At some point, nearly everyone will encounter someone “toxic,” or find themselves involved in a toxic relationship with a friend, family member, coworker, or romantic partner. These toxic entanglements attack your state of mind and well-being in the same way that actual toxins attack your body. Toxic relationships can destroy your self-worth and confidence, drain you emotionally, and leave you questioning all the things you once liked about yourself. For those who already struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental illness, toxic people can be especially detrimental. They can also bring a previously healthy person down to the point where he or she develops anxiety and depression issues that weren’t there before.
For these reasons, it’s so important to learn how to identify toxic relationships so you can remove the person (or at the very least, that person’s negative impact) from your life as soon as possible. Toxic people have no place in the life of a healthy, happy individual.
Types of Toxic Relationships
Toxic relationships and toxic people are not all created equal. We often think of romantic partners when we hear the term “toxic relationship,” and for good reason – we’ve all known someone who’s been in a volatile relationship filled with constant drama, explosive arguments, or even physical or emotional abuse. Or maybe you’ve been in this situation yourself with one or more of your significant others.
But there are other types of toxic relationships that we all should be aware of:
- Toxic co-workers and supervisors. Have you ever had a terrible boss who made unreasonable demands or failed to treat employees with respect? Have you ever had a co-worker who was scheming and manipulative, or whose presence was so draining that you go out of your way to avoid them? If so, you know something about toxic workplace relationships, and you know how exhausting it can be to deal with it day in and day out.
- Toxic family members. While the ideal family is supportive, loving, and always there for you, dysfunctional family relationships are incredibly common – it’s one reason why the holidays are so stressful for many people. Toxic family members may be manipulative or overly demanding; they may be emotionally volatile or prone to explosive anger; or they may have untreated addictions, mental illness, or personality disorders that inevitably affect those closest to them.
- Toxic friends. Toxic friends tear you down rather than build you up. Much like toxic romantic partners, they may be overly demanding, put you down constantly, or otherwise regularly disregard your needs and feelings. With toxic friends, you get the feeling that the friendship is all about them, and that there’s no equal give and take. You may find yourself walking on eggshells around this person to avoid upsetting them, because reasonable communication, especially in instances of disagreement, seems impossible.
Are You in a Toxic Relationship?
Sometimes toxic relationships are easier to identify – for example, in instances of physical or blatant emotional abuse, or when the person has betrayed you in a significant way. But other times, toxic relationships can be harder to spot, especially if you don’t know what to look for.
Signs that you might be in a toxic relationship:
- When you know you’re about to see the person, you feel anxious or unsettled. It’s not something you look forward to.
- In the person’s presence, you feel that you can’t do anything right. The person seems to always be judging you or making you feel stupid.
- The person makes you feel that you’re responsible for his or her happiness, and you’re always worried about doing something to “disturb the peace”.
- You get into an argument nearly every time you see the person.
- The person causes you to feel ashamed of something about yourself.
- The person expects a lot from you, while you can hardly depend on him or her for anything.
- You receive no encouragement or support for your goals and ideas from this person.
- You feel you can’t be open and honest without causing the person to have a bad reaction.
- You feel undeserving of respect, as though you’ve done something to bring on such bad treatment.
Removing Toxic Relationships from Your Life
Being around toxic people can lead to toxic thoughts and negative moods within yourself and can make your life more stressful all around. Removing toxic relationships from your life is an important step in the journey toward happiness and self-acceptance.
Take an honest look at yourself. Ask yourself whether you are a people-pleaser who is overly accommodating of others. Those who tend to go out of their way for others are particularly vulnerable to toxic relationships, because toxic people see this trait as something they can exploit. Begin prioritizing your needs first and foremost.
End the relationship if possible. If you can, it’s ideal to cut ties with the person altogether. Whether you explain your reasons or simply stop all communication is your choice. However, be aware that if you do discuss it, it could turn into yet another explosive argument, or the toxic person may try to “win you back” by telling you what you want to hear (this is very common in abusive relationships). Cutting ties can be incredibly difficult, and may hurt for a while after the fact, but eventually you’ll realize how much more at ease you are without that person’s negative influence.
Protect yourself from the toxicity. In some instances, you might feel that you can’t cut the person out of your life completely — for example, if you live with the person, or if he or she is your boss/coworker or close family member. This is where you must begin to stand up for yourself and make it clear that you will not put up with anymore unreasonable behavior. Often, toxic people and bullies keep doing what they do because no one calls them out on it. Confronting the behavior directly can have a surprisingly effective impact. (If the person is your boss, you may want to take your concerns to Human Resources before confronting him directly.)
Remember, you’re an adult. You don’t have to simply accept a person’s negative actions. But rather than having a long, energy-draining confrontation, nip it in the bud quickly. For example: “Mom, I know you disagree with how I live my life, but your constant criticism is draining and not helpful. This is what I’ve chosen, and if you can’t accept it, then I’m just not going to discuss this anymore.” And then you have to follow through! The next time you’re criticized, simply refuse to engage. You can reiterate what you said previously: “I told you, I’m talking about this anymore.” If the bad behavior persists, remove yourself from the situation (get up and leave, even if it’s just to another room). This sends a strong message to the toxic person that you’re serious.
Set limits and support yourself. If the toxic person must remain in your life, then it’s good to limit your time spent with them, if possible. It’s also helpful to give yourself a little pep talk before you see the person. Say to yourself, I am not the problem, this person is. What they say and do will not affect me. This person can’t upset me anymore, because I know that what they say has no merit. When you’re engaging with the person, visualize a strong fortress built around your heart that their words and actions cannot penetrate.
Important note: If you’re in a toxic, abusive relationship with a romantic partner, you may not feel free to leave out of concern for your safety. There are many organizations there to support you and help you get out. Contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline or an organization in your area.