Lesson from the Couch: Toxic People
This topic surfaced recently with my client dealing with a toxic boss. As she described her boss, she showed all the signs of a lot of toxic people, draining, unsupportive, blaming, critical and great at “gaslighting”. She didn’t really see that her boss was toxic but believed that she just didn’t like her or the quality of her work. Her boss would micromanage her daily activities, and in meetings find ways to minimize her accomplishments and point out errors in her work. Other team members were exempt from that level of scrutiny, and they recognized that their turn in the hot set could come at any time, so play nice, keep your eyes down and smile when prompted.
This post is personal in some ways as I have worked in toxic environments with people who were miserable and made sure everyone else was joyless too. In my work with employee EAP programs, countless numbers of people are literally becoming sick of their jobs. Toxic work environments have become normalized and accepted behavior to meet the goals in many organizations. In our current covid workforce many have decided to walk away, change careers, or refuse to leave remote work. Employers are scrambling to keep workers or replace the ones that left. Leadership is wondering how we get creative minds to help solve our problems; where are those independent thinkers and how do we cultivate those already here for the next levels. My answer to these questions will need to wait for another post, but you get the picture.
I want to talk about how you can spot, stop, and deal with the toxic people.
How do you spot a toxic person?
People who are toxic aren’t born with a big T in the middle of their forehead, they come in different shapes, sizes races, sexes and ethnic backgrounds. If you have ever heard the phrase “hurt people hurt people” then you get the idea, it’s about their pain, need for relief and emotionally immature way of coping. They can show up as nice to your face but bad-mouth you behind your back. There are the people who try to make you feel bad about yourself. Then there are those that stir up drama and don’t seem to know how to let things go. Each one of these people have something in common: they all try to bring you down so that they feel better about themselves. Some people can go as far as, shove obstacles in your path or even result to direct sabotage. Other just masquerade as your friend and use manipulation and other means to find a sense of power.
How to know if you have a toxic person in your life
You feel drained when around them.
You feel the need to protect yourself.
You feel responsible for their happiness or success.
You feel that they are always in a crisis and in need of help.
You feel that you are not heard or seen when you are with them.
You feel that you sacrifice your needs and wants them to keep the peace.
Toxic people can also drain you of your energy. They can make you feel like you don’t have the strength to do anything. You know that they are stirring things up, and there is nothing that you want more than to let it go, but they keep bringing it up. I think that most people try to ignore their toxic friends or family members because they have normalized their behavior to a level of acceptance. Meaning: Oh, Sam he’s always like that…
Toxic bosses can pretend to be sympathetic, compassionate and encouraging to your goals, but be aware that they perceive the good things that happen to you thwart their opportunities for success. When you are winning, like my client was and being seen by others in the organization for work on a special project, her boss doubled efforts to manipulate and undermine her. Yes, believe it! No, it’s not sane and totally undercuts the goals of the organization, and yes there is a diagnosis.
Toxic people bring up past issues repeatedly. It usually starts with “you always or you never”. They keep bringing it up, hoping that you’ll continue to fight about it. Toxic people belittle your thoughts or aspirations on a regular basis. A toxic person can have a way of getting inside your head. They can be so worried about themselves that they don’t seem to care if your feelings are hurt.
When toxic people believe you are weak, they see you as a puppet they control, which gives them a sense of power. When you need their approval for confidence like what could happen in a work scenario, they believe they now own your self-esteem. They will run you into emotional bankruptcy before you have a chance to realize what is happening like what happen to my client.
I think that people sometimes justify being around toxic people by thinking to themselves that they are the only ones who understand them, and guilt can also play a part in how we manage these relationships. Truth is you have a right to be around people who support you, so don’t feel bad about not wanting to be around someone who does not have your best interest.
What is the psychology behind toxic people?
I think that every person has a certain part of themselves that is called “the core self”. The core self is the thing that you value most, and it’s the part of you that you feel like is inseparable from yourself. It’s what gives you a sense of purpose, and a bit of a moral compass for life. I think that people who are toxic have a hard time understanding their own core selves, because they don’t know how to be compassionate or loving towards themselves. They can’t accept themselves as they are, and sometimes this manifests itself in being unkind to others.
How to deal with a toxic person
Most people find it hard to deal with a toxic person because they want to avoid confrontation and this case, can be touchy, but to be the grown up in this situation means to take care of self. My grandmother taught me that you can show people better than you can tell them.
Acknowledge that some people are not good for you and will only cause anxiety. These toxic relationships (work and personal) will steal your joy, passion, money, hope, and faith in mankind, which is why learning to identify and set boundaries can salvage your mental health.
You must be the adult here.
“When no one comes to save you, you must learn to save yourself”.
You must set some boundaries around your life. You may want to communicate that you want to have less contact and why. Be prepared for whatever story, anger or hostility they will come back with. If they are hearing this message and still refusing to understand your position, then it may be time for some hard love. When most people get feed up with toxic people, they just ghost them. While this may not be ideal or considered mature, it will allow you time to clear your head and do some self-care until you are ready to revisit the conversation.
In this case, my client did follow HR protocol which unfortunately left her unprotected from retaliation. She followed her legal options and documented her experience, and then she began looking for another job. We walked through the process of rebuilding her self-esteem, reviewing her accomplishments, ideas, and problems solving skills. We discussed how this situation had impacted her, and how it was a pattern for other relationships in her life. She had to decide what she was going to allow and not allow moving forward. In this case, she had needed to leave this environment and find a workplace that appreciated her skills and talents. Sometimes we are not aware that we can draw in things, people and situations to teach lessons, and in this case, it was to remind her of where her to true strength and power lives, and never to give it away again.
Toxic people can teach you valuable lessons, that can help you become more in love with yourself and your life. Setting boundaries and is one of the most powerful things in life. It tells the world how you wish to be treated! Damaged people and problematic situations can awaken dormant things inside that were forgotten, and a discovery of greatness reborn. If you survive the encounter, you can learn boundless thing about yourself and a different way to walk in the world.