This article fisrt appeared on Happify
Toxic people—those who spread negativity and find fault in others—are not hard to find. They’re easier to spot in workplaces where the stresses can bring out the worst in us. Some of us also know them in our homes as partners, children, or the family members we would rather avoid.
It’s not easy to deal with them by any stretch of the imagination. As social animals, we’re highly affected by the emotional energy around us. As conscientious individuals, we can also feel bad when we react in ways that aren’t aligned with how we’d like to show up in the world.
If you’re dealing with a toxic person (or people) in your life, here’s a set of three responses that will help you decide how to best manage yourself around them. These are inspired by psychoanalyst Karen Horney’s three categories of “neurotic needs”—natural human needs that can turn extreme when we’re unable to think clearly.
Response # 1: Fight for Power
This is the most common reaction to a violation of our space. It can show up as overt aggression, which often makes a bad situation worse, and we may end up with the secondary emotions of guilt and shame. It can also show up as suppressed anger where we talk about the toxic person behind their backs or ruminate about their behaviors and allow them to take up more space in our lives than they deserve. It’s best to stay away from a quid pro quo of toxicity and manage the situation in less confrontational ways. But if you believe that you’re not left with many other choices, you need to stand up for yourself by getting clear on the facts.
Where are they truly out of line and where may your own desire for power or recognition be getting in the way? When you have clarity, think of the one or two “asks” that will help you set clear boundaries. What do you need them to do? How do you expect them to behave? Make your asks short and to the point—it’s counterproductive to embark on lengthy explanations and best to end the interaction with an offer to help where you can. A word of caution: Stay vigilant about these boundaries and reestablish them when needed.
Response # 2: Cut Them Off
Another response is cutting ties with the other person. This strategy is best reserved for the “aware don’t care”—toxic people who are aware of their behavior but don’t care what its impact is on others. Many of us have had a boss or co-worker in this category, and have found sanity by staying as clear of their path as possible. However, for people who are less aware of their toxicity, cutting them off is an inhumane response given that many toxic people spread negativity as a way of gaining love and attention.
Before you decide to build your walls, think through to the consequences for the other person. What’s your relationship with them? Do they depend on you for their growth and well-being? Would it be better if you center yourself before each encounter so you’re able to be present and empathetic? And if walls are indeed the only way you can meet your needs at the moment, keep your mind and heart open to bringing them down when you’re ready.
Response # 3: Reach Out to Help
This is by far the most difficult of the three responses, yet the one that can bear the greatest fruit in how you feel about yourself, how it benefits the other person and how it nurtures the relationship. And yet, like the other two responses, you need to know when it’s appropriate and when it may not be helpful. The real question you need to ask yourself is whether you’re reaching out to the other person from a place of helplessness or from a genuine desire to be helpful.
Do you fear rejection and are your efforts motivated by the need for approval? Or are you moved by their suffering and drawn to helping them through it? If it’s the latter, then ask yourself whether you’re the right person to do so, and if you can commit to the long game. If you’re ready and able, then remember to put yourself at the center of your efforts, so that you have your own oxygen mask on as you reach out to help them with theirs.
Whichever reaction feels right for you at this time, remember the humanity in toxic people; it’s easy to forget it given their behaviors. As mindfulness practitioner Jack Kornfield says, “The chance to turn the straw we find into gold is there in our hearts.” Tend to your hearts with self-compassion so you open up empathy, wisdom and the courage to turn difficulties into the best possible outcome.