How To Deal With Toxic People

By: Judith Orloff, M.D.

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Relationships are always an energy exchange. To stay feeling our best, we must ask ourselves: Who gives us energy? Who saps it? It’s important to be surrounded by supportive, heart-centered people who make us feel safe and secure. It’s equally important to pinpoint toxic people who, whether they intend to or not, leech our energy.

To protect your sensitivity, it’s imperative to develop strategies. Toxic people are everywhere: co-workers, neighbors, family, and friends. In my medical practice and workshops, I’ve treated many patients who’ve been hard-hit by drainers—truly a mental health epidemic that conventional medicine doesn’t see. I’m horrified by how many of these “emotionally walking wounded” (ordinarily perceptive, intelligent individuals) have become resigned to chronic anxiety or depression. Why the blind spot? Most of us haven’t been educated about toxic people or how to emancipate ourselves from their clutches, requisite social skills for everyone desiring freedom. Dealing with toxic people is a touchy subject. We don’t know how to tactfully address our needs without alienating others. The result: We get tongue-tied, or destructively passive. We ignore the SOS from our gut that screams, “Beware!” Or, quaking in our boots, we’re so afraid of the faux pas of appearing “impolite” that we become martyrs in lieu of being respectfully assertive. We don’t speak out because we don’t want to be seen as “difficult” or uncaring.

Toxic people do more than drain our physical energy. The malignant ones can make you believe you’re unworthy and unlovable, someone who doesn’t deserve better. The subtler species inflict damage that’s more of a slow burn. Smaller digs here and there can make you feel bad about yourself such as, “Dear, I see you’ve put on a few pounds” or “It’s not lady-like to interrupt.” In a flash, they’ve zapped you by prodding areas of shaky self-worth.

Determine If You Are in a Toxic Relationship or Have an Emotional Vampire in Your Life
Anyone who has ever shared an office, car pool, or attended a family dinner with a toxic person can attest to experiencing some common emotional side effects. Even after a brief contact, you feel worse; they feel better. To find out if you’re dealing with a toxic person, watch for these signs.

  • Your eyelids get heavy – you’re ready for a nap
  • You feel put down or like the rug was pulled out from under you
  • Your mood takes a nose-dive
  • You have a yen to binge on carbs or comfort food
  • You feel sniped at, slimed, or agitated

In addition, sometimes intuitive flashes and dreams can raise a red flag. Pay attention. For instance, following a dinner I attended where the guests had something negative to say about everything, I dreamed I was bombarded by a storm of leeches. Similarly, after a critical friend skewered one of my patients, she felt as if she’d fallen to the bottom of a well. Another patient dreamed that a pigeon pooped on her head—splat, there it was: her reaction to a nasty altercation with her apartment’s superintendent. Whether you’re awake or asleep, notice telling imagery that conveys emotion. This will help you identify a vampire.

Take an inventory of the people in your life who are potential drainers. Make a list of all your key family members, friends and co-workers and indicate beside each name if any of them have any of the adverse affects on you that I just mentioned when you are in their company or on the phone. Experiencing even one of these effects indicates that person is a drainer on the prowl.

Toxic Person # 1: The Victim
Every time you talk to her she’s whining. She adores a captive audience. She’s the co-worker or friend with the “poor me” attitude who’s more interested in complaining than solutions.

How to Protect Yourself: Set clear boundaries. Limit the time you spend talking about her complaints. With a firm but kind attitude say, “I’m sorry I can only talk for a few minutes today.” And go on with your work.

Toxic Person # 2: The Drama Queen
This person has a flair for exaggerating small incidents into off-the-chart dramas. My patient Sarah was exhausted when she hired a new employee who was always late for work. One week he had the flu and “almost died.” Next, his car was towed, again! After this employee left her office, Sarah felt tired and used.

How to Protect Yourself: A drama queen doesn’t get mileage out of equanimity. Stay calm. Take a few deep breaths. This will help you not get caught up in the histrionics. Set kind but firm limits. Say, “You must be here on time to keep your job. I’m sorry for all your mishaps, but work comes first.”

Toxic Person # 3: The Constant Talker or Joke Teller
He has no interest in your feelings; he’s only concerned with himself. Initially, he might seem entertaining, but when the talking doesn’t stop, you begin to get tired. You wait for an opening to get a word in edgewise but it never comes. Or he might physically move in so close he’s practically breathing on you. You edge backwards, but without missing a beat, he steps closer again. One patient said about one relative, “Whenever I get together with him my colon goes into spasm.”

How to Protect Yourself: Know that these people don’t respond to non-verbal cues. You must speak up and interrupt. Listen for a few minutes – then from a neutral place politely say, “I’m a quiet person, so please excuse me for not talking a long time”—a much more constructive tack than “Keep quiet, you’re driving me crazy!”

Toxic Person #4: The Fixer Upper
This vampire is desperate for you to fix her endless problems—at all hours. She turns you into her therapist. At lunch, she’ll make a b-line to your desk, monopolizing your free time. Or it could be a friend who constantly calls you with dilemmas. Her neediness lures you in.

How to Protect Yourself: Do not become the “rescuer.” Show empathy but resist offering solutions. Be supportive but tell her, “I’m confident you’ll find the right solution” or sensitively suggest that she seek a qualified professional for help.

Toxic Person #5: The Criticizer
This vampire has a sneaky way of making you feel guilty or lacking for not getting things just right. Whenever my patient Marie, a book editor, sees her boss she’s on guard; her boss had a way of cutting her down that saps her energy. She always has a negative comment to make.

How to Protect Yourself: Try this visualization. Around this person imagine yourself surrounded by a cocoon of white light. Think of it as a protective covering that keeps you from being harmed. Tell yourself that you are safe and secure here. The cocoon filters out the negativity so it can’t deplete you.

Toxic Person #6: Go For The Jugular Fiend
This type is vindictive and cuts you down with no consideration for your feelings. He says things like, “Forget that man. He’s out of your league.” These jabs can be so hurtful, it’s hard to get them out of your head.

How to Protect Yourself: Eliminate them from your life whenever possible. For a boss or mother-in-law who isn’t going anywhere try a visualization that put you at a distance from them, and refuse to ingest the poison. Realize that he or she is a wounded person; try not to take their meanness personally. Also consider what kind of toxic people you’re facing; we often attract what we haven’t emotionally resolved in ourselves. If you’re fearful, you may find yourself surrounded by legions of fearful people. However, once you’ve begun to heal an emotion, you are less likely to magnetize it towards you, nor does it possess the same ability to wear you out.

If you decide that the pros outweigh the cons of remaining with a toxic person, say a bullying colleague or mate, you must take responsibility for that decision and the way you respond. Ask yourself, “How can I stay in the relationship and not feel oppressed?” This means concentrating on the good and accepting someone’s limitations.

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