Protecting Yourself Against Toxic People

This month we’ve looked at some ways to protect your family from harmful poisons, but what should you do when you’re in a toxic social situation? People often use the word “toxic” to describe friends, colleagues or even family members that have negative attitudes or hurt others through their actions. You may even know of someone in your life that is hard to interact with. 

People with “toxic” character traits may not even recognize the negative effects of their bad attitudes, but those around them certainly do! If you have to interact with someone like this, here are some suggestions for protecting your own mental health. 

Recognizing a Toxic Personality

Just like a toxic chemical or poisonous berry in the wild, it’s important to know how to identify behaviors that are toxic. If you know of someone who it feels difficult to interact with because you feel tired, depressed, or angry after speaking with them, they may be using toxic behaviors that drain your energy. A few of these behaviors can be:

Complaining & Negativity: Whenever a topic of conversation is brought up, does the person have something negative to say? It’s reasonable to complain every once in a while, but talking to someone who has a complaint for everything can really put you in a sour mood! 

Self-Centeredness: Do you have a friend who makes everything about them? People who have toxic personality traits are often the last ones to realize it, because they are self-absorbed. If you feel like you can never talk about what you’re interested in, you may be talking with someone who is exhibiting toxic behaviors. 

Manipulation and emotional abuse: This is a very serious facet of toxic behaviors: they can often progress into abusive tendencies. You may notice it when you try to address a concern, and they tell you “it’s not that big of a deal,” or downplay your genuine emotions. Toxic personalities also tend to redirect criticism and try to convince you that you’re the one that needs to change. They can even be insulting and offensive on purpose, then say they were “only joking.” If someone’s behavior towards you hurts your feelings and they aren’t willing to apologize, it’s time to take efforts to protect your own mental health. 

Build Strong Boundaries to Protect Yourself

Depending on how you know a person with toxic personality traits, it may be difficult to distance yourself from them, such as family members or coworkers. Setting strong boundaries is the way to live alongside people with toxic behaviors, while keeping yourself healthy. If you’ve never been able to set a boundary with someone, it might seem scary at first. A lot of toxic people will be angry when someone builds a boundary, but don’t let that stop you. 

Start by writing down how you want to be treated more positively by this person, whether you want them to show you respect, or even just ask how your day is going. The next time they show a negative, toxic behavior, request that they work on this behavior in order to help you meet your emotional needs. Use “I” statements that keep the focus on your experiences, such as, “I need reassurance from my friends that they care about my life, so it’s helpful to me if you ask how my day is going when we meet up.”  People typically respond better when you frame it in a way that shows they will be helping you, instead of attacking them with statements such as, “you always complain about…” or “I hate it when you….” 

What if they don’t listen?

What do you do if someone doesn’t honor your requests to change their behavior? It’s common for people to repeatedly ignore requests to change a toxic behavior. As frustrating as it is, there’s not a lot you can do to change someone when they are deeply rooted in their negative routines. Regardless of how close you are with a person, sometimes it’s best to distance yourself from someone’s toxicity. 

Instead of “ghosting” someone, or leaving suddenly and cutting off all ties, you can discuss your choice to distance from them in advance, in order to give them the option to alter their behaviors. You should approach people like family members and close friends in this way, because they might genuinely want to change if they know how much they are affecting you. Your setting boundaries and distancing might not even mean leaving someone entirely. It could look like not waiting around for someone who is always late to meetups, but participating in group activities together. Or, it could be that you will end a conversation if you feel like it is all complaining. 

Once you’ve set a boundary, do your best not to let toxic behavior slide. As hard as it may feel to disappoint a friend, it’s even more important to honor your own mental health and emotions!