According to Oxford Dictionaries, the word toxic is “relating to or caused by poison”, or, “very bad, unpleasant, or harmful”.
When used in terms of “toxic relationships”, it’s not just about having a shitty boyfriend or girlfriend, but any type of interpersonal relationship you might have with someone—a friend, coworker, family member—that’s just bad for you.
Toxic people hold you back. They belittle you. They don’t care about your well-being and will take the first chance they can get to make themselves out to be “better” than you. I’m sure there’s at least one person you have in mind who fits this description.
So what do you do when you find yourself seemingly stuck with a toxic person? Depending on who they are, you’ve got a few choices:
Option 1 – Phase them out of your life
The easiest way to handle toxins in general, as we’ve been biologically programmed to do, is to simply avoid them once we’ve identified them as bad for us. That’s what our primal ancestors did with berries; they identified the bad ones, then avoided them. Simple as that.
Of course, we don’t always know if something’s toxic to us at first glance. It sometimes takes a bit of trial and error. But once we do learn and can identify when someone or something is bad for us, we should remove ourselves from coming in contact with the toxin.
Removing a toxic person from your life can sometimes be easy and is sometimes just a matter of declining invitations to hang out or breaking up with them (you can certainly break up with friends—see Seinfeld episode 3, “Male Unbonding”).
Of course, if you are/were friends, I’d recommend this only after you’ve attempted to talk things out (see Option 3).
Option 2 – Sift them out of your personal life
It’s not always that easy to just avoid someone, though, and many times toxic people are those that you can’t easily escape from (e.g., coworkers). In these cases, it’s best to separate yourself from them on a personal level and simply handle them professionally. Stop hanging out by the water cooler, stick to work topics on email, and when you’re forced into conversations, stick to workplace-safe topics. Like the weather.
If you find yourself in a difficult toxic relationship with someone like, say, your boss, then maybe it’s time to start updating your resume. You know, before they find the next small reason to fire you. In most cases like this, you’re better off a non-hostile environment, anyway. I know my productivity screeches to a halt when a working environment is particularly bad.
I know—it’s all easier said than done. Toxic people are the type that can rile you up (or completely shut you down), so it’s no wonder there are hundreds upon thousands of self-help articles on how to handle or get out of toxic relationships.
Of course, if you still want to include this toxic person in your life, to try to somehow make them see the errors of their way, there’s always…
Option 3 – Have a heart-to-heart talk
This option is by far the most difficult and most emotionally draining. I only recommend this option when it’s a friend you find worth keeping as a friend. Forget it if it’s a bad boss or coworker (though if you feel so inclined to try, do what will make you feel better). Option 3 requires you to dedicate pieces of yourself, withdraw from your emotional bank, and invest a significant amount of time to get the toxic person to 1) see the error of their ways, and 2) change their behavior going forward.
For some people, old habits die hard. Undoubtedly you’re going to need a lot of emotional leverage if you go this route.
But you know what? Some cases, it’s totally worth going through the effort. Sometimes they’re only a little toxic and just need a good kick in the butt to change. Sometimes they may not even realize they’re being terrible to you.
But I can’t say for sure 100% of the time that it’s always worth the effort. It’s not even about me being cynical or pessimistic. I just know I’m not overly optimistic on always being able to change someone’s whole way of doing, thinking. As much as it hurts, sometimes it’s better to just…
I get that life isn’t always going to be rainbows and sunshine. Each of us is going to run into trouble, into situations that make us uncomfortable, guilty, and all other types of negative feelings. It’s expected that we run into a little bullshit from time to time.
But life is just too damn short to have to deal with an excessive amount of bullshit. Is it worth staying friends with that person who takes and takes and takes, but never gives? Is it worth getting into passive aggressive (or aggressive aggressive) fights with them on the regular? Maybe. I can’t say one way or another, because ultimately, you need to take the time to evaluate the worth of having that person around you.
If at the end you decide you’re better off without that toxic person in your life, just do me two favors—
Don’t feel (too) bad about it and focus on your friends who truly care about you.