Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What It Means to Become a "Toxic Handler"

Being the designated listener carries some real risks.

Key points

  • Toxic handlers are deeply empathic and have a talent for helping others understand and process their emotions.
  • Being the designated listener can make one susceptible to certain risks.
  • One must strive for a healthy balance when it comes to managing other people’s emotions if one wants to help.
Mimi Thian / Unsplash
Mimi Thian / Unsplash

Many people resort to therapy when they are exhausted from being the de facto therapist for the close ones in their lives. They may express their concern by saying things like:

  • “People joke that I should be paid for the amount of emotional labor I do. But what if I just want a break?”
  • “My friends tell me that they love me because I’m such a good listener. How do I tell them that even I need to be heard every now and then?”
  • “I used to love that people felt comfortable enough being vulnerable with me; now I think it’s a curse. How do I make peace with this?”

If these thoughts have crossed your mind frequently, you might be what is popularly known as a “toxic handler.” As the phrase suggests, toxic handlers are deeply empathic people who have a natural talent for helping others understand and process their strong emotions, especially negative ones. Being excellent listeners, they usually attract people who are in need of support and advice.

However, being a toxic handler should not be confused with being a superhero. Being the designated listener or receiver in every conversation can make you susceptible to a specific set of risks that other people are able to avoid with relative ease.

If you identify as a toxic handler, here are three safeguards you might need to put in place immediately for the sake of your mental health.

1. Get in touch with yourself.

Individuals who constantly find themselves solving other people’s problems are often deeply unaware of their own. What’s even more concerning is that one’s excellent listening skills can be a symptom of a potential problem they might be ignoring.

In such a scenario, soul-searching becomes imperative. Since the ones around you are benefiting from your knack for toxic handling, it is unlikely that they will raise any red flags. Introspection can help you get to the root of your listening habit and figure out what brings you solace when you’re exhausted by it.

You can begin by asking yourself questions like the following:

  • Am I always a silent listener, or can I speak my mind whenever I want to?
  • Do I always want to listen, or do I have to force myself to do it?
  • Can I help others without making their issues about me, or am I trying to fix myself through them?
  • Do I truly derive meaning from being a good listener, or am I just doing it for their validation?

Mindfulness—more specifically, mindfulness meditation—can help you answer these questions honestly and deal with the internal resistance they might give rise to, according to research published in Personality and Social Psychology. Mindfulness meditation has been designed to bring one’s attention to their self and the present moment.

Another study published in Acta Psychologica suggests that therapy, specifically acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), can help one develop mindfulness and gain keen awareness of their inner and outer experiences.

Once you are aware of the core motivations that prompt your toxic handling tendencies, you can then go ahead and exercise effective boundary setting.

2. Educate yourself on emotional consent.

Toxic handlers are valuable to any group environment, be it their families, friend circles, or even their workplaces. Often, they voluntarily shoulder the responsibility of managing the group’s emotions as they are the ones people feel most comfortable sharing their inner lives with. This can include in-group fights, bitterness, and negativity, as well as private information.

However, people rarely recognize when or where to draw the line. Therefore, it is important that the handler learns how to do it themselves and make it clear to the members of the group. An article published in Harvard Business Review explains that workplace toxic handlers (e.g., considerate managers) increase their team’s productivity at the heavy cost of their emotional and physical health.

A simple but effective technique to manage this responsibility in a healthy manner is to make “emotional consent” a general rule for the group. Emotional consent entails checking in with the partner in a conversation if they are ready and in a healthy mental position to receive some possibly distressing information.

Not only does it give the handler a beat to check in with themselves, but it also reinforces to the group that even the most patient and sensitive people cannot be emotionally available 24/7.

3. Identify the trauma dumpers.

Trauma dumpers refer to chronic oversharers who frequently dish out deeply personal and disturbing information, often because they do not understand or recognize it as traumatizing themselves.

While people may vent to feel lighter and merely express their anguish, trauma dumping is usually done to provoke sympathy and validation. You may be able to recognize it when someone shifts their responsibility of self-reflection to you. It is a way to avoid processing one’s own trauma.

Identifying a trauma dumper can be incredibly helpful for a toxic handler as it can help them differentiate situations where their skill set would actually help from the ones where their support would make no difference.

When dealing with a trauma dumper, it is essential for you to communicate, gently, that you will not be able to provide any real help and the individual should consider talking to a loved one or a mental health professional.


Being a good listener is a skill, not a curse. However, one must strive for a healthy balance when it comes to managing other people’s emotions if one wants to help someone. Keep reminding yourself that you are only human, and that while making others feel better feels good, it shouldn’t become your job.

Facebook image: BearFotos/Shutterstock

More from Mark Travers Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today