It happens to most of us at one point or another: One of your closest friends who has always been on your side starts to change—you notice she complains about everything and starts making hurtful comments. When you protest, she says, “You’re so sensitive. I was just kidding.” Other people have thought of her as a bully, but she never treated you that way—only now you see what they meant.
Another example? Your co-worker, who has always been a mellow, balanced sounding board for problems at work, now responds to the smallest complaint with outbursts saying how terrible the organization is and how the corporate world is ruining everything. In these situations, you find yourself trapped in someone else’s negativity, and whatever you do or say to get out of the snare seems to make it worse. What these people share is that their anger, resentment, and frustration affect your well-being, happiness, and peace of mind.
It is essential that you find a strategy to deal with them that doesn’t continue to harm you. Here are five important things to keep in mind as you deal with the toxic people in your life:
1. Be careful with the label.
A toxic person is not just someone who annoys you, who is dating your old boyfriend, or who challenges you in a way that makes you uncomfortable. There is a spectrum of “negative” people.
Some people are moaners and whiners—it’s their nature, and some even develop a kind of charming humor about being complainers. Then there are the comedians who have built their social persona on their ability to talk cleverly about politics, work, and other people in wickedly funny ways and who complain about their own lives in ways that people can understand and laugh at. Others just rub us the wrong way.
Jodie Gale, M.A., a psychotherapist and life coach in Sydney, Australia, describes toxic people this way: “Often the person is deeply wounded and for whatever reason, they are not yet able to take responsibility for their wounding, their feelings, their needs, and their subsequent problems in life—they may over-identify and act out the parts of who they are, such as the victim, bully, perfectionist, or martyr…. They act from these parts trying to get their needs met, albeit in an extremely unhealthy way.”
2. Truly toxic people are bad for your health.
Recent research from Friedrich Schiller University in Germany discovered that exposure to stimuli that causes strong negative emotions—the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with toxic people—also causes a massive stress response in subjects’ brains. Studying 10,000 people for over 12 years, he found that people in negative relationships had a greater risk of developing heart problems and issues with inflammation and low immunity.
And it makes sense: We spend a lot of time, effort, and money creating both internal and external living spaces that offer us a calming environment. We know this is good for our health. People meditate, keep gratitude journals, decorate their homes in soothing colors, and many of us start our day with a stated intention of positivity and health in order to lean into those vibes throughout the day and to give our brains a large dose of well-being rather than distress.
3. Remember that many people we call “toxic” are clinically depressed.
Sometimes ongoing depression can cause a person to see the world as a half-empty glass no matter how good, sunny, and positive things are. When someone you care about has always had a reasonable attitude toward the glass being half-full and suddenly sees everything as evidence that it is half-empty, leaving that relationship shouldn’t be the first thing you do. Gently (and perhaps even more firmly) challenging the person with your concern about them and offering support and encouragement to see a health professional may help them find the courage to turn things around.
4. Consider your own actions.
- If you are a “people pleaser,” you fear conflict, or you just want to be liked, you may find yourself naturally colluding with toxic people. This is your chance to find your backbone and learn how to draw firm boundaries. There are a few ways to do this.
- A soft approach is to express concern about them: “Are you doing OK? I’m concerned about you—it sounds like you’re having a hard time.”
- A second way is to challenge their complaint and ask them, “What ideas do you have about how you can change this problem? Personally, I’m into solutions.”
- A third way? Confront the issue directly by saying, “I find that it’s not good for me when I get into these discussions with you, so I’m going to step away when they start.”
- Finally, you can avoid them altogether, but don’t get caught in the trap of becoming negative about the person you see as toxic.
5. Be kind.
Remember that although the phrase has gained momentum in the past few years, nobody really has poison in their blood. The term “toxic person” is a label that describes behavior and not the human being. At this moment in time, it’s especially important to not label people. Acceptance is key.
Although we may choose to stay away from toxic behavior, behind that behavior is often a human being in pain. Perhaps our well-being is dependent on creating a wide space between them and us, but they are still worthy of our compassion and a wish for healing of their misery. Our health is also dependent on being able to remember the meaning of namaste: I bow to the best of you and wish you well, even if I need to back away.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.