The other day I was talking with a friend about dealing with toxic people in our lives.
We’ve all experienced negativity in our lives. That’s showbiz. And by showbiz, I mean LIFE. It’s part of the gig! And sometimes, that negativity is more chronic/severe, bumping it to the toxic zone.
Sporadic negativity is to be expected. Navigating life can be tough, man, and there are so many contributing factors to negativity: change/loss/curveballs/hormones. Ideally we’ll get to a place where we live what the Stoics preach: being solidly at peace no matter what happens. That’s a journey and a whole other conversation, so let’s table that for this post’s purpose.
Back to handling toxicity, particularly when it comes to toxic people in our lives. I’m a firm believer in empathizing with unacceptable behavior but not condoning it.
Let’s unpack the first part of that: empathy. Everyone has bumps and bruises they’ve accumulated from being, you know…HUMAN. And let’s face it, some people get dealt realllly shitty hands. It doesn’t seem fair, right? And comparison is futile. Not everyone’s challenges are equal and they don’t have the same effect on everybody. Again, there are multiple contributing factors (history, current emotional/physical/mental state, etc). What’s tough for me may be easy for you, and vice versa. And what may have been a breeze for you in the past may knock you down now. Life isn’t necessarily linear.
And some people are carrying some heavy burdens we know nothing about, driving them to act in certain ways, like lashing out/getting irritable/becoming erratic, etc. Our exterior (including our behavior) is a reflection of our interior. Our fears/insecurities have a way of hijacking us and driving our behavior. So let’s recognize this in one another and try not to judge/condemn/dismiss/etc. We’re all human and we’re all in this together, doing the best we can. Truly! We don’t get to decide what qualifies as someone else’s best; it’s different for everyone and is affected by what load the person is currently carrying. If that load is heavy from fears and insecurities, it’ll weigh the person down to the point where they’re exhausting all effort and energy to merely stay afloat. We’re not privy to all that adds to the load; therefore, we’re not fit to rule on it. And sometimes, a mental health matter is causing the issue.
Once we’ve empathized, now we can address how to handle the toxicity. It’s entirely possible to empathize with behavior, but not condone it. Understanding where people are coming from and why they do what they do, is not the same as rubber stamping their actions and saying it’s okay. For example, let’s say you have a friend who constantly competes with you. Rather than celebrating your wins, they minimize your accomplishment, or try to one up you. Digging into it, you discover this is because of your friend’s insecurity and need for validation, having been raised to believe one’s worth is conditional. This leads to your friend constantly seeking validation to “earn” their worth, and to prove to themself and others they are worthy of love and acceptance. This also results in a scarcity mindset, believing the more success you have, the less they will have.
And/or let’s say you have a partner who regularly criticizes you and puts you down. You realize this is because of your partner’s own feelings of inadequacy and shame, and because your partner is mimicking the dynamic they saw with their own parents.
Okay, so we get it: There are reasons why people act the way we do, and it’s key to invite humanity into the situation and view it with love. BUT this is also where boundaries are crucial. To fully love ourselves AND others, it is vital we set and maintain boundaries. If someone crosses a line, we respond accordingly. This can be hard, I know - but it’s like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it will be. And boundaries help us eliminate anger/frustration/shame/resentment to make room for more love/joy/compassion. Like Brené Brown says, boundaries are essential for true compassion.
So stand up for yourself. Accommodating toxicity is a disservice to all involved. It’s unfair to you, because you shouldn’t have to put up with that, and it’s unfair to them because it perpetuates the cycle, shows them it’s okay to treat people like garbage, and prevents them from healing and evolving. It’s unfair to you to not honor the negativity’s impact on you.
Addressing it can be complicated, and I think should be on a case-by-case basis. It’s key to consider where people are mentally and emotionally. Sometimes the person acknowledges and stops their toxicity and remains in your life. And sometimes, unfortunately, for your wellbeing, it requires removing them from your life. Sometimes this communicates to them the severity of the situation and the strength of your boundaries and is enough to motivate them to change their ways. And sometimes…it’s a permanent farewell.
Maybe it comes down to their role/significance in your life, and/or the degree of toxicity. If it’s an acquaintance, it’s easier to minimize contact and love from afar. If it’s a coworker/close friend/partner/someone more fully integrated into your life, minimizing contact isn’t always a viable option. If the toxicity is serious enough, this may require a significant shift in your life. Prioritize your wellbeing over your connection. Just because someone is blood/best friend/spouse doesn’t mean they deserve to be in your life. YOU design your life and what/who goes in it. Sometimes, the greatest act of love is cutting contact and loving from afar.
Or maybe simply a gentle but frank convo is warranted. Ideally they’ll take it well, but if they don’t, you can rest assured you handled it maturely and gracefully, and honored the highest good.
And please - do what feels right to you. People will likely offer advice on what you should do, but you are the boss here. You get to decide. Sure, possibly seek insight from those you trust, but ultimately, it’s up to you.
And guess what? An unfortunate truth is sometimes…we’re the toxic one. We’re the one who needs to change our ways. This is why shadow work and self reflection are so dang important: to prevent our “stuff” from infecting our environment. If you’re not right with yourself, this impacts those around you. Your toxicity pollutes not only your inner being and those around you, but also the collective human psyche of which you are an inseparable part. Eckhart Tolle discusses this is in his powerful book, The Power of Now. So sometimes that hard convo and tough love need to be directed at ourselves. Or sometimes others let us know we’ve violated their boundaries. Not fun to hear, but it’s a chance to heal, to grow, and to lean into love.
So let’s show up for ourselves and others and commit to toxic-free life.