We all know that person — the one who leaves you feeling worse off after interacting with them. Maybe it’s a manipulative family member or a co-worker who can’t stop complaining about every little thing.
It’s common to refer to these people as being toxic. But it’s important to keep in mind that this term isn’t grounded in psychology and doesn’t have a simple definition.
If you have a hard time dealing with someone in your life, it’s helpful to start by pinpointing problematic behaviors, rather than simply labeling them as being toxic.
Barrie Sueskind, a therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in relationships, shares some key signs of toxicity:
- self-absorption or self-centeredness
- manipulation and other emotional abuse
- dishonesty and deceit
- difficulty offering compassion to others
- a tendency to create drama or conflict
Sound like familiar? Read on for tips on how to respond to this type of behavior.
Some people have a tendency to see themselves as the victim in every situation. If they mess up, they might shift the blame to someone else or tell a story that paints them in a more positive light.
You might feel tempted to nod and smile in order to prevent an angry outburst. This might feel like the safest option, but it can also encourage them to see you as a supporter.
Try respectful disagreement instead. You might say, “I had a different take on the situation,” and describe what really happened. Stick to the facts, without making accusations.
While your disagreement might upset them, it might also lower the chances they’ll try involving you again.
Dealing with someone’s toxic behavior can be exhausting. The person might constantly complain about others, always have a new story about unfair treatment, or even accuse you of wronging them or not caring about their needs.
Resist the urge to jump on the complaining train with them or defend yourself against accusations. Instead, respond with a simple, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and leave it at that.
Sometimes simply becoming more aware of how someone’s toxic behavior affects you can help you better navigate interactions with them.
Most people occasionally say rude or hurtful things they don’t mean. No one feels their best all the time, and being in a bad mood can make you lash out. This isn’t necessarily toxic.
But ask yourself if put-downs, lies, or other types of emotional and verbal abuse characterize most of your interactions. Do they apologize or seem to notice how what they say or do affects you?
Personal struggles don’t excuse abuse, and you don’t have to accept it, either.
Someone who gossips, manipulates others, or creates dramatic situations night not realize how their behavior affects you or anyone else. An open conversation may help them realize this behavior is unacceptable.
To keep things neutral, try to stick to “I statements,” which feel less accusatory for the other person, and set boundaries that work for you.
Here are some examples of this in action:
- “I feel uncomfortable when I hear unkind things about our co-workers. I won’t participate in those conversations.”
- “I value trust in friendship, so I can’t continue this friendship if you lie to me again.
On the flip side, behavior doesn’t have to be abuse or spiteful to be toxic. Other behaviors can be just as damaging.
Maybe the person in question “desperately needs” your help to get them out of a bind — every time you see them. Or, Sueskind says, “you’re always giving and they’re always taking, or you feel like their emotional stability depends on you.”
You might value your relationship with this person, but don’t offer support at the risk of your own well-being.
“Healthy relationships involve give and take,” Sueskind explains. In other words, you offer support, but you receive support, too.
Taking care of yourself involves making sure you have enough emotional energy to meet your own needs. This may not happen when you’re giving everything to someone who doesn’t offer anything in return.
People can change, but they have to be willing to put in the work to do so.
You might want to help someone you care about instead of writing them completely out of your life. But, while you can always offer compassion and kindness, you likely won’t be able to change them.
At the end of the day, they have to commit to putting in the effort. Trying to help someone change before they’re ready can sap your emotional resources further.
Have a hard time turning people down? You aren’t alone.
Sticking to a refusal can also be tough, especially when someone tries to guilt trip you into changing your mind.
But if you do decide to say, “No,” don’t back down. This may prove challenging, especially when they use a dramatic outburst to try to get their way. But the more you practice saying “no” to things you aren’t comfortable with, the easier it becomes.
Removing yourself from the situation can help you avoid scenes. If you can’t physically leave, make it clear you’re no longer involved in the discussion. Say “excuse me” and turn away, for example.
Toxic behavior can make you feel like you did something wrong, even when you know you didn’t.
It’s tough to face attacks from someone who behaves in a toxic manner. They might get personal, try to twist your words, or accuse you of wanting to hurt them. At some point, you might even second guess yourself and rack your brain for something you might’ve done.
But remind yourself their behavior has nothing to do with you. Restate your boundaries and try not to take their spite personally. Take deep breaths to calm yourself or mindfully acknowledge their words so you can let them go without being affected.
People who act in a toxic way “can often sense who they can manipulate,” Sueskind says. “They may move on when they see their tactics don’t work on you.”
If you’re never available, they might eventually stop trying to engage. This strategy can be particularly helpful at work, where you’re bound to have plenty of honest excuses, like:
- “Sorry, I have too much work to chat.”
- “Got to prep for that meeting, so I can’t talk!”
You might face some passive-aggressive remarks or outright accusations when you make your excuses. Try not to respond, even if you feel upset. Remember: It’s not about you.
Do you dread seeing a particular person? Feel anxious or stressed beforehand? Take these feelings as a sign you may want to see them less.
People who behave toxically tend to focus on themselves and what they want. They might blame you or other people for any problems they have and show little interest in your feelings or needs. This can make spending time with them unpleasant.
If you’re dealing with someone who picks fights with your or repeatedly pushes your boundaries, consider scaling back the amount of time you spend with them.
If you can’t completely avoid or scale back the amount of time you spend with someone, you still have options.
“Boundaries are essential,” Sueskind says.
Setting boundaries involves deciding what you will and won’t tolerate. Communicate these boundaries clearly and stick to them.
Maybe you don’t mind listening to your co-worker’s dramatic stories, even the obviously fictional ones. But you draw your line at verbal abuse or gossip.
So when they start mocking another co-worker, say, “like I said, I’m not interested in this type of conversation.” Leave the room if you can or try putting on headphones.
Have an exit strategy
If you’re stuck in a toxic conversation and don’t see an easy way out, you might worry that leaving seems rude, especially if you’re talking to a supervisor.
But it’s entirely possible to leave politely. If it helps, consider coming up with a few go-to lines ahead of time that you can pull out as needed.
Try something like, “I’m sorry, but I have to stop you. I’ve got a lot of work, so I can’t chat right now” or, “Sorry, I’m waiting on an important phone call and can’t get into this right now.”
Change your routine
Does a family member always catch you when you’re studying or hold you up on your way to work? Maybe a co-worker always complains at lunch about how horribly everyone treats them.
Ideally, they’d respect the boundaries you set, but this doesn’t always happen. While it may not seem fair that you’re the one who has to change, it’s often worth it for your own well-being
Switching up your routine can help you avoid getting pulled in to conversations you’d rather skip. Try eating lunch somewhere besides the break room, wearing headphones, or reading a book.
Avoiding family members can be harder. Try having a respectful but firm conversation about needing to focus on your studies. If you’re on the way out the door, practice your quick exit strategy: “Sorry, I’m late!”
Encourage them to get help
It’s often difficult to understand why people behave in toxic ways. But it might help to consider that they might be dealing with some personal challenges that are causing them to lash out. This doesn’t excuse problematic behavior, but it can help explain it.
If you have a close relationship with someone who behaves in a toxic way, consider pointing out some harmful behaviors and explaining how they affect others (if you feel comfortable doing so). If they seem receptive, encourage them to talk to a therapist about why they act the way they do.
“Psychotherapy can help people identify problematic behaviors and learn to manage their emotions and reactions in healthier ways,” Sueskind says.
Don’t get personal
Sueskind recommends keeping interactions with the other person superficial. “Be clear about how you are and aren’t willing to engage,” she suggests.
Toxic behavior can involve gossiping, oversharing personal details, or using personal information to provoke reactions.
If you know someone who does these things, keep your conversations light and insignificant. Shut down attempts at prying or oversharing with, “Actually, I prefer not to talk about my relationship at work.”
You might wonder how it’s possible to stay calm around the other person when just thinking about crossing paths makes your heart pound.
Next time you feel anxious in an interaction, try grounding yourself with these tips:
- Breathe slowly and deeply.
- Try relaxing your muscles instead of tensing them.
- Let the words wash over you and silently repeat a calming mantra.
- Distract yourself if the situation allows. Doodle, fidget with an object, or close your eyes and visualize your favorite place.
Work with a therapist
If you have to stay involved with the person, consider getting help from a mental health professional. Therapists are trained to help people work through difficult situations like these and can offer compassionate, judgment-free support that fits your circumstances.
Sometimes, cutting people out of your life may seem like the only way to escape their toxic behavior. But this isn’t always feasible.
If you have to spend time with someone who exhibits toxic behavior, remind yourself their actions aren’t your fault nor your responsibility. It’s important they know what you’re not willing to tolerate.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.