Sometimes it's easy to feel like toxic people are everywhere. When I say "toxic" I'm referring to those people who always seem enmeshed in drama and negativity. They can come across as needy, manipulative, controlling, or judgmental.
It's painful to feel like you're surrounded by that negative energy, and what's worse is that you always feel at-risk for getting sucked into it. The truth is that people are not actually toxic. What is toxic is your reaction to them.
When someone feels toxic, our discomfort is caused by the fact that they begin to seem more powerful than we do. As this happens, our sense of self diminishes and we feel like we're shrinking. (Hence the phrase “getting sucked in.”)
So the way to not feel like this has nothing to do with the other person, it's all about retaining a sense of self. Here are some points to help you do that.
1. Discover and articulate your core values.
At your core is your Truth, meaning the way that you look at the world that reflects what's in your heart. When you have a strong center, you are not vulnerable to getting pulled into someone else's emotional orbit, no matter how strong or negative it is.
There are two parts to strengthening your truth: First, get very clear on what it is. What are your beliefs? What's your view of the world, people, and situations? What do you stand for? What do you value? What do you expect of a friend?
The second part is thinking (or talking) through these answers to the point where you have ample language to articulate your truth. Then, as a result of working on this inner clarity, you go out into the world with a stance. A stance is a firm posture that reflects your truth. So, for example, the next time you're around someone with an opinion that doesn’t feel good to you, instead of succumbing to it, you'll be able to affect the situation and shift it into a more comfortable direction by adding in your own truth.
When you have a solid center, it's easy not to be thrown off by someone else with a strong persona or a negative energy, because you know firmly who you are.
2. Set clear boundaries.
Often, people who we feel are toxic are behaving in certain ways because we have not set a boundary with them. You have to teach people how to get along with you, by letting them know when they have hurt you or done something that feels invasive.
Often they have no idea how they are affecting you, and it's not fair to expect them to understand how you interpret things if you don’t let them know in some way.
For example, I didn’t grow up with my dad. When we were reacquainted years later, I felt like he was constantly saying things (innocently) that secretly upset me so badly that I often avoided spending time with him, and I'd become depressed after I did see him. At a certain point I began telling him what hurt me and why. He cared! He has come a long way in learning how I feel and how I interpret things and now spending time with him is no longer toxic.
3. Use interactions with difficult people as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Instead of judging the situation as toxic, try to see what lesson you can pull from it. For example, many people struggle with the desire to be authentic yet they hold back parts of themselves for fear of judgment.
When someone is engaging in behavior that you consider toxic, if you really stop and think about it, they are very visible. They are unconcerned with what others think. A tiny part of you might find that painful because although you would behave differently, there may be components of their behavior that you admire. Focus on the inspiration and discard the rest.
4. Honor that person's feelings while making it clear you won't get sucked in.
A common tip you'll hear for dealing with toxic people is to "not engage." While that sounds good in theory, it's not so helpful because it only tells you what not to do, but offers no action to take. Once again, this leaves us feeling small in comparison to a stronger personality.
Take for example, a friend who is going into a tailspin of complaining. You don’t have to confront her and engage in some kind of battle. A gesture as simple as touching her shoulder, and saying something like, "I hate to see things affecting you so deeply, it seems so painful," is highly effective because you have helped her to see her suffering in a different light while letting her know you're not becoming a part of it.
5. Outgrow the dynamic.
Sometimes in a friendship or romantic relationship, the dynamic is toxic. For example, if one person is emotionally controlling or domineering in a relationship, that requires the other person to be completely passive. The solution is to not focus on challenging the domineering person’s nature, but instead focus on growing yourself. You can’t change anyone, all you can do is work to strengthen your truth and become visible by speaking up about your needs and values.
It's amazing to see how toxic dynamics organically change when one person changes. The whole dynamic shifts in very unexpected ways. Or sometimes the relationship will expire as a result, if you work on healing or growing and the other person is only attracted to the less potent version of you.
Most likely, there will always be people whose company you don’t enjoy. But they don’t have to have a toxic effect on you, causing you to feel small and knock you off your course emotionally if you have to be around them.