Human behavior can be “toxic” at times. Whether it assumes the shape of cruelty, logic-defying conduct, negativity, subtle (or explicit) manipulation, passive aggression, inconsistency, or narcissism (the list could go on), it’s important to notice that, as Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. (an associate editor at Psych Central) says in an interview with the Australian psychotherapist Jodie Gale, “It is not that the whole person is toxic. Rather, their behavior or your relationship with that person is.”
Making this distinction — that of person versus behavior — can help us understand three fundamental things: First, such toxic behavior is not essential to who the person is, and therefore, it can be changed. A toxic person is still, first and foremost, a person, deserving respect. Most of the time, toxic persons are deeply wounded, and cannot take responsibility for their own feelings and needs. Second, the unnecessary complexity and stress that follows from this interaction is also poisoning the toxic person, who might not know how to act differently. And third, there are some other “parts” of the person you might appeal to when you’re in a toxic relationship or conversation.
While it’s important to know that it’s not your responsibility to “change” another’s behavior, it’s important to understand that we are indeed responsible for our own behavior. We have the capacity to reject the toxicity coming from the mishandled feelings, words, and actions of the “toxic” person we are interacting with. In a nutshell, even if the toxic person is unlikely to change (or to deal with emotions and situations differently), we can. Since it takes two to tango, it is necessary to consider your own role.
Interacting with a toxic person is exhausting. You either fear, avoid, or dread interacting with that person because they won’t take “no” for an answer, your values and boundaries will be compromised, or because yon may be used or misunderstood. But withdrawing, even if it is a perfectly healthy (and natural) reaction to what you feel is a threat (the old “fight or flight” acute stress response is a natural mechanism that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, as described by Walter Bradford Cannon in the early 20th century), is only one of the many possible ways to handle these situations (and probably not the most effective one, if we are talking about something one must deal with daily).
Since, as explained by Travis Bradberry in his post for Forbes, “stress can have a lasting, negative impact on the brain” (most neuroscientific studies nowadays confirm stress indeed compromises the adequate behavior of neurons in certain areas of the brain, and can even kill them), one must learn not to feel stressed when interacting with toxic people. Here’s three simple things that might help:
This is not about establishing new power relations, but about not allowing “power” to become the driving force of your interaction. A toxic person always wants to be “on top.” Setting limits allows for a better understanding of what kind of hierarchies are at play: your boss can give you responsibilities you should take care of while at work, but that’s it.
Tell the person, in a clear and simple way, how you feel or what you meant to say. A toxic person may try to use your words against you, interpreting them in the exact opposite way you intended., but make yourself clear: “I said X because I wanted you to know that Y. Whenever you Z, I feel W.”
Stay aware (and on top) of your own emotions
That is, take care of yourself. Toxicity is often irrational (that is, it follows its own logic), and the worst course of action is trying to play the same game. Keep in mind you are not supposed to respond in the same emotional terms, but rather bring some sober-headed-reasoning to the scene. That might imply, sometimes, to withdraw, regroup and then come back with solutions. Buy yourself some time if needed.
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