy to recognize as 100% toxic.
Moving forward from a Toxic Person
Once you’ve ID’d the problem, the next step is to consider why you’ve allowed this toxicity to exist in your life. Oftentimes, we keep toxic people around because they’ve been in our lives for so long, it feels like our only option is to accept their behavior and make peace with it (for the sake of your history together). Other times, we let them bully us, physically or emotionally, because we’re too scared to speak up or don’t know how to set and enforce boundaries. And other times still, we almost like the toxicity or drama, because it’s become something we’re used to and we prefer familiarity over the unknown.
Repeat after me: None of these are good enough reasons to keep a toxic person around. Ready to set some boundaries? Read on!
Step 2. TAKE ACTION
The best way to know if someone who you think is toxic is actually toxic—as in, unwilling to fix their behavior in order to improve the relationship—is to give them a real chance to change their behavior. Initiate a chat about what’s been going on—if they only respond with more toxicity from the get-go, that can actually help give you the clarity you need to move forward (possibly without them!).
Many of the clients in my practice are dealing with non-toxic or just mildly toxic behaviors, and honestly I think those can ironically be some of the most difficult to navigate— when someone is clearly being abusive, it’s actually easier to cut them out of your life. On the other hand, when someone is just a little manipulative or a “drama queen”, more nuanced strategies are sometimes helpful. Here are a few to get you started:
For a friendship you’ve outgrown:
“I feel like things have changed in my life since when we first met many years ago, and I’m no longer interested in X. If you want to change with me, awesome. If not, I just want you to understand why there might be some distance as we move forward and possibly grow apart.”
For someone who seems constantly down on you:
“For all of the negative things you say to me these days, I’m starting to wonder if you really get that much pleasure from hanging out with me; and honestly it doesn’t feel great to me either, since you seem to disagree with so many basic things about me. You have a right to your opinion on my hair/ weight/ job/ life, but I’m just not sure it’s healthy for either of us to continue spending so much time together if you find so many things about me to be so bothersome to you, especially since the things that bother you are not things I have any plan or interest in changing… and even if I did, I still wouldn’t appreciate feeling like it’s always open-season for commentary about my issues.”
For someone who constantly guilts you for not being able to spend as much time together as they’d like:
“I really value all of our memories together and I don’t want there to be any hard feelings, but I don’t think I can live up to your expectations as they are now. There’s nothing wrong with what you seem to want in terms of a friend who is always able to return same-day texts and visit on a weekly basis, but there’s also nothing wrong with someone like me who is only open for less frequent contact for whatever reason. Could we talk about what we both seem to need and then see if we still think this makes sense for both of us? No hard feelings either way, I just think it’s best if we can be open with each other about whatever the situation is.”
For Level 2 toxic behaviors:
Remember: You always have the right to end a relationship. But if you’d like to try setting some firmer limits instead of ending the relationship, you might try something like,
“I need to talk with you about something important: I’ve realized that I’ve allowed certain things to happen in our relationship that are actually really unhealthy for me, and I want you to know I’ve realized it’s my responsibility to stop allowing those things if I find them unacceptable. I may never have told you this, but when you do X it affects me in the following way: ______. So, next time X happens, I will (end our visit, block your texts for a while, stop chasing after you, put some distance between us, or whatever response seems logical– if you need help thinking of what’s logical, feel free to ask a trusted friend, therapist, or coach!).
For a Level 3 toxic person:
In many cases, it’s best to cut off contact with someone like this– and please remember you always have the option to do this if you wish, no matter whom the person is– but in situations such as an adult child or a family member who is struggling with addiction, we may sometimes decide that we’d prefer to learn hard boundaries instead (ie “You can stay in my life and we can interact when you’re sober, but if you steal from me I will call the police; and if you call me any names whatsoever our visit will end immediately.” or “I’ll visit with you, but only when someone else I trust is present; and if you become physically aggressive I will call the police.”). Please seek a professional or call 911 if you need help at any point!
Many people in my office fear conversations like the ones above because they’re afraid of upsetting the person. They often feel better when they remember that actually, if the toxic person gets really mad and ends the relationship, guess what? They just made things easier on you. I know it’s tough, but at least you’ve freed yourself from the toxicity—and the charade of a healthy relationship. You’ve now made more time for all the other genuine and healthy connections in your life—go, you!
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, Dr. Chloe, it’s not always that simple. What do I do if the toxic person is someone I can’t cut out—like, you know, my mother-in-law?” And that’s a great Q. First, be sure to schedule in some time for self-love whenever you have to be around that person, since being around crazy can make you feel kinda crazy (you know what I mean). Try scheduling a massage or dinner with your best friends to happen shortly after the visit, since they’ll help keep you grounded and give you a chance to unpack whatever happened.
Would you like to learn more about my acronym T.O.X.I.C., which offers steps to set limits with toxic people? Check out Part 2 of this series on How to Deal with Toxic People!
Would you like to learn more about setting boundaries, especially with people you feel you can’t cut out of your life? Check out my blog on surviving the holidays with your family… even if it’s not the holidays, and even if the people you need to set limits with aren’t family, the tips in this blog will work all year ‘round!
* Exception: Level 3 toxicity often doesn’t even require a conversation– please know you can head for the door without discussion if anyone is abusing you