I see lots of articles shared on social media about “cutting” toxic people out of your life. I even see fellow mental health pros sharing such tips for removing people from our lives completely.
We all know someone that is simply unpleasant to deal with. A nosy mother-in-law, a friend that is in some unspoken competition to one up you at every turn, or a boss who makes hurtful comments about you to coworkers – we’ve all experienced something that falls under the heading “toxic relationship”.
The idea of simply never seeing anyone who upsets you ever again is appealing. What a wonderful world that would be – no stress, ever.
Cutting someone out or off may not always be possible and in some cases it can be unhealthy or add to the present stress levels. Here are a few boundary-based tips to help navigate the troubled waters of toxic relationships.
1. Call it what it is. When you’ve got no choice but to carry on in the face of toxicity embracing that is freeing. It may feel forced and you could spend all your time in dread, sweating it out, complaining about the toxic person to anyone who’ll listen, but that’s likely to leave you feeling even worse. You could keep throwing yourself at the problem by vowing to be nicer/indifferent/whatever to thaw the person or ease the situation, but then you’re trying to control something you don’t have any control over (another person). Instead, just call it like it is. “This relationship is just difficult.” This relieves the pressure on you to play Mr. Fix It and allows you to live freely without having to hide in a closet at family holidays. It seems simple, but often when we quit struggling when trying to untangle a knot, the slack we’re given makes it easier to work with.
2. Your emotions are yours, theirs are theirs. The toxic person may enjoy telling you and others that you’re the source of the uncomfortable emotions they feel. That isn’t true. It can’t be – otherwise, somehow you’re in charge of that person’s thoughts and feelings. You’re somehow driving their bus. Since that isn’t possible at all, let this go, and don’t argue about it. You can’t be responsible for anyone’s actions or emotions but your own.
3. Breathe. When you’re in an intense situation and feeling intense emotion, don’t respond to whatever external stimuli the other person is offering you. Be quiet and breathe in and out. Focus on your breath until it becomes normal and slow again. Be aware that intense emotions weaken your ability to think clearly in the moment. Walk away when you need to.
4. Stick to the truth. It’s tempting to lie to avoiding hurting other people’s feelings. “Why didn’t you tell me you were in town?!” Instead of responding with how little time you had or that you just forgot, be honest. Share the truth without any harsh value judgments on them like, “Well, I just knew you’d be negative, so I didn’t want to.” That statement puts your prediction and feelings onto them. Try, “I feel nervous when I’m a guest with you. I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings.” Lying can further perpetuate the reality that the toxic person lives in. In this example, what if their gripe about you is that you never make time for family? You feed into it by making it seem as though you didn’t make time for them with your potential lie. Lying is stressful, period. It’ll only add to the issues in the relationship.
5. Grace. When I’m upset I’d prefer to receive public or written apologies from people who I believe have wronged me. That simply isn’t going to happen. I finally figured out that I could fume about their lack of initiative or simply make up for their shortcoming by issuing grace in their direction. I step into that gap with kindness. I do whatever I can for that person through prayer, sending good vibes their way, smiling at them more, holding a door, or simply accepting them for whatever it is that they are, even if it is an inconvenience to me.
When you can practice these things little by little with your most difficult relationships, you can start to use them elsewhere. You’ll begin to be just as kind to yourself with grace, acceptance, and honesty.