We all know the damage that toxic people can do in our lives. We all know that toxic people exist in every kind of relationship imaginable. That’s never been the question.
The question always is: So, yeah, my (insert appropriate relationship here) is toxic. What the heck (or other appropriate word) do I do about it?
How to Say No to Toxic People and Yes to Yourself
One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.
– Michael J. Fox
Toxic people are going to do what they do — use toxicity as a way to get their needs met. The solutions always lie within us. We have no control over what a toxic person says, does, doesn’t say, or doesn’t do. The only thing we have any control over it is how we respond to it.
What is your unedited, uncensored response?
What are you thinking? What are you feeling? If this could get resolved in the exact way you want it to, what do you want to see happen from here? Get crystal clear on what it is you want and then move to the how.
Is this a fight worth fighting?
Any time you engage with a toxic person about their behavior, there is going to be some form of conflict. It might be trite and wholly passive aggressive. It might result in a silent treatment and avoidance of the whole thing or it might result in an all-out war.
Before you choose to engage, you have to decide that this is a fight worth fighting for you; that not saying something or not doing something in response to this treatment doesn’t work for you or your self-respect, and that it has be to acknowledged.
This won’t be true every time. Not every transgression or pattern needs to be addressed. You don’t have the time or energy for every fight. Make sure you pick the ones that matter to you. A good rule of thumb for this is the 24-hour rule, or the seven-day rule. If you’re still feeling put upon, disrespected, or disregarded X amount of time after the event, it’s likely that you need to address it.
Start with transparent communication
The toxic person can read any meaning they want into your words. They can ignore everything you say and just do what they want to.
Communication isn’t for them. It’s for you. It’s so that when things hit the fan, you’ll know you did everything possible to have a more desirable outcome. You are focusing on saying what you mean and meaning what you say for your own peace of mind, not for the toxic person’s.
1. Tell the person what you want them to think.
Yesterday when we were talking, you said X. Honestly, I had a reaction to that. It made me feel Y and think Z. I am not happy with how we left things, and I need to revisit that conversation.
2. Tell the person clearly where that leaves them in relationship to you.
Whether you intended to or not, your comment has left me thinking A. It changes the way I see you and our relationship. Going forward I expect B and C. I know you might not agree and you might find this offensive but that’s where I land with this when all is said and done.
3. Don’t debate your thoughts, feelings, or boundaries.
Whatever you intended didn’t work out. This happened and I had a reaction. That reaction is simply not up for debate. I need this part of our relationship to change and that isn’t up for debate either. This is simply something that needs to change.
4. Stick to the boundary.
No exceptions here. As soon as you make an exception to a rule, color outside the lines, or treat the toxic person as different or special, you’re sacrificing your self-respect. You will second-guess yourself. You will doubt yourself. Neither are reasons to not set the boundary.
Toxic people are good at making us question our experiences. You know what you think. You know what you feel and you know what you need. Those are reasons enough to protect yourself from further toxicity, and the toxic person doesn’t have to agree with that.
You will walk away with grief and unmet needs
Toxic people leave us wanting, longing, hurting, and questioning. They leave us angry, stuck, and scared. They can make it so we feel trapped or stuck.
Many people wait until those feelings subside before they have the hard talk or set the boundary. That’s a mistake. Setting boundaries is going to feel bad. By definition, it’s a situation where someone wants to be closer to us than we want to be with them.
Toxic people want liberties on our time, attention, and energy that we are simply not willing to give them. In addition, they will sometimes be leaving us with a host of unmet needs. Accepting that you can’t get water from an empty well is a crucial part of this process.
The toxic person is limited, just not in the way they think
Here’s the second painful truth.
The toxic person, no matter their role in your life, is simply incapable of meeting your needs, even if they want to. Accepting that and moving on is painful when the person is a parent, partner, or family member.
Toxic people will tell you all the reasons they can’t. They will come up with all kinds of fronts or reasons to cast the blame on someone else and protect themselves from accountability. And here’s one place where they get it right: They can’t. They’re incapable.
We tell ourselves that toxic people make these choices. That they choose to live in the hurtful, combative way that they do. Therefore, we think they can stop choosing it. We tell ourselves stories about how they can do better but choose not to.
This is simply not true. Their ability to function in relationships in a healthy way is often impaired. The whys and reasons for this are large and varied. Some simply lack resiliency. Some can’t do intimacy. Others lack training. Many were traumatized. There are so many reasons why people develop repetitive patterns of hurting people they are close to.
Acceptance means saying yes to yourself
Acceptance means understanding that that person cannot meet your needs, but that doesn’t mean you have to go the rest of your life longing, searching, or wanting more love and respect. It means recognizing and accepting that what you need will be best provided by someone other than the toxic person.
It doesn’t make the hurt any less painful, but if we choose to accept that they would change if they could, it gives us the freedom to choose for ourselves: to decide that because they can’t show up in the way that we need, we need to show up differently for them — and ourselves.