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Joseph H. Baskin M.D.
Joseph H. Baskin M.D.

Dealing With Toxic People

How do I separate from those who bring me down?

How do we deal people in our lives who bring us down? Who tax our emotions leaving us drained and unhappy? What makes them that way, and how can we recognize an untenable relationship and extricate ourselves?

The development of personality is a complex interaction of genes, environment, and positive/negative reinforcement during development. For some, it is easy to trace the origins of their bad behavior. They learned early on to manipulate others' (in this instance “other” represents the object of the desired emotional interaction) emotions in order to avoid their own internal negative feelings. Some experienced repeated traumas pushing them to develop methods for human interactions that reflect desperation alternating with aggression. Yet another category just don’t like to hear the word "no."

Regardless of the genesis of the bad behavior, they approach relationships with the same crooked method for maintaining a bond. They are usually gifted and have a great ability to draw interest. Charming, seductive, highly skilled in their approach, they lure either romantic or platonic partners into their twisted world.

How do you know you’re in a toxic relationship?

  • Each interaction ends with you feeling empty, frustrated, and down.
  • No matter how much you offer, how much you invest, it is never enough.
  • Every attempt to clarify your position, to “clear the air," is reversed and you are accused of being the aggressor.
  • You finally identify this relationship as the cause of so many of your troubles.

Extricating yourself is another matter. It obviously depends on your level of commitment, ranging from mere associates to co-worker, friend, and finally to significant other.

The easiest method is to simply no longer interact with them. It isn’t the most elegant solution, but most understand termination even if they don’t know the exact reasons. Apart from casual acquaintances, this usually won’t suffice. Nor will simply “ghosting” cause them to fade away. They often aggressively want to know why you’re unfriending them and will be genuinely puzzled (having minimal insight into how their own behavior impacts their relationships).

Brutal honesty will have an impact on those with a reasonable amount of insight. They will be hurt, it will be an unpleasant exchange, but the relationship will end for both parties. However — and this is where the rubber meets the road — some people cannot accept the negative feedback and will not give up. For those unfortunate to be in this kind of relationship, it can involve near-violent confrontation, require legal involvement (restraining orders), a change of phone number, and in the extreme, a change of residence.

Hopefully few of us know the type of interaction that requires such a perilous intervention. The act of cutting someone off itself will be painful, but ultimately necessary to maintain our own sanity. The relief one obtains from distancing from a toxic person is itself reward for the pain of making the break.

About the Author
Joseph H. Baskin M.D.

Joseph H. Baskin, M.D., is a staff psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and assistant professor at the Cleveland Clinic.

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