Toxic Relationships and Navigating Them

One of my tenets is this: life is too short to waste it dealing with poisonous people and having toxic relationships.

If you believe you may have one or more toxic relationships in your life, then one of the key people skills for you to master is recognizing and managing such relationships.

In my work as a communication coach, I often help my clients navigate through and beyond toxic relationships. I can tell you than acquiring the proper skills and attitudes to do this is not an easy process, but if you share the above tenet with me, you’ll definitely find in worth your while.

Toxic Relationships Signs

Toxic relationships can be present in any area of your life. You may have a toxic relationship with your spouse, your GF/BF, your parents, your boss, a friend, a colleague or a business partner.

Before anything else, you need to be able to look the monster in the eye and name it. In other words, you need to recognize toxic relationships and acknowledge them if they exist in your life. The following are in my view the top five signs of a toxic relationship:

1. Lack of balance. One person gives, the other receives. One person invests, makes sacrifices and compromises for the sake of the relationship, the other person takes, expects and demands compromises.

2. Heavy criticism. Any relationship where at least one partner spends significantly more time criticizing, accusing and putting down the other partner than praising and supporting him or her is a toxic relationship.

3. Emotional manipulation. If in a relationship you often feel pressured to do certain things, if the other person frequently uses shame, guilt, fear or anger as tools to push your buttons and direct your behavior, you’re in a toxic relationship.

4. Persistent anxiety. Your mood while interacting with a person is a good sign of the dynamic that relationship has. If you frequently feel anxious or tense while interacting with a person, or even just thinking about it, the relationship is toxic.

5. Disrupting your growth. Healthy relationships help every area of your life flourish. Toxic relationships do the exact opposite. Toxic relationships in your family life make you unfocused and unproductive at work; toxic relationships in your career make you distant and cranky when at home.

Measure any relationship based on these five signs and you’ll get a pretty good idea about the number of toxic relationships in your life. Once you discover any, the next step is to decide if the best way to go is to try and save them, or to end them.

Ending Toxic Relationships

Now, once they fully realize they’re in a toxic relationship, many people have the instinctual reaction to try and fix it. They think it is the noble and proper thing to do. After all, we get preached to all the time on how relationships require compromises and we should fight for them.

Well, that may sound dignified, but the fact it that it’s often not the best path to take. Here’s one essential thing I came to realize as a communication coach: most of the time, you’re much better off ending toxic relationships than trying to save them.

It may be emotionally hard to do so, but trust me: in terms of costs and benefits, the best thing you can do is in all probability to end it without even thinking twice.

As a strategy for ending toxic relationships, I typically recommend biting the bullet and going all the way. Don’t try to distance yourself gradually from the other person and to play it all safe. It usually won’t work and it will cause you a whole lot of trouble.

Have a serious discussion with the other person and tell them: “Look! This relationship is not working for me. It’s causing me huge distress. I’m ending it”.

The other person will likely try to fight you on your decision and manipulate you into not ending the relationship. Keep in mind that it’s your choice, that you don’t need the other person’s consent to end the relationship, and stick to your decision.

Fixing Toxic Relationships

OK: if you truly believe that a toxic relationship in your life can be fixed and for some practical reason, trying to save it is a good idea, then by all means go ahead and try and fix it.

The essential concept you need to understand if you walk this path is that toxic relationships are co-created. Thus, saving it can only be done if both parts are willing to change. Overall, saving a toxic relationship involves three key steps:

1. An honest and straightforward expression, by both persons involved, of their needs, wants, opinions and frustrations related to their relationship. Honest, open communication is crucial in the healing process.

2. Acknowledging each others rights and responsibilities. If one person refuses to admit the other person’s needs and wants (often different from theirs) and to take them into consideration, there is no saving for the relationship.

3. Working towards a win-win solution. Once both sides of the story have been expressed, heard and accepted, the two parts need to collaborate to find the mutually advantageous solutions, and to rebuild their relationship based on them.

Effectively handling toxic relationships is not a matter of using a few simple tricks and tricks. It’s a matter of gaining confidence and developing key people skills for building healthy relationships. It’s an inside-out journey that begins with you and ends with your relationships.

Image courtesy of CowGummy

How to Deal With Toxic People

We’ve all met them: they are the people who drain you of energy instead of enriching you, the people who pull you down instead of pushing you up, the people who require more then they can provide; the negative, wining, needy, manipulative people who can turn a happy day into a living hell.

I call them toxic people. One thing I notice is that no matter how good our people skills are in general, most of us have problems with dealing effectively with this kind of people. Even those with really sharp people skills often get caught up in the polluting relationships (personal or professional) toxic people create.

The good news is that there are effective ways to deal with toxic people. Working as a communication coach, I came to realize there are certain patterns of behavior and communication which work really well with this kind of persons. Here are the most significant of them:

1. Avoid toxic people

I believe the best way to deal with toxic people is to not deal with them at all; to avoid them. In some cases it may not be an option, but more often than not, it is. This is why I encourage you to really think about the options you truly have with every toxic person in your life.

It is common to think you have to deal with someone, when you actually do not. It is also common to believe you can get a toxic person to change while interacting with them. My experience is that unless you are a professional, you will not get them to change and trying it simply is not worth it.

2. Anticipate toxic people

It is harder than usual to get out of relationships with a toxic person. Toxic people tend to have this ability to make you feel bad for avoiding them and to attach to you like a leech. This is why it’s important to be able to spot them quickly, and start avoiding them before the relationship truly develops.

The best way I know to do this is to come up with a list of clues which you believe might indicate a toxic person. Then, every time you meet a person and a significant number of these clues are there, distance yourself from that person.

3. Set firm boundaries

Toxic people will often use you, one way or another. The may complain to you all the time while you listen hopelessly (?), or they may constantly get you to get them out of trouble. This is where boundaries come in. Boundaries are reflections of what you are and are not willing to do.

Setting firm boundaries means not allowing toxic people to use you in any of these ways. It means refusing to listen to them complain, refusing to get them out of trouble. When you have firm boundaries, there is basically nothing bad any person can do to you.

4. Get over your guilt

Most toxic people are very skilled at making others feel guilty when they don’t do what they want. This makes it particularly hard to set and maintain firm boundaries with them. But, there is a way out of this dilemma: getting rid of your guilt. It is your own guilt which toxic people use to break down your boundaries.

When you can set and maintain boundaries with them without feeling guilty, the weapon they have against you is gone. Realize that your guilt is irrational, pointless, and it is used against you by toxic people. This is the best way to get over it.

5. Do not defend yourself

When you avoid toxic people and you set boundaries with them, they frequently resort to accusing you, complaining and playing the victim in an attempt to get you to change your behavior.

One of the worst things you can do when this happens is to defend yourself. It is usually a futile action and it only keeps an immature dialog going which eventually helps the toxic person get what they want. You won’t get anywhere with them by defending yourself and your actions.

Unfortunately, toxic people are everywhere. And they tend to attach themselves to those persons who are kind and have the most to offer. When you have the people skills to deal effectively with toxic people, you have the option to respond to their attaching in the best ways for you.

As for helping toxic people change their ways, I encourage you to leave/pass this task to the professionals in this area.

PS: I now blog and share advice over here. Connect with me.

Image courtesy of Jesse Drapper