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How to deal with “toxic people”

by, Synergy eTherapy Guest Blogger

Jacqueline Plante, LMFT

Let’s talk toxic.

Have you ever had the experience where you get a new car and then suddenly everywhere around you, you see that car? Or someone tells you about a new singer they love and then suddenly you’re hearing about them constantly? This is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Also known as the “frequency illusion” it’s the phenomenon of experiencing some piece of information and subsequently seeing that same thing repeatedly (thank you google).

Before training to be a therapist, I don’t remember hearing the terms “toxic individuals” and “boundaries,” but now, either circumstance, the universe or cognitive bias is putting these terms in front of me nearly every single day. And I want to address them, because while I might be better trained to identify these things, I think most people have at least some experience with a toxic person, and we could all benefit from knowing when to set healthy boundaries with them.

Photo cred: daiga-ellaby-699101-unsplash

What a toxic person is.

So, let’s talk about what a toxic person is: My informal definition would be any person who (for whatever reason) has poor boundaries. They might make poor life choices and often expect those around to either pick up the pieces or to suffer with them.  Leaving them feels like finishing a marathon: you’re tired, relieved, and probably in pain. Only you didn’t get a runner’s high. And you probably won’t brag about the experience.

Setting good boundaries.

Setting good boundaries with a toxic person might depend on the environment you encounter them in, so I’m going to break it down into categories. And remember, setting boundaries is different than helping or fixing. Boundaries are about ACCEPTING a person as they are, but knowing that our power to change them is limited or non-existent: so our focus then becomes on how we can maintain our own health and sanity.

  • The toxic co-worker: This person comes in every day with a new complaint. You know more about his/her life than your own best friend’s and can’t figure out why the drama always seems to follow her so closely (spoiler: it’s not a coincidence). But your cubicle is right next to hers, and you’re not planning to quit anytime soon, so interaction is necessary.
    • How do you set this boundary? Keep it superficial, and redirect the conversation. When Susan shares that her car got repo’d over the weekend, do not ask a follow-up. Say, “Wow Susan, that’s too bad. Hey did you see the email Karen sent? Looks like we need to be really on top of this next project.” Don’t engage further, as that is giving permission for her to pull you further down the rabbit hole. If they ask personal questions of you, keep it brief and surface level. “How was your weekend?” “It was nice, I got to catch up on some sleep.” Polite, but succinct.

 

  • The toxic friend: This friend is always in a jam and seems to think that 3am is the best time to call you for help. Maybe this has been happening since high school, so now you feel stuck because you have to keep doing what you’ve always done, which is bail this friend out (literally or figuratively). To put it bluntly, you don’t. For all the times you’ve helped in the past, this person has never made a change. Your help has turned into enabling, and it’s time to stop. Do Not Disturb is your new best friend. No one can interrupt your sleep at 3am if your phone isn’t ringing, and it’s time to let natural consequences kick in.

 

  • The toxic family member: The hardest one for last, right? I hear your hesitation already: “They’re family, and I can’t imagine changing a dynamic that has taken a lifetime to ingrain.” I know relationships with toxic family members can be not only the most painful to experience, but also the most difficult to overcome. Often the pushback from boundary setting here doesn’t seem worth it, but remember that the goal here is your inner peace and sanity (and in many cases, the protection of your relationship or marriage).
    • Here’s a scenario that I work with often in my work with couples: “His mom comes by all the time without calling. She brings dinner even though she knows I’m cooking, and she brings treats for the kids that we’ve told her they aren’t allowed to have.” Often in this case, mom is welcomed in, no consequence given, and she is reinforced to do so again (even though the verbal message was that it is not ok, the non-verbal message was that it was ok). After mom leaves, husband and wife fight about why mom was allowed to disrupt the family and how to handle it if (and when) it comes up again.
      • Here’s where I come in to lay down the law about what the healthy boundary would look like: “Hi mom, I know you wanted to visit with us and your grandkids, but you didn’t call like we asked, and today is not a good day.” (A reasonable response to this would be: “Oops, I’m sorry and I get it. I’ll call next time.” But we are talking about toxic people here, so…). The reaction to this will likely be unpleasant, but setting this boundary helps to strengthen the nuclear family unit and will likely bring overall peace and calm to all individuals.

Take away message.

Here is where I will give my disclaimer: working towards setting these boundaries will not be fun, it will not be easy, and more than likely will cause at least one emotional explosion. Often boundaries have to be set and then re-set, so consider that as you walk through this process it would be helpful to have added support, especially that of a trained therapist who has likely guided many others through this same experience. But be assured, while it can sometimes be a long road, the risk is worth the reward. 

 

Dr. Lisa is the founder of Synergy eTherapy and Licensed Psychologist in MN and NY.

To schedule your FREE consultation with her, please click HERE.

 

Jacqueline Plante is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the State of California. She is currently in private practice via telehealth. You can learn more at www.couplestherapy.love

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