Maintaining a relationship with someone who is self-absorbed, judgmental, manipulative, or even antagonistic necessitates a tremendous amount of emotional energy. Nonetheless, many of us maintain cordial relationships with people like this in our lives. Why is it sometimes difficult to avoid toxic people?
Why? Because it is extremely difficult to avoid toxic people, especially when they are family members or friends. These people are charismatic, socially popular, and generally enjoyable to be around—except when their wrath is directed at you.
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What exactly makes a person “toxic,” you may wonder?
In applied psychology, toxic personality traits are assessed using the “Dark Triad” of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.
According to a study published in The Handbook of Interpersonal Psychology, narcissism is characterized by grandiosity, an egocentric mindset, and an exaggerated sense of personal entitlement; Machiavellianism is characterized by “strategic manipulation;” and psychopathy is characterized by apathy, impulsivity, and thrill-seeking behaviors.
As a result, there are numerous types of toxic people out there. Some may simply be annoying to interact with (for example, a friend who constantly brags about their life), whereas others can have potentially devastating effects on your happiness, self-esteem, health, and overall well-being.
What can you do if you recognize some of these antisocial traits in someone in your life? How can you avoid toxic people and protect your sense of self-worth and life satisfaction?
The sections that follow provide a variety of research-backed psychological and interpersonal strategies to assist you in successfully navigating (or even terminating) relationships with toxic family members and friends.
Family Members Who Are Toxic
It can be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid a toxic person if you are dating or related to them. Recognizing the signs of a toxic relationship is a good first step for romantic partners and married couples, but it is not as simple as breaking up and moving on with your life.
The same issue arises with immediate family members—simply it's not possible to avoid them (especially if you live with or near them), and cutting ties is a hugely complicated and emotionally draining decision that should not be taken lightly.
If this family member is unbearably toxic and unwilling to change, you may eventually be able to let go of the relationship and distance yourself from them. However, if you want to avoid toxic people without relocating or inciting exhausting family drama, there are two options for limiting their influence over your life without severing the relationship:
1. Define Clear Communication Boundaries
Toxic people either lack self-awareness about how their words and actions negatively affect those around them, or they are well-aware of their apathetic, manipulative tendencies and aren't in any hurry to change their ways if no one presses them to.
Remember the Golden Rule, “treat others the way you want to be treated?” For the time being, disregard that and embrace the principles of the Platinum Rule, which entails treating others the way they want to be treated.
When dealing with a toxic family member, the Platinum Rule is preferable to the Golden Rule because it requires a meaningful discussion about how you two interact with each other rather than leaving you to make assumptions about how the other person wants to be treated.
A word of caution: one of the most common characteristics of toxic people is a persistent refusal to accept personal responsibility or empathize with someone who has been upset or harmed by them. If you approach the conversation from the one-sided perspective of “you hurt me, and we need to talk,” there's a good chance they'll refuse to listen, dismiss your concerns in order to avoid the discussion entirely, or possibly twist it around and blame you.
2. Experiment with Self-Distancing
In 2020, we all learned what “social distancing” is. But what about distancing oneself?
This concept refers to psychologically withdrawing from an event and engaging in adaptive self-reflection to moderate your own thoughts and feelings about the person or situation. Self-distancing techniques are similar to mindfulness techniques in that they help you become more aware of yourself while also developing the emotional resilience required to successfully manage interpersonal conflicts.
Assume you have a family member who refuses to accept responsibility or apologize for their words and actions. You've probably learned from experience that it's pointless to argue with a toxic person in the hopes that they'll give up and admit fault at some point (truly toxic people rarely concede first, if at all).
In this case, self-distancing would entail taking a step back and viewing the situation through the eyes of a neutral, external observer. It can help to imagine that the problem is happening to a friend rather than you.
You may be wondering at this point: if my family member is toxic (and thus unlikely to care about my feelings), why should I not reflect on my own feelings?
The answer lies in our proclivity to become emotionally agitated or overwhelmed when recalling people or experiences that have upset us.
A study published in the Journal of Personality in 2019 compared the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral implications of self-distancing as a response to negative experiences to self-immersion (reflecting on negative people and/or incidents with an emphasis on their own thoughts and feelings on the matter). Individuals who engaged in self-distancing were more likely to experience significant growth in positive emotionality but no increase in negative emotionality, according to the study's findings.
It will be difficult at first, but if you truly want to avoid toxic people and achieve emotional freedom from their manipulative clutches, here are two self-distancing techniques to begin practicing in your daily life:
Consider events using third-person pronouns. Self-talk is most effective when thoughts and feelings are expressed using he/she/they pronouns rather than I, me, or my. For example, instead of framing it as “Why did their sister say that to them?” ask yourself, “Why did their sister say that to them?” This aids self-distancing by temporarily depersonalizing your connection to the incident, allowing you to reflect on it from a more objective perspective.
Experiment with expressive writing. Spend 20 minutes writing down all of your thoughts and feelings about the conflict you're having with a family member. This type of open-ended journaling is known as expressive writing, and it should be done only for yourself (i.e., don't share it with anyone afterward; you're just getting everything out on paper so you can better manage and articulate your emotions later).
Which group makes you happier, your family or your friends?
Two studies involving nearly 300,000 adults from around the world discovered that friendships produce the best results for an individual's happiness and health.
This could be because we choose to interact with friends, whereas family relationships feel more like obligations that must be met.
Interestingly, the aforementioned studies discovered that when friendships are reportedly “stressful,” people are more likely to suffer from disease. Family relationships, on the other hand, have little influence on a person's health and well-being.
While these broad statistical findings do not apply to everyone in the same way, they do suggest that toxic friends may be more harmful to your health and happiness than toxic family members.
If you have friends who are raging narcissists, aggressive manipulators, or vocal complainers who are always negative about everything, you can avoid them without abandoning your friendship or mutual social circles by employing the following strategies:
1. Have a direct conversation with them about the problem
How close are you to this acquaintance? If you've been friends for years and they've only recently begun acting this way, you should express your concerns to them directly (preferably not over text or email, but these electronic avenues are preferable to never bring up the problem at all).
You should calmly introduce the problem, acknowledge any personal responsibility you may have in the conflict, and propose a compromise that is fair to both parties, according to some conflict management guidelines.
If you try everything above and your friend still blows you off (or blows up), your next step is to decide whether the friendship is worth continuing in its current state. After all, the main goal of friendship is to provide mutual companionship and support. If only one person is willing to put in the time and effort to make it work, it's better to avoid toxic people like that friend and save your emotional energy for someone who will treat you the way you deserve to be treated.
2. Restriction on Social Media Interactions
If your friendship is more casual, or if you don't want to completely burn bridges, your next step should be to limit your online interactions with them. Keeping in touch with a friend who constantly tries to make you feel envious, posts upsetting things about you, or disparages you can have disastrous consequences for your mental and emotional well-being.
Worse, your toxic friend's words and actions aren't the only issues. The Internet, particularly social media, appears to be an endless breeding ground for toxic interactions between people.
Dr. M.J. Crockett, a Yale Professor of Psychology, wrote in a 2017 study published in Nature Human Behavior that digital media encourages expressions of outrage by exacerbating emotional triggers, lowering reputational risks for individuals, and enhancing potential benefits from toxic rhetoric and behavior online.
A 2020 study of how social media platforms' technical architectures influence toxic communication among users discovered that these sites' algorithms prioritize emotionally-charged, inflammatory content in order to drive the most possible engagement (views, likes, clicks, comments).
To put it another way, social media allows toxicity to thrive while camaraderie flounders.
To mitigate the negative consequences of engaging with toxic friends on social media without having to unfriend or block them entirely, do the following:
You can mute or unfollow them. Most social media platforms allow users to hide a specific person's posts and stories without informing the other person that you have muted them. This simple strategy, similar to self-distancing, allows you to take a much-needed break from seeing their posts and photos without completely severing the friendship.
Increase the privacy of your posts. If your friend consistently draws negative comparisons between you two, harshly judges or mocks you for what you post (even if it's “just a joke!”), or otherwise uses personal information to make you feel bad about yourself, it's time to tighten your privacy controls and prevent them from seeing your content.
It's difficult to avoid toxic people when you're physically and emotionally close to them, as we are with our family and friends. It's not as simple as recognizing their toxic traits, realizing you deserve better treatment, and cutting your losses so you can move on with your life in these types of relationships.
Boundary-setting and self-distancing are essential techniques you can use to maintain your own happiness and well-being regardless of whether the toxic individual is willing to listen to you and put forth the effort to change the way they treat you or not.
We have no control over the thoughts, feelings, or actions of others, but we do have control over our own.
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