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Dealing with Difficult or Toxic People

Surprisingly, it isn't just about boundaries.

Everyone has had at least one difficult or toxic person in his or her life. Most of us use the classic modalities to deal with them: flight, fight or freeze. When Gary, for example, makes another jab at Alice’s sense of self, by telling her that she is stupid and inept, Alice just doesn’t know what to do, so she freezes—does nothing. This, of course, enables Gary to do it again next week or the week after. Or, perhaps she’s had enough, so this time, this time, she finally snaps back, by calling him some delicious names. This doesn’t work either because he’s more skilled at these kinds of fights than she is, so he says something even more damaging to her sense of self. Or, perhaps she just leaves the room when he does this. Not only is he likely to follow her and keep talking, but he is also likely to find a way to keep her from leaving the room next time.

The difficult people, the toxic people intend to hurt. They intend to control. They intend to diminish those around them. Of course, they do this because they are using these methodologies as a way of coping for their own deep-seating shame or power issues. But they don’t know this and neither do their victims. Rather they are so busy with these coping strategies that they don’t have time to consider why they are doing it. And because their strategies seem to work for them, they see no need to change.

The first thing that we have to do to deal with the difficult or toxic people in our lives is stop waiting for them to figure out that we are okay people. In other words, we have to start looking within for our sense of self, rather than trying to get confirmation or affirmation from the outside world. When we are waiting to get our sense of well-being from the external world, we are literally putting our vulnerability out there, where it can be wounded yet again. Our vulnerability needs to be protected by US first. And one of the primary ways for us to begin to protect it is to begin seeking ways in which we can be so present with ourselves that we no longer need external affirmation to be okay.

John Nicolas Stoodley/The New I Ching
Source: John Nicolas Stoodley/The New I Ching

Certainly external affirmation is nice. If we know ourselves, it affirms what we already know and we feel that the world sees us for who we are. But if we do not know who we are, if we are waiting for the world to define us, if we are hoping that achievement, or success, or applause will make us okay, make us real, make us into good, strong, noble, smart or okay people, then we are way too vulnerable to what the world has to say to us about us.

Therefore, one of the first and most important methods of protecting ourselves from the toxic people in our lives is to be so clear on who we are, that they can’t make us doubt it. That’s an inside job—the work of getting to know who we are at the base of our authenticity. And there is much to be said about that. In fact, I’ve already written a couple of different books about it. But it is only after we are comfortable in knowing who we are, that we can really put up and maintain appropriate boundaries.

Appropriate boundaries include, just to name a few, being very direct about what really needs to be said; refusing to talk about an issue until both parties can listen and develop some solutions to problems; even breaking off abusive or toxic relationships. But if we don’t really know who we are, if we don’t really engage in self-care and acts of self-love, we are not going to believe our own boundaries, and the toxic person will just break through them again tomorrow.