How to Cope With Toxic People, Part Two

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In Part One of this article, we began to explore the phenomenon of so-called "toxic people": ones whose presence in your life can disrupt your ability to pursue or enjoy your well-being.

I gave a few examples of these, how you might start to address problematic issues with them, and the types of responses you might receive.

We also left off at the tip of a large iceberg. Namely, that toxic people tend to share characteristics like poor self-image and insecurity, experience strong negative emotions as a result, and respond to them in dysfunctional ways—and that non-toxic people often share these qualities, at least sometimes.

What does that say about the legitimacy of the distinction between toxic and non-toxic people? Is there a more accurate or meaningful distinction to be made? These aren't just philosophical questions.

How you answer them lies at the core of a very practical matter: what you need to consider when your efforts to work on your relationship with a toxic person have been unsuccessful, and you're faced with the difficult decision of whether to keep trying or to walk away.

Toxin vs. allergen

Geneticists have found that humans and chimpanzees share 96% of their DNA; even humans and cats share 90% of it. Humans share 99.9% with each other, including the same basic infrastructure of physical, social, and psychological needs and vulnerabilities and the same universe of possible behavioral responses to these.

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That's what behaviors are: an organism's attempt to meet a need; to protect, maintain, or improve its well-being or the structural integrity of its self. Whether you subtly shift in your seat in order to remove pressure from one part of your body, scratch an itch, or lash out in anger after being humiliated, the general underlying motivation is the same, no matter your toxicity.

Importantly, while not all acts are equally wise or compassionate, neither one's intention nor the kindness or cruelty of an act change the fact of this underlying motivation: we act in response to an impulse to feel better in some way.  In the face of discomfort we each select our responses from the same list of options; some tend to choose from Column A and others from Column B.

What really distinguishes toxic and non-toxic people, then, is where their behaviors—the outcome of this process—land on the antisocial vs. prosocial spectrum; how they impact others.

The toxic person in your life has, perhaps, more or deeper wounds and/or fewer resources to cope with their discomfort in a healthy way than you have. It’s their method of coping with pain that spreads the pain around to you.

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What this means is that your problem with toxic people hasn't so much to do with the people per se; it’s more that the behaviors that comprise their needs-meeting strategy are an ill fit for your needs-meeting strategy.

Yes, a toxic person’s behavior might well be an ill fit for 99% of the population, but the “toxic person” label incorrectly implies that an everlasting poison resides in them that is foreign to the rest of us.

Instead, the difficulty you have with a "toxic person" is more of an allergic reaction you’re having to the toxic behaviors they've selected. Really, it would be more accurate to refer to such people as a poor fit for your needs, or difficult for you. Allergenic, even. But not really toxic.

These are important points because, by separating difficult people from their toxic deeds you identify the actual problem. Also, acknowledging the distinction between your own internal world and the actions you choose better enables you to choose the wisest response to the discomfort they cause you. We'll come back to this.

The compassion progression

Divisiveness and finger-pointing, is driven to a large extent by our inborn tendency to castigate the "other" (that we see even in infants). But it doesn’t seem to hold up very well once you lightly scratch the surface and realize that the allergenic person in your life is essentially your fraternal twin, facing the very same types of struggles that you face, just with different specifics.

And, I'll presume you know from personal experience that responding wisely to difficulty isn’t always an easy task so, putting aside your hurt feelings for a moment, you can empathize with them at least that much, no?

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To the extent that we’re all works in progress with flaws and wounds capable of being tended to, but which sometimes get the better of us, our struggle with allergenic people isn’t an Us vs. Them situation. It just feels that way when their behaviors are hurting you.

Once you've tilted your heart toward this empathic perspective, it doesn’t take much to tip it over, right into having compassion for difficult people. 

Yet, people are often opposed to this idea and actively rein in that natural progression due to a misunderstanding: that having compassion for hurtful people is tantamount to condoning the hurtful behavior, or that it means you can't stick up for yourself.

But let's consider what compassion actually means. I think of it as the empathic awareness of others' distress coupled with the wish that they weren’t experiencing it. That's it. It isn't a form of self-sacrifice.

Having compassion doesn’t require you to be a savior; an agent for the alleviation of others’ distress—that's optional and situation-dependent. It certainly doesn’t require you to perpetually remain vulnerable in a painful interpersonal relationship.

Consider someone who punches you in the nose. The person is presumably dealing with some very strong negative emotions that can't possibly feel good, and lacks the capacity to cope with them in any constructive way.

However, neither understanding this nor wishing the other person were not suffering creates, in any way, an obligation on your part to stand there and continue to absorb blows.

What purpose would that serve? For one thing, you'd be enabling the nose-puncher to remain in the same habitual, dysfunctional behavior pattern that will lead to further suffering—not exactly a compassionate thing for you to do for the other person. For another, you’d be ignoring your own well-being and forgetting compassion for yourself.

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Compassion for yourself and others isn't an either/or proposition. You could think of your compassion as being like your arm, with a muscle group on either side: your biceps and triceps. Your arm wouldn't work properly if you just had biceps. 

Likewise, just as you wouldn’t go to the gym to develop the front of your arm and not the back, exercising compassion for yourself and others is a complementary activity, necessary for a complete range of motion and to avoid becoming lopsided.

Finding the balance between self and other

Sometimes a person's dysfunctional behavior creates a serious hazard for your physical and/or psychological well-being, and the clear choice is to remove yourself from the situation right away.

Other times, practical concerns can affect where you draw the line. For instance, if the difficult person in question is your boss, and you can’t or don’t want to leave your job, then you may have no choice but to make the best of it.

Situations that are neither critically dangerous nor compulsory require you to weigh your options more carefully. If you’re looking to improve the happiness and fulfillment of your life, it can be helpful to make at least some effort to work through your difficulties with an allergenic person, for a few reasons.

First, since compassion for yourself and others are complementary muscles, exercising one can support the development of the other. Second, doing the difficult thing by turning toward unpleasantness is how you ultimately relieve suffering and build a Right Life. Third, you might get lucky: the other person might actually get it and begin to relate to you and others in a healthier way.

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However, maintaining a balance is key. The desire to be a catalyst for others' change, combined with an unwillingness to admit defeat in that endeavor, can keep you stuck in a dysfunctional relationship with an allergenic person for longer than is good for you.

Also, if it’s a close relationship, sometimes avoiding the temporary pain of separating keeps you from the ultimate, greater, benefit you would enjoy by doing so.

Sometimes, the fact that the difficult person doesn’t appear to be acting in a hurtful manner on purpose can put you into “savior” mode and keep you there. But when it comes to your well-being, ask yourself: does the other person’s intention ultimately matter?

This is where your separation of the person from the deed has special benefit: it enables you to make a corresponding separation between your “heart” functions and your rational decision-making.

On one hand, you can see yourself in allergenic people and nurture empathy and compassion for them using your inborn human capacity for these things. On the other, it enables you to objectively assess the quality of fit between your needs and what you are receiving, and respond in a way that exercises self-compassion.

Using our previous example, if the nose-puncher were blindfolded and flailing wildly, and just happened to keep punching you in the nose without intending to, but also wouldn’t stop flailing—for whatever reason—would your well-being be any less affected?

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The only rational—and self-compassionate—step for you to take at that point would be backward, out of arm’s reach. Taking this step wouldn't preclude you from feeling compassion for the person, either.

Remember that you’re only capable of mowing the lawn on your side of the fence. What you can do with difficult people is state your feelings and needs in a matter-of-fact manner and hold them with compassion, recognizing the emotional pain that probably underlies their hurtful behavior.

Expressing your empathy and compassion, out loud and in a non-condescending way, might help to create a healthier connection and dialogue, but even if you just bring your own silent awareness to those things inside of you, that's a good thing.

However, as you hold allergenic people with compassion, also hold them accountable for their actions, because the decision of how to respond to your concerns is theirs alone. You can hope that they find the motivation to change and avail themselves of resources that will help them to do so, but you can't do that for them.  

Likewise, they can't—and won't—let you know when you need to separate from them as an act of kindness for yourself. If you’ve made the effort and you find yourself continually working harder than the other person to have a healthy connection, or if he or she makes no effort to address your needs, then you’ve done what you can, and then some.

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You've made righteous effort toward your Right Life and gotten a good compassion-for-others workout in to boot. Practicing compassion for yourself is solely your responsibility, though.

With an allergenic person that often entails reallocating your energy to relationships that allow you to let your guard down, so that your core self is free to reach its fullest expression.