To stop an unreliable friend or a cheating spouse from upsetting us, we need to take charge, set boundaries, and stop toxic relationships.
We can be quick to label people who don’t treat us well: an unreliable friend, an unfair boss, a cheating spouse. We may call their behaviour toxic, indicating they are somehow poisonous. But if we really want to stop them from upsetting us, we need to take charge.
Why are some people so hurtful?
“Many people try to define a ‘toxic person,’ but at the end of the day, it’s a label that doesn’t really exist,” says Constance Lynn Hummel, a registered clinical counsellor.
“It’s often used to refer to people we let walk all over us when our own boundaries aren’t strong enough. This can include consistent encroachment on other people’s time and resources, using anger and intimidation to control those around them, playing the victim to elicit pity and have people do things for them, and generally a lack of personal insight on the impact they have on the world around them.”
Is it worth it?
Sometimes you know a relationship or friendship isn’t working, but you’ve invested so much time and effort you just keep it going. Karen and Laurie met when their three-year-old daughters attended ballet class together. They lived near one another and soon started meeting at the park and alternating play dates at each other’s homes.
Laurie became the go-to person for Karen to vent about financial problems, an argument with her husband, or gossip about mutual friends. Laurie began to ignore Karen’s calls in an effort to phase herself out of the friendship. There were a few awkward days at ballet class, but it was well worth it for Laurie who simply didn’t have the time or the energy to deal with Karen’s ongoing crises.
“People who are very self-absorbed … lack insight into how their behaviour might affect somebody else. It often takes someone else to point things out to them,” says Beth Johnson, an individual and family therapist. But it can be a tough call to decide if you want to be that “someone else,” says Johnson. “If it’s someone you just met and you’re getting the feeling that the friendship might be one-sided, it might be best to let it fade away.”
What if it’s a family member?
Ending a friendship may be difficult enough, but distancing yourself from a parent or sibling is even harder. “It can be very devastating to your self-esteem if someone like your own mother is not able to celebrate you or support you,” says Johnson. She explains that it’s important to “find the strength and develop the skills to have those difficult conversations with mothers or other close family members.”
Johnson advises that if you can hold on to your own sense of self-worth in the face of their criticism and selfishness, then go ahead and try. But if the relationship is depleting to you, it might be wise to create boundaries to maintain your sense of self-worth.
“People will always find ways to get their needs met, and some go about this in ways that can come across as inconsiderate, thoughtless, selfish, and sometimes downright mean,” says Hummel. “Labelling them as ‘toxic people’ makes it easy to toss them aside instead of having compassion, and often they are people who need our compassion the most … That said, compassion for someone does not mean letting them run your life.”
Setting boundaries in clear, concise ways is the key to salvaging your relationship (see “Take Action!” below).
Take a moment to think about your relationships. Do you often feel taken advantage of or make excuses for others’ behaviour? “It always starts with you,” says Hummel. “You have choices and you get to decide what is and what isn’t acceptable treatment from the people in your life. If it’s not okay, do something about it. Don’t wait for them to change first.”
If you feel your relationship is worth salvaging, there are some things you can do, supplied by Hummel. Having the support of a professional, such as a registered counsellor, may help you navigate the steps more easily.
Define your boundaries
It takes practice to establish your boundaries if you’re not used to standing up for yourself. Boundaries can include not paying for the other person, not answering late calls, or not continuing the conversation if the other person yells.
Let the other person know
When you know your boundaries, tell the other person. Calmly state the specific behaviours you’ve been noticing; for example, not returning your things, not showing up on time, or not paying their share. Let them know how you are feeling and that the behaviour is no longer acceptable to you. Inform them that in order for the relationship to continue, they must start respecting your boundaries and you won’t tolerate having them crossed.
You are changing the dynamics of the relationship and the other person may not like it. There is often push back once you state your boundaries. Don’t engage in a fight; just keep restating your needs. Walk away if things become heated.
Boundaries are continually tested. Be prepared to have to restate yourself more than once; for example, try employing the Rule of Three:
- The first time the person crosses an expressed boundary, remind them of the line.
- The second time, remind them of the line and the consequences.
- The third time, follow through on the consequences. It could mean taking a break from a relationship, uninviting the person to an event, or not lending them any of your belongings. Make sure it’s a consequence you can actually stand behind.
Signs of toxic personality traits
According to Johnson, someone with toxic personality traits may
- be very self-absorbed; take up a lot of space in the relationship
- exhibit a lack of interest and availability to others
- be critical and use sarcasm or humour to hide it
- instill a sense of heaviness or dread before you spend time with them, while you’re with them, or afterward
- not be supportive of your achievements, or if something wonderful happens to you, may respond with jealousy or a dismissive tone