Many of us have been challenged by toxic people in our lives who spew negativity, leaving us feeling somehow demeaned and deflated. From the Latin word toxikon, meaning “arrow poison,” the term toxic means literally: to fill or poison in a targeted way, says Theo Veldsman, head of Industrial Psychology and People Management at the University of Johannesburg.
Toxic behaviors cover the range of:
- persistent shifting of blame to others;
- passive aggression;
- prioritizing one’s self-interest above everyone else’s;
- the inability to consider another person’s perspective or emotional state;
- the inability to acknowledge how one’s behavior affects others;
- the repeated disregard of personal boundaries; and
- the inability or unwilingness to admit to any offense or mistake or to change (it’s always, always, always your fault or “you are just too over-sensitive”).
Leaving the discussion of the roots of toxic behavior aside, we will focus in this abridged version of a longer article in Psychology Today on basic self-management and self-protection skills, in situations where it is difficult or not possible to sever contact with people who regularly spew venom.
1. Control your exposure
The single most important thing you can do is minimize contact.
At work, ask for a rearrangement of desks. Never sit next to a toxic person. If you work on a team with a toxic person, ask for reassignment to another project. If that’s not possible, ask your boss to consider having the toxic teammate work more often from home, or to at least require fewer group meetings.
If your boss is the toxic person, limit the time you spend with him/her, and identify others in your organization who can offer an ear. If nothing at all can be done, start looking for another job. If that’s not an option, request to be paired with a different supervisor.
If you have hiring power, learn how to question candidates for signs of emotional competence and lay out norms for behavior at the beginning.
If the toxic person is your spouse, or an ex-spouse with whom you share children, you likely need the help of a mental health professional for navigating the relationship, says psychologist Rhonda Freeman.
2. Manage your reactivity
Here’s where you have the most leverage. Set firm boundaries. Assertively say No to demands that feel unreasonable — without justifying yourself.
Have on hand a few good mantras for the moment a toxic individual blames or bullies you: “I’m not going to continue this conversation if you’re calling me names,” or “I’m happy to discuss this with you when you’re calm.”
Maintain clarity about toxic encounters by taking notes about how you felt before, during, and after any such interaction, as well as what was said and done by all. Doing so can help you make a case for managerial intervention.
Strengthen ties with friends and others you trust, especially if the toxic person is a spouse. Relationships with people who treat you with respect can buffer you from stress and help balance your perspective; having your point of view validated can also be helpful in counteracting isolation.
Find activities that take you away from the toxic person or environment. Join a book club, take a cooking class. You’ll also gain a better a sense of who you are in relation to the world.
3. Don’t explain
Avoid even trying to explain yourself; by definition a toxic person is one who refuses to hear your perspective. Attempts will only frustrate you. Say “I’m sorry but I’m busy then,” or “I can’t do that right now.”
Reiterating a point noted above, say No assertively to demands that feel unreasonable — without justifying yourself. Offer no explanation, no matter how much ranting and raving the other does.
4. Immunize yourself
Spot those with toxic potential and avoid them before there are any outbursts.
Recognize the personality traits that feed toxicity: the drama queens; those who are suspicious or notably aggressive; and those who consistently display little regard for the feelings of others.