Editor’s note: This is a guest post from AJ Harbinger.
There’s an old myth that frogs will pull down other frogs trying to escape a pot of boiling water. That’s likely the stuff of folklore, but the dynamic is real: in everyone’s life, there will always be people who will resist, threaten, and sabotage the possibility of self-improvement.
This general group of people — whom we can safely call “toxic” — might resent your progress for any number of reasons. Perhaps they think you’ll no longer be in their life if you improve too much. Maybe they feel like your improvement exposes their own shortcomings. Or perhaps they’re just threatened by the idea of change.
The causes are less important than the effects, which can take the form of anger, resentment, frustration, manipulation, or cruelty (or a debilitating combination thereof). At any given moment, you might be finding yourself dealing with toxic friends, family members, or colleagues who — consciously or unconsciously — are sabotaging your happiness and growth. Identifying these individuals and understanding how to manage them is absolutely crucial to your well-being, success, and happiness.
So in this piece, we’re going to discuss how to recognize toxic people and navigate the often difficult and emotional process of removing these toxic people from your life.
Because in a very real way, your future depends on it.
How to Know Who’s Truly Toxic
“Toxic” gets overused a lot these days, so let’s be clear about what we mean.
Some people in life are kind of a drag — annoying, difficult, demanding, or otherwise unpleasant. These people are not “toxic,” in the strict sense of the term. They’re just generally undesirable. With this (admittedly large) group of people, you might want to create a little distance, but you won’t have the same urgency to cut them out of your life.
Toxicity really exists on a spectrum. On one end, there’s your old friend from high school who won’t shut up about how you don’t spend enough time together. On the other end, there’s your ex-girlfriend who is still capable of manipulating you into fits of rage. Your friend might be frustrating, but your ex-girlfriend is probably toxic.
Of course, tolerance for toxicity is relative to each person — you have to decide when someone requires distance and when they need to be cut out of your life. Those lines vary from person to person. For example, your sister will probably get more leeway than a coworker, but everyone’s sister and coworkers are different, and everyone has a different threshold.
What we’re talking about here is true toxicity — the kind that infects, metastasizes, and takes over your life. Here are a few classic signs of toxic people:
- Toxic people try to control you. Strange as it might sound, people who aren’t in control of their own lives tend to want to control yours. The toxic look for ways to control others, either through overt methods or subtle manipulation.
- Toxic people disregard your boundaries. If you’re always telling someone to stop behaving a certain way and they only continue, that person is probably toxic. Respecting the boundaries of others comes naturally to well-adjusted adults. The toxic person thrives on violating them.
- Toxic people take without giving. Give and take is the lifeblood of true friendship. Sometimes you need a hand, and sometimes your friend does, but in the end it more or less evens out. Not with the toxic person — they’re often there to take what they can get from you, as long as you’re willing to give it.
- Toxic people are always “right.” They’re going to find ways to be right even when they’re not. They rarely (if ever) admit when they’ve messed up, miscalculated, or misspoken.
- Toxic people aren’t honest. I’m not talking about natural exaggerations, face-saving, or white lies here. I’m talking about blatant and repeated patterns of dishonesty.
- Toxic people love to be victims. The toxic revel in being a victim of the world. They seek to find ways to feel oppressed, put down, and marginalized in ways they clearly are not. This might take the form of excuses, rationalizations, or out-and-out blaming.
- Toxic people don’t take responsibility. Part of the victim mentality comes from a desire to avoid responsibility. When the world is perpetually against them, their choices and actions can’t possibly be responsible for the quality of their life — it’s “just the way things are.”
Do any of these sound familiar? They might help diagnose toxicity in the people around you, even if the toxic pattern isn’t always or immediately obvious. In fact, toxicity can easily go unnoticed for years until you stop to consider your own experience of a difficult person. Though our thresholds for toxicity are relative, that’s often because we fail to recognize the symptoms.
So how do you go about removing toxic people from your life?
Why Removing Toxic People from Your Life Is So Important
It’s rare for a toxic person to totally sabotage your attempts at self-improvement, but it does happen. At the very least, they will certainly slow your progress. More to the point, would you want someone in your life who’s actively opposed to making your life better?
The answer, of course, is no. And yet that can be hard to accept, until you begin to recognize the effects of toxicity within you.
Under the influence of a toxic person, you might second guess yourself on an important decision. You might feel sad, uncomfortable, and downright ashamed about your own progress and well-being. You might even take on some of the same toxic qualities you resent in others — something that happens to the best of us — because toxic people have a peculiar way of making you toxic yourself.
(In fact, the contagiousness of toxicity is a natural defense mechanism. Howard Bloom in The Lucifer Principle explains how increased toxicity of cyanobacteria was one of the first evolutionary adaptations — bacteria actually evolved to get more and more toxic in order to survive. The same applies to humans on the macro level.)
And more often than not, the pattern happens without us even realizing. If you’ve ever had a toxic boss, then you know how this works: his behavior makes you irritable and bitter, so you lose your temper with the team working under you, which causes your employees to become increasingly difficult with one another, which causes them to bring that attitude home to their friends and family, and before you know it, the poison has unconsciously spread.
That’s how toxicity works. It’s contagious and insidious, even in kind, well-adjusted people. That’s what makes it so dangerous, and that’s why removing toxic people from your life is so critical.
How to Cut Out the Truly Toxic People
First, a quick warning: Cutting toxic people out of your life can blow up in your face. That’s part of the disease. With that said, it’s absolutely crucial to remove these people from your life in a healthy and rational way.
So how do you go about removing these toxic people from your life and reclaiming the time and energy you’ve been giving them?
- Accept that it might be a process. Getting rid of toxic elements isn’t always easy. They don’t respect your boundaries now, so it’s likely they won’t respect them later. They might come back even after you tell them to go away. You might have to tell them to leave several times before they finally do. So keep in mind that distancing yourself is a gradual process.
- Don’t feel like you owe them a huge explanation. Any explaining you do is more for you than for them. Again, tell them how you feel, which is a subject not open for debate. Or, if you prefer, keep it simple: Tell them calmly and kindly that you don’t want them in your life anymore, and leave it at that. How much or how little you tell them is really up to you. Every relationship requires a different approach.
- Talk to them in a public place. It’s not unheard of for toxic people to get belligerent or even violent. Talking to them publicly can significantly diminish the chances of this happening. If you run into problems, you can just get up and leave.
- Block them on social media. Technology makes distancing more difficult, so don’t leave any window open for them to bully or cajole you. You’ve set boundaries. Stick to them. This includes preventing them from contacting you via social media, if appropriate. Shutting down email and other lines of communication with a toxic person might also be in order.
- Don’t argue — just restate your boundaries. It’s tempting to fall into the dynamic of toxicity by arguing or fighting — that is precisely what toxic people do. In the event they do return, make a promise with yourself to avoid an argument. Firmly restate your boundaries, then end communication. You’re not trying to “debate” the person into leaving you alone. This isn’t a negotiation. You can, however, make it less and less attractive for them to keep bothering you. “Do not feed the trolls!”
- Consider writing a letter. Writing yourself a letter is a sort of dress rehearsal for an in-person conversation. You’re clarifying your thoughts and articulating your feelings. You can also refer back to the letter later, if you need to remember why you made the decision to cut someone out. Because toxic people often do everything they can to stay in your life, you’ll need all the help you can get.
- Consider creating distance instead of separation. Remember the person we talked about above — the one who’s not toxic, but just a drag? You don’t have to cut these people out of your life completely. You just need to create distance by occupying your time with other friends and activities, and agreeing not to feed into their dynamic.
And in many cases, you might not have to “do” anything at all.
For many toxic relationships — especially with friends and colleagues — you’ll only need to make an internal decision to create some space, without having a bigger conversation with the toxic person again. Remember: you don’t owe anyone an explanation. You can just slowly ghost out of their life to the degree necessary, until you’re no longer affected by the toxicity. That might seem obvious, but it can be tempting to think that you have to make your distancing obvious and vocal, when in fact most of the work is on your side of the equation. Like a fire, you can simply stop feeding the flames.
Still, there’s one specific scenario in which you might have to handle things a little differently: when toxic people are your blood relatives.
What to Do When a Toxic Person Is a Family Member
A toxic relative is a sticky situation. There are no easy answers, and no standard answers that are right for everyone.
Still, cutting out toxic family members might be the most important cut you’ll ever make. Family has a unique way of getting under your skin and directly influencing your thoughts, behaviors, and choices. Relatives don’t own you simply by virtue of being blood. Being family doesn’t confer any special exceptions to toxicity. Relatives don’t have a magical license to screw up your life. Remember that.
Which is why simply creating distance from toxic relatives is probably the best move, whether it’s physical or emotional. But when it comes to family (as opposed to friends or colleagues), your distancing might require some special allowances. You might distance yourself emotionally, while still recognizing that you’ll have to interact with this person on a practical level (by seeing them at holiday dinners, say, or taking care of a parent together). Indeed, your distancing with a family member might require you to disentangle your practical involvement from your emotional involvement — you’ll still agree to engage with this person when necessary, but you’ll refuse to let them drag you into the emotional pattern of toxicity.
The important thing with family is to tread lightly and make calm, rational decisions, because how you deal with a toxic family member can color your entire family relationship. There are often larger ripple effects in a family than there are in a friendship or workplace.
So ask yourself: What blowback will you get from other family members? What will the holidays be like? Can you realistically cut them out completely? You might answer these questions and still decide to separate yourself. Or you might adjust your approach accordingly. The important thing is to take the time to consider the dynamic and the effects of the situation before making a decision.
I won’t lie: Cutting people (especially family) out of your life can be one of the most challenging things you can do. But as we’ve said, it’s also one of the most liberating and life-changing decisions you’ll ever make.
Most importantly, cutting toxic people out sends a key message to yourself. You’re saying: “I have value.” You’re prioritizing your happiness over someone else’s dysfunction. Once you recognize how toxic people can erode this basic sense of self-worth, it becomes harder and harder to allow them in your life.
So tell us: Have you ever had to cut a toxic person out of your life? How did you do it? What was the outcome? I’d also love to hear about toxic people you don’t know how to get rid of. Either way, here’s to improving your social circle and your happiness this year — by subtraction as well as addition.
This piece originally appeared on Art of Charm and was written by AJ Harbinger. Harbinger is the CEO and co-founder of The Art of Charm, and the host of the The Art of Charm Podcast. He lives in Hollywood, California, which provides no shortage of places for him to test and develop the techniques for successful social dynamics taught by The Art of Charm.