6 Ways to Deal with Toxicity

Without becoming the Joker

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

There is a sort of mantra that comedians are all slightly damaged people and that comedy comes from a place of pain. I hope that’s not entirely true, but I also find that the most humorous people have dealt with tragedy in their lives. And I also find that people who have never really been stung do try to resort to comedy and usually end up lashing out.

When you are dealing with an unequal and unfair situation you ultimately need to find a long term solution to that be it governmental change, leaving the city, altering the terms of the relationship, or getting long term counselling. But you will find that you also need an outlet in the interim.

So, I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but I have dealt with some truly toxic people and situations. Some of them have been so absurdly extreme that people often assume I just have a fantastic imagination. I will not pretend that I resolved all these situations with grace and dignity because for some of them I was a child. But, I’ve had enough of it that I now generally know what works and what doesn’t.

1. Worry About Yourself First

Particularly as a woman I have been trained to put others’ needs before my own. And through experience I know that I can go for days without food or sleep before my body gives out. But this is ridiculous. No one has any right to ask that of you and you should not feel the need to offer it. I have gone that far. I regret it. It will give people who hate you reason to delight and it ultimately serves no one. People may accuse you of being selfish, but take care of yourself first and then once that’s sorted you can reach out and be generous. Do not let anyone tell you that you earning a salary or getting your due or having a moment of rest is selfish or presumptuous. Remember that they said it because that is a person who does not deserve your generosity, but don’t take their words to heart.

2. Take a Step Back

This one was probably the hardest for me to learn because taking a step back often means removing yourself from other people or activities you love. I loved doing martial arts. Loved it. But I had to tolerate such constant derision, taunts, and threats from some of its practitioners that it didn’t matter how dedicated I was to my teachers or the dojo. There was no way for me to participate in that environment. So yeah, misogynists won the day I decided to stop fighting, but I got to keep my life and my mind.

Sometimes there’s no good decision and you just have to go with the best one. With luck things will change and you might be able to return. But probably not. However, you cannot force bad people to stop being awful. If you’re in an abusive relationship sometimes the only thing there is to do is leave.

3. Do Not Yield Your Reality

Toxic people will try to force their version of events on you. It’s often called gaslighting, but there’s quite a number of varied approaches that manipulative people will take. Once for me it got so bad that before taking a shower or going to bed I’d have to go out into the living room of my parents’ house and run my hands along the furniture to make sure I was really there and not hallucinating being at home. Another time someone nearly had me convinced I’d said things I knew I hadn’t said and that their torment of me was therefore justified.

The reason it got that far is that I’m just an absurdly empathetic person. I naturally see things from other people’s perspectives or what I imagine would be their perspective, and I go out of my way to understand other people’s points of view. Part of this is because I do genuinely want to be kind, but another reason is it does help in negotiation and diplomacy to understand other people. The problem is, I let it get so far that I nearly dissociated. I let people dictate their own version of events to me and rather than balancing it with my own. I let it subsume me.

Barring a serious neurological disorder, you know your own reality. It’s one thing to practice empathy; but refer to number 1 in this list. You must always remember reality. Most people won’t try to compromise it, but toxic people absolutely will.

4. Cultivate Your Social Networks

In all of my worst experiences the reason they got seriously bad is that I allowed myself to be cut off from people who cared about me. The clearest sign that you are dealing with a toxic or manipulative person — at least to my mind — is that they will tell you to stop associating with a person or several people. You don’t have to like everyone your significant other likes and you can even express it, but if you are telling friends or family not to speak to someone then something has gone terribly wrong.

Toxic people will try to isolate you. If you let them, they will remove people who might support you or advocate for you or even just calm you down and talk you off your proverbial ledge. Don’t let a toxic person dictate who you can talk to and don’t believe them when they suggest there might be something wrong in any of your other relationships. If you’re truly worried, go talk to your friend and reinforce that relationship against the manipulations of Lord or Lady Toxicity.

Pro Tip: Cultivating your social relationships with friends and family helps with number 1 and number 3 on this list because your social network cares about you as an emotional being and will remind you that no, actually, you’re not crazy.

5. Set Boundaries

A toxic person or a manipulator is in a constant state of absolute crisis and it is always unquestionably entirely your fault. This is exhausting, and it’s meant to be exhausting. They are trying to wear you down so that you will do whatever it is they want. And don’t be deceived. You can’t just give them what they want and expect to walk away. If you do you’ll find suddenly they are yet again in another crisis and it is once again unquestionably entirely your fault and how dare you not drop everything in your life and solve their horrible awful problem?

Set boundaries. If this is a person you want to remain in a relationship then you need to deal with them on your terms. And you need to reinforce those terms. You are not a punching bag. You are a person.

Empathy is a remarkable quality and if you wish to have empathy for a toxic person I absolutely encourage you to do so. This is something I myself consciously try to do in part to honour my mother’s memory and in part because you cannot piss off a toxic person more than by showing them grace. But make sure you practice empathy with firm boundaries in place.

This may mean — depending on the scenario — that some subjects are off limits, that they may only call or visit during given hours, or that they have to pay you ahead of time for work they want done. (Not really my story but I know of several dance festival organizers who mysteriously failed to pay dance teachers they’d brought out for the event. Toxicity is not reserved to personal relationships.) Terms and conditions may vary.

6. Find an Outlet

The worst part of dealing with toxic or manipulative people is that they are exhausting. They make you feel bad. They make you question other relationships and even reality. And you may even find yourself obsessing over their latest threat or guilt trip or “this disaster you had nothing to do with is totally your doing,” cause celebre. Even if this is a relationship you want to keep they are not worth and do not deserve your mental and emotional energy. The only people in your life who deserve that level of mental and emotional dedication from you are your children. And hopefully a.) said dedication will be overwhelmingly positive and affirming, and b.)you’ll raise them better than to behave like this towards others.

I opened talking about comedy and sometimes that is a good outlet. It did me a great deal of good when I realized — about a decade ago — that regardless of what a manipulator wants, you can share their various demands with a trusted confidante. And when you start doing that their demands stop being threatening and scary and something you must deal with immediately and start being … well, exactly what they are: ridiculous. Once you can laugh at the devil he no longer has any power. For me this is usually the best solution. Toxic people are inherently absurd. I would suggest you not out them if at all possible, but any power they have over you is based on their insistence that you keep their secrets for them and help them hide their ridiculousness. The minute you tell a friend about them — and you can do this without sharing their name or relationship to you so as to protect their privacy — they lose their power and you stop obsessing.

You can also write as I am doing now and as countless others have done in the past. You can put it into art as I sometimes do and countless others have done in the past.* You can clean up your house or take a bubble bath. And — I don’t recommend this because it’s a bit time consuming and I find it frustrating, but it works for some — you can write them a letter where you pour in all your annoyances and hurt and just not send it.

*If you choose to use an outlet such as writing or art be forewarned that toxic people and manipulators absolutely will find out about it and assume whether correctly or not that it is about them. It will become part of their litany of abuse towards you and they will remind you constantly that they’re reading it and insist you take it down “or else.” This has happened to me with multiple toxic people some of whom I genuinely wasn’t writing about and it’s happened to a number of celebrities and even great artists and authors. As long as you’re not doxing them just carry on. They’ll whine and complain but Michael Crichton famously wrote a critic as the worst type of rapist imaginable in one of his books for the dastardly insult of criticizing his work. You, in contrast, will be giving an outlet to your pain. If your manipulator has a problem with that, then they are really just telling on themselves.

And In Conclusion …

This will sound canned, but the only person whose reactions you can control is you. Toxic people are playing and depending on your generosity of spirit. They may even occasionally call you “generous” or give you some other compliment, but they’re just trying to draw you in. Nothing angers a toxic person like someone they can’t manipulate. So yeah, by asserting yourself and caring for yourself and caring for your friends and family before Lord or Lady Toxicity you will automatically anger them. And, because you’re a good person — and yeah, you are — that’s going to upset you. I’m sorry. I wish this were easier and everyone was kind. But it’s just not the case.

Also, you may feel that you attract toxic people and that that’s somehow your fault. It is not. Toxic people do sort of gravitate to generous people because their parasitic leeching is generally more effective there. Or at least they think it will be if they can just take all the resources you have for themselves. But that’s neither your fault nor your problem. If you’re a generous and strong person then that’s wonderful. You have all that to give to friends who genuinely love you. Toxic people will try to get their little lamprey jaws on you from time to time and if they do get a good bite for whatever reason it will hurt to pry them off, but it is their own issues and shortcomings which cause them to behave in this manner. You do not exist to fix them.

If you find yourself the victim of a toxic person you need to either get rid of them or put them in a position where they get from you only what you genuinely want them to have. You don’t have to be unkind to them or completely cut them off, but you do have to remember that they are taking from you all your strengths and talents and forcing you to waste it on someone who will never appreciate it. You are better off giving of yourself to the people who genuinely love you for you. And you will know those people because they will remind you to care for yourself and will care for you without question or demand.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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