Most of us know someone who is “toxic” — unscrupulous, corrupting, poisonous — to our sense of wholeness and wellbeing. Countless articles have been written about how to ruthlessly cut out and eliminate this person from our lives altogether, much like a disease to be eradicated. It’s a subject that has been a constant on our social media feeds and favorite websites for a few years now.

I’m often relieved after I’ve read one of these articles. I don’t have to feel guilty for ignoring my friend who’s wallowing in her own self-pity. I’ve been given permission to stop responding to my socially needy friend’s text messages. I can enjoy living free from anyone whose negative view of the world makes me uncomfortable.

When we view an individual simply as a poison to be dealt with, there’s real danger of losing our sense of morality and humanity.

But then I wonder: by immediately cutting out the toxic people in my life, have I become a little toxic myself?

Though I’m not condoning predatory or abusive behavior in any form, I’m wondering whether the conversation needs to be slightly reframed to include a bit of empathy and compassion. When we view an individual simply as a poison to be dealt with, there’s real danger of losing our sense of morality and humanity.

The truth is, we all have difficult relationships in our lives — and for many of us, it simply isn’t practical or worthwhile to sever all ties with people who negatively affect us. Many of us have coworkers, family members, friends, or even spouses who could be classified as “toxic,” and we wouldn’t want to eliminate them from our lives even if we could.

Before we talk about dealing with toxic people, it’s important to define what we mean by the term. In her Psychology Today article, Abigail Brenner argues that the eight traits common to all toxic people are: manipulative, judgmental, take no responsibility for their own feelings, don’t apologize, are inconsistent in personality, make you prove yourself to them, make you defend yourself, and aren’t caring or supportive in your life’s goals.

No wonder our knee-jerk reaction is to eliminate them from our lives!

So How Do We Deal With Toxicity… Compassionately?

No one should have to be subjected to constant manipulation, judgment, and unrelenting criticism. This is emotional and verbal abuse, plain and simple. The key in dealing with someone who behaves in this way is learning how to set boundaries with them.

Psychotherapist Sharon Martin describes why setting boundaries is so important: “Boundaries make our expectations clear, so others know what to expect from us and how we want to be treated. Boundaries are the foundation for happy, healthy relationships.”

She goes on to describe the three essential components in setting boundaries. The first is to identify your boundaries — what you need and why you need it. Then, you need to communicate these boundaries clearly, calmly, and consistently. Finally, if these boundaries aren’t respected, that’s when you need to evaluate the relationship and consider whether it’s healthy to continue spending time with this individual.

That final step may be necessary — but rather than starting with it, try communicating your boundaries to the person you have an issue with. It may be that your family member doesn’t even realize how negative he is, or how his attitude is affecting you. In my experience, a critical perspective is often a symptom of incredible unhappiness and lack of self-esteem, and it sometimes takes a hard conversation with a trusted loved one to allow for a breakthrough. By clearly communicating your boundaries, you may be able to pave the way for someone to seek counselling or other intervention.

However, be prepared for pushback. Implementing boundaries isn’t easy, especially with difficult people. Sometimes you need extra support from others. As Jill Gottenstrater states, “Just venting to or bouncing ideas off a friend can be all you need to stay strong and sane.”

Compassion cannot be limited to the toxic person. You must also extend it to yourself.

Limiting or ending relationships can be incredibly painful — even abusive ones. As Sharon Martin says, “Boundaries are a way to protect yourself from harm and maintain your autonomy and individuality. These are priceless gifts that you deserve to give yourself.” So you shouldn’t feel guilty for setting them — and for sticking to them.

Compassion cannot be limited to the toxic person. You must also extend it to yourself.

Relationships are a complicated, messy business, especially when it comes to those in our lives who are critical, selfish, and manipulative. Before you simply cut such an individual out of your life for good, try clearly stating your boundaries — and then do your best to enforce them. By doing this, you are not only allowing this person to see how their behavior is affecting you, you’re also respecting yourself and your limits.

To read more about how to create and implement healthy boundaries, consider reading Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

Are you dealing with a toxic person right now? Sometimes, it helps to talk about what you’re going through. We have free, confidential mentors who would love to support you through the journey. Just click on the “Connect” tab below.

This article was written by: Leanne Janzen

Photo Credit: Elijah O'Donell