Are there toxic people in your life?

December 18, 2007 — 2 Comments

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 The following is the second installment of a three-part series. 

There are many kinds of disappointment — and many different ways of dealing with it.

In my own life, I have frequently found that the best way to deal with disappointment is to spot it coming and head it off.

It is very true that everyone gets disappointed, and everyone disappoints. However, some people make a habit, even a lifestyle, of hurting others — intentional or not. That can take disappointment to a whole new level.

There are people in life who are simply not safe. I call them toxic. They spew ugliness and breed discontentment everywhere they go. They can contaminate your life like a poison, refusing to respect your personal boundaries and manipulating you either overtly or covertly to whichever position is most advantageous to themselves.

All of us know people like that, and many of us have someone in our circle of family or friends who fits that description. Yet, so many times we find ourselves knowing their character in our heads but believing in our hearts that they are actually going to be different this time. That’s what I call magical thinking.

When we see the evidence clearly and then consciously or unconsciously choose to completely disregard it, we again set ourselves up to be disappointed.

I see this a lot with children — particularly children of divorced parents. One young client used to cry every visit as he said, “But Daddy promised he would come to see me this week, and he didn’t.” His tears were tears of disappointment. Through the weeks and months, those tears were quietly replaced by glares of anger and signs of depression. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the little boy held on to the hope that his father would change. . . that somehow, almost miraculously, the dad would become a man of his word — someone who would deliver on his promise.

You know, adults are often just like that little boy. The wounds of our past can compromise the quality of our future, if we do not deal with them effectively. One of the best ways to deal with disappointment is to recognize the denial you embrace — denial that keeps you stuck, hoping that people will be different. . . and acting as though their toxicity has been sufficiently diluted so as to allow for meaningful relationship.

When we recognize the denial in our lives — and the way it entraps us — we can empower ourselves to make choices based on fact rather than fantasy. There are essentially two ways of handling people who repeatedly disappoint us: (1)We can continue the relationship with the toxic person, downwardly adjusting our expectations to reflect the new reality. Or, (2)we can discontinue the relationship with the toxic person, freeing us to invest our time and emotional energy in those who add quality and value to our lives.

Failure to deal appropriately with disappointment of this type can lead to more frequent and more intense encounters with it down the road, as we give the toxic person increasing power in our lives.

This is one of the most difficult things for many people to do, particularly Christian people. Due to its hallmark of loving God and loving others, the Christian faith can become a pious excuse for self-abuse. What in the world does that mean? It means that as Christians, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We must first love ourselves — and sometimes the best way we can love ourselves is to cut toxic people out of our lives (or at least minimize contact with them). That’s a very tough thing to preach in Christian circles, but it’s true nonetheless.

Think of it this way: If you burn your hand on the stove, what is the best treatment?

a.) Do nothing
b.) Apply rubbing alcohol to your hand frequently
c.) Place your hand back on the stove to see if it is still hot
d.) Tell your hand that the stove was not really hot
e.) Allow your hand time to heal, applying antibacterial ointment to aid the process

Of course, the answer is E. It is frequently said that “time heals all wounds.” This is an outright lie! Time alone does not accomplish anything; it’s what we do with that time that counts.

Think about options A through D for a minute. They seem so silly, don’t they? Yet those really are ways that we approach our relational wounds in life. Sometimes we think that doing nothing is the answer. Sometimes we think that a quick confrontation is the answer. Sometimes we think going back to the person periodically to see if they’ve changed is the answer. And sometimes we think denying that there is a problem is the answer.

The fact of the matter is this: Only time, paired with appropriate treatment, can prevent secondary wounding from taking place. All the other options open us up to more problems — and possibly even deeper problems, particularly risk of infection.

How are you dealing with your disappointment with toxic people in your life? You don’t have to keep subjecting yourself to the same injuries over and over again. Breaking the cycle of hurtful experiences often requires the skill of a trained clinician. If you need help dealing with relational issues, please make a call to someone who can help you. It will take a lot of work, but you’ll be glad you did.

2 responses to Are there toxic people in your life?

    Shannon DeBalli March 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    I have a toxic sister who my whole family has been forced to cut off. It was so nice to read a realistic article about this problem. Too often others judge what they do not understand and feel we should have just tried harder. This is still hard but much better than the constant pain she inflicted.


      Shannon, I’m sorry to hear about the situation with your sister. However, I’m glad you found something in this post of help. You are exactly right about others’ frequent rush to judgment rather than understanding the intrinsic complexities of human relationships — most of which are not entirely dependent on any ONE person. How much we could benefit from walking a mile in another person’s shoes. Thanks for stopping by.

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