By: Lisa Philippart
In my last article, I presented several strategies that you can use to handle those toxic people in your life who bring negativity and unhappiness into your world. Now, I would like to continue the conversation with some other helpful thoughts and techniques to propel you forward toward healthier relationships. It is important to look at yourself and to explore your reactivity.
Without taking blame for the dynamic, you should look at the degree to which you overreact or underreact in the relationship. You may be unknowingly intensifying the dynamic and keeping it going in an unhealthy direction. For example, when you underreact, a controlling or bullying person will regard that as permission to keep treating you in precisely the same way. On the other hand, toxic people often tend to be hypervigilant about cues that a relationship is heading south, and will become angry and abusive when threatened. This type of overreaction will make narcissists feel powerful and inspire them to keep playing games. The key here is to work on managing your emotions and set some goals for yourself in terms of handling the relationship differently. One technique I use/teach to embolden your implementation of a plan is “if/then” thinking. Prepare by focusing on what you will do/say if an exchange happens. For example, “If my friend makes a nasty remark, then I am going to say, ‘Why would you say something so hurtful?’” Or in the case of the gaslighter, you might say, “If my mother denies what she said to me, then I will simply say, ‘You can’t intimidate me into believing that. It didn’t happen.’” I know this isn’t easy, and it does take practice, but standing up for your perspective is important.
I encourage you to recognize the power of intermittent reinforcement. Most of us tend to be optimistic (wait before you disagree with me!). We tend to see a close loss more as a “near win.” This is what keeps people at the slot machines! There is an evolutionary reason for this. When the challenges of life were largely physical (hunting and farming), staying encouraged enough to keep going was often the difference between life and death. We are more motivated to hang in there when we get what we want some of the time. B.F. Skinner introduced the concept of intermittent reinforcement. Quite simply, when food was delivered to a rat through a lever that worked randomly, the rat was fixated and totally hooked.
The rat who pushed the lever and always or never received the food learned that lesson quickly and then lost interest. This type of behavior shaping works in human relationships too. When a toxic person actually does something nice, your heart leaps, your optimism ramps up, and you think, “We are turning a corner!” This locks you in for that much longer, just like the rat. Now and again does not make a pattern…keep that in mind.
Finally, dealing with toxic people requires either boundaries or an exit strategy (or both). If the toxic person is someone you can’t avoid — like a co-worker, a neighbor, or family member — you will need to set boundaries for behavior and the kind of contact you are going to have. You may be one who has trouble recognizing what a healthy boundary looks like and may have no idea how to negotiate one. You don’t need to be rude, abrasive, or accusatory. In fact, it’s important that you aren’t. Rather, be firm and decisive. If it’s a work situation, go through the proper channels and put their inappropriate words or behaviors in writing. To the family member who makes jokes at your expense, you may say, “I don’t find that’s funny. I may not be the most organized housekeeper, but my family seems to be thriving nonetheless.” For the toxic others, you can ultimately give them the boot. But make a plan for your departure.
It is quite likely that the toxic people in your life have their own “investment” in your relationship. Generally, they like controlling you or lording their power over you; so once you start setting boundaries and confronting them, don’t expect them to go gently into the night. In fact, the chances are good that they will redouble their efforts through manipulation, gaslighting, or spreading rumors about you. Be strong. If you are struggling to end a toxic relationship, seek counseling for support and further boundary-setting approaches.
By: Lisa Philippart
Licensed Professional Counselor